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Reindeer Man

From the correct name of the elf who wants to be a dentist to the precise dimensions of the Island of Misfit Toys, Rick Goldschmidt is the master of all things Rudolph.

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On December 1, Rick Goldschmidt got home just in time to catch the 40th-anniversary broadcast of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Facing a two-hour commute from the north-side SBC office where he works to his apartment in southwest-suburban Worth, he'd flown out the door as soon as the clock struck five. For Goldschmidt, missing the special, produced in 1964 by the team of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, would have been unthinkable. But watching it was bittersweet.

Though Goldschmidt is the world's foremost authority on Rankin and Bass, it's been two Christmases since the company that owns the rights to the pair's work has treated him as such. "It's wonderful that Rudolph's still there every year without fail, like The Wizard of Oz," he says. "But seeing the Classic Media logo at the tail end of the show kind of turned my stomach."

Over the past 15 years Goldschmidt has amassed a huge archive of Rankin/Bass-related materials, including original scripts and on-set photos, rare video footage, movie posters, lobby cards, sound tracks, and even some of the actual "Animagic" figures. He's written two books on the duo, gets interviewed regularly about their work, and has consulted on licensing projects for collector's items. "I did not expect when I started out that this is where things would take me," he says. "But there were no books, no articles on them, and I just wanted to see what I could find."

Goldschmidt, 39, is the oldest child of a retired Chicago policeman. One of his earliest memories of growing up on the south side, he says, is "the end of Rudolph, where Santa's saying, 'Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas!' It was like he was flying to your house and you had to go run and get into bed quickly." He remembers seeing a 16-millimeter version of Rudolph at school as a "treat movie," and the nuns at CDC reminding him and his classmates to watch another Rankin-Bass special, The Little Drummer Boy, as they handed out plastic snow globes enclosing little manger scenes. "The reason I'm so nostalgic over these things is because of those years," he says. "My parents would kind of promote good stuff like that."

Goldschmidt had an artistic bent. He played guitar from a young age and drew superheroes popular on TV shows of the 60s and 70s, mostly Batman and Spider-Man. In 1983, after getting an associate's degree at a suburban community college, he enrolled at Columbia College as an art major. By 1987, the year he graduated with an illustration degree, he'd developed a serious memorabilia habit. "I collected things from the I Spy and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV shows and the Martin and Lewis movies, 'cause I liked those a lot," he says. At a movie convention that year he stumbled across a lobby card from a little-known 1966 Rankin/Bass feature called The Daydreamer. "I thought, 'What is this? A full-length movie with stop-motion Animagic? I'd love to see this!'" he says. "I never realized how large their body of work was--they'd done everything from Rudolph to the Jackson Five cartoons in the 70s." One late night he happened to catch a broadcast of Willy McBean & His Magic Machine, the first theatrical feature Rankin/Bass produced, and was again surprised. "I knew there had to be a lot more stuff out there," he says.

Goldschmidt widened his search for Rankin/Bass material, and at a collectors' convention not long after he happened upon a comic book spun off from Mad Monster Party, a 1967 theatrical Animagic release featuring the voices of Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller. The artist behind the comic was Mad magazine's Jack Davis, one of Goldschmidt's longtime idols. Goldschmidt had specialized in realistic drawing in school, but at that moment, he says, he realized that what he really liked was humorous illustration. "Of course, that's my bridge to Rankin/Bass right there," he says.

Goldschmidt taught art at a couple of Catholic grammar schools and did freelance illustrations and editorial cartoons for the Palos Heights Reporter on the side. In 1989 he married Jenny Kennelly, whom he'd met at a Halloween party. They had the first of their two children in 1991, and that year Goldschmidt went to work for SBC as a service rep, the job he still holds.

By then Goldschmidt was looking for anything Rankin/Bass related in his spare time, going to quarterly toy shows in Saint Charles, browsing the trade publication the Toy Shop, and following leads from friends. "This was all before eBay," he says. As his collection increased, so did the amount of time he devoted to it. But he'd realized that he was more interested in the history of the Rankin/Bass team than in the paraphernalia. "I didn't have to have four of every edition," he says. "I'm not the kind of collector that you might think. I'm not obsessive about it. I don't have to have every version of a Rudolph toy or Frosty figure or puppet or whatever. There's only so much room, and I like to stay organized, so I'm not fanatical about it." Still, when he and Jenny moved to a brick bungalow in Oak Lawn, his collection was large enough to consume the attic that ran the length of the house.

