Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Man Behind Rudolph

For my generation, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is inextricably linked with my memories of Christmas. Sharing this is one of many things that make Rosie Booth a kindred spirit of the closest kind. In fact, we both blogged about it within days of each other back in 2006. Here’s her take and here’s mine.

I have Rose to thank for this entry. She recently blogged on her favorite Christmas movies. (I listed my top three here, here and here.) Being a writer at heart, Rosie’s blog made me curious – what group of writers do I have to thank for some of my favorite Christmas specials? The answer was singular – Romeo Muller.

If the show had real heart in it, chances are Mr. Muller wrote it. His credits read like a Who’s Who of favorite Christmas specials: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, The Stingiest Man In Town and several more Christmas specials. (Mr. Muller also penned a wonderful, although lesser known, holiday special for the Thanksgiving season called Mouse on the Mayflower.)

While writing for the legendary Jack Benny, Muller was discovered by CBS founder William Paley and tapped to write for the prestigious Studio One (he would go on to write one of the show’s most popular episodes). However, it was in 1963 that Muller’s true big break came when he met Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass and began a relationship that would produce iconic television specials.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is universally acknowledged as the most popular holiday special of all time. What isn’t as well known is most of the story was developed by Romeo Muller. Muller supplemented the well-known Johnny Marks song with his characters of Sam the Snowman, Hermey, Clarice, Yukon, the Abdominal Snow Monster, King Moonracer and the Misfit Toys, as well as the other Elves and reindeer.

A biography on says of Muller: “Romeo was a simple man who enjoyed having dinner with friends and watching old movies. He would screen his old movie collection for friends and charitable organizations. He also collected old toy trains and whenever he could write a train into one of his screenplays, he did.”

Romeo Muller’s Christmas specials always seemed to reference the true meaning of Christmas. How appropriate for a man who in 1959 wrote an episode of one of the first religious television programs, Lamp Unto My Feet.

His last project was his favorite. It was a special called Noel about a Christmas Ornament named Noel that brought happiness to whatever household he joined. The oft-repeated line of the show was the cheerful ornament saying, “My name is Noel and I have happiness.” Noel, or Christmas, has as its Latin root natalis or birth. Once again Muller had reminded his viewers of the true meaning of Christmas as it is indeed a birth that brought happiness.

Muller treasured a Christmas card received from a fan with these words: “...Those specials were as much a tradition in my parents’ home as the Christmas tree itself, and have become a tradition with my own children. You must be very proud of the joy you have brought to children all over, even me, a simple girl from the Midwest. Without knowing it, your visit to our homes each Christmas through your specials, was just as important as a visit from Grandma and Grandpa. My son thinks you are the greatest thing since sliced bread and, in all honesty, his mom thinks so too. God bless you during this holiday season, and once again, ‘Thank you’ for everything you’ve given.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Muller was diagnosed with cancer shortly before he died of a heart attack in his sleep, ironically during the season for which he is most famous, Christmas.

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