In 1992 Goldschmidt contacted Davis through the artist's agent to try to get an opinion of his work and some advice on how to break into the illustration business. "I was very similar in style to Jack Davis, and he advised that I work on developing my own style," Goldschmidt recalls. "He thought I should try doing a comic strip." Goldschmidt and Davis communicated back and forth over the next year, but it wasn't until after about a dozen conversations that Goldschmidt brought up Rankin/Bass. "I noticed [Davis's] name in the credits for Mad Monster Party one night as the puppet designer. I hadn't realized that he'd been involved directly with the movie," Goldschmidt says. "We got to talking about Arthur and Jules in our next conversation, and he put me in touch with Paul Coker Jr."

Coker, another Mad magazine alum, had worked extensively as an art director and illustrator on Rankin/Bass projects including Frosty the Snowman and The Year Without a Santa Claus. Though Goldschmidt also sent samples of his work to Coker, he was mostly interested in learning more about the history of Rankin/Bass. Says Coker, "Rick, of course, is a nut about Rankin/Bass and all the various shows they did, and he apparently is the only one who really knows the entire history. I know Rankin didn't know half the things that Rick knew--or at least he'd forgotten them, and I certainly had." After several months of contact with both Davis and Coker, Goldschmidt began to think about writing a definitive history of the production team. "It was surprising to me that they weren't a household name like Hanna-Barbera or Walt Disney, because they had so many shows," he says. "I thought they deserved a book."

Coker gave him Rankin's address in New York, and in 1993 Goldschmidt wrote to him. "He was leery at first about the idea of a book," Goldschmidt says. "Most of the people he dealt with in the past were sort of crackpots." (Rankin, who lives in Bermuda part of the year, was unavailable to comment for this story.) But when Goldschmidt went ahead and put together several chapters with photos and text, Rankin liked what he'd done and gave him the go-ahead.

Arthur Rankin Jr., a former art director for ABC, and Jules Bass, an advertising copywriter with a knack for jingles, became partners in the late 50s. Both were interested in animation--especially after a 1958 trip Rankin took to Japan, where he was impressed by the work of stop-motion puppet animator Tadahito Mochinaga. Mochinaga's company, MOM Film Studios, worked with Rankin's Video Crafts (later renamed Videocraft International) on their first effort, a 1960 series of TV shorts called The New Adventures of Pinocchio, and on many of their subsequent productions, including Rudolph.

Rudolph himself was dreamed up in 1939 by a Chicagoan, Robert L. May, a Montgomery Ward copywriter who was tapped by his boss to come up with a storybook the department store could use as a Christmas giveaway. The character immediately caught on, and in 1944 Max Fleischer, the prolific animator behind many Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, produced an eight-minute animated short based on the tale. May acquired the rights to Rudolph from Ward's in 1947, and in 1949 his brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote the famous song, which was recorded by Gene Autry later that year.

Rankin happened to live next door to Marks in New York, and in 1962, when General Electric asked Rankin and Bass to produce a Christmas special, he persuaded Marks and May to authorize the use of the character and song. The resulting special, narrated by Burl Ives, originally aired alongside commercials that featured the elves cavorting around with an iron, an electric skillet, a coffee percolator, and other GE products.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was a hit, and after its success GE formed a division called Tomorrow Entertainment specifically to produce specials by Rankin and Bass. They went on to make Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, and The Year Without a Santa Claus, among many other shows. The pair were given generous budgets, but they didn't own the specials, and neither receives residuals or royalties from the shows or related products. After 1989, when Rankin and Bass ended their partnership, Rankin continued to produce under the Rankin/Bass moniker. Bass, who splits his time between New York and France, turned his attention to writing children's books featuring a vegetarian dragon named Herb.

In late 1995, Goldschmidt signed a contract for his Rankin/Bass history with Stabur Press, publisher of two books about the artwork of Jack Davis, but the company went out of business the following summer. He shopped it at Warner Bros., which owns the rights to Rankin/Bass's later TV work; they considered it but turned it down. Finally, in late 1996, Goldschmidt found a home for the book at Tiger Mountain Press, a tiny house in Issaquah, Washington. Owner Doug Ranney, a big animation fan, had founded the Whole Toon Catalog, a well-known source for animated video, and ventured into book publishing with The Complete Anime Guide.

As publication drew nearer, Rankin flew to Chicago to work with Goldschmidt on the production of what was by then morphing into a coffee-table book. The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass appeared in time for Christmas 1997 and soon sold out of its first edition, a simultaneous printing of 2,000 hardcover and 5,000 paperback copies. Rankin, impressed by Goldschmidt's collection and his knowledge of all things Rankin and Bass, dubbed him his official historian and biographer and gave him permission to set up a Web site, www.rankinbass.com. Amateurish but enthusiastic, it got 10,000 hits in its first few months, 6,000 of them after a mention in TV Guide.

By 2001, when Goldschmidt finished his second book, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Making of the Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic, Tiger Mountain too had folded. Ranney turned over the rights to the first Rankin/Bass book to Miser Bros. Press, a company Goldschmidt formed with his parents, and their second pressing of 5,000 sold out as well. Miser Bros. also put out 10,000 copies of the Rudolph book, which according to Goldschmidt has sold several thousand copies through his Web site and Amazon.com.

At the time The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass was published, there were only a few licensed Rankin/Bass videotapes and some bootleg model kits of the Rudolph characters on the market. That changed within the year: "Things kind of exploded," Goldschmidt says. One of the first to climb on board the merchandising train was a toy supplier for the CVS Pharmacy chain who'd thumbed through the book on his way to a Japanese toy fair. Goldschmidt says he got an excited call from the man announcing that he was going to try to market dolls based on the Rudolph characters. "That was the beginning of what became a multimillion-dollar industry," Goldschmidt says. He estimates that thousands of items have been created from Rankin/Bass shows since the release of his book.

For a few years Goldschmidt was in the thick of things, working as a consultant and contributor on collector projects. For Anchor Bay Entertainment's DVD release of Mad Monster Party, for example, he wrote the 24-page liner notes and provided photos for a gallery of stills. Classic Media, owner of Rankin/Bass works from 1960-'74, took referrals from Goldschmidt and turned to him when questions about Rankin/Bass came up. In 1998 he consulted on a DVD release of Rudolph that restored scenes that had been excised and replaced after the first broadcast. (For reasons that have never been clear, an executive for GE had insisted that "We're a Couple of Misfits," the duet between Rudolph and Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist, be replaced with another number, "Fame and Fortune.")

But over time, Goldschmidt says, his relationship with Classic Media soured. It's been two years since the company requested his help as a consultant or asked for anything from his archives. "For them it's become more about money than the authenticity or the history of the shows," he laments. "Why would you put a CD by Destiny's Child into a DVD of Rudolph that has nothing to do with Rankin/Bass? Or why did they put Frosty Returns on the same disc with the original Frosty, when Frosty Returns wasn't even produced by Rankin/Bass? Why did they produce that cheap, horrible CGI Rudolph sequel? There's just no quality control on any of this stuff, and it's sad that it has to be out there in that way.

"I'm not bitter or angry about this," Goldschmidt insists. "But I am puzzled. It's people who grew up with these specials who are buying them for their kids to watch, not the other way around. I'm just sitting here with all this gold mine of material that they don't seem to care about. Don't they realize how many fans are out there waiting for this? Rudolph has now come out in four DVD versions, and there's nothing new on any of them."

Jerry Beck is a contemporary of Goldschmidt's and an expert on Looney Tunes cartoons. He's written several well-received books and works closely with Warner Bros. on their DVD releases of the classics, providing commentary, consultation, and memorabilia from his archives. In short, he has the kind of relationship with Warners that Goldschmidt thinks he should have with Classic Media.

Sasha Junk, a publicist for Classic, says the company knows its properties have fans in the collector market, but thinks the bulk of its customers "are just your average American family." That doesn't surprise Beck. "They may feel that, We sell millions of Rudolph to moms and kids who go to Wal-Mart, and that they don't need the extras, all the fancy stuff. Who cares--it's just cartoons. That's an attitude a lot of them have."

Beck and Goldschmidt both point to Disney as a company that's doing it right. "Disney initially put out their movies with no extras, and fans complained liked crazy--and that's what Classic Media is doing," Goldschmidt says. "Now Disney is bringing them back with all those extras and they're selling great. Maybe Classic Media will learn from that."

In August Goldschmidt and his wife split up. "She wanted someone totally devoted to husband stuff," he says. "She would say that I devoted too much attention to that other stuff. But rather than have a husband with his own interest and continue with what he likes to do, she was more like I needed to be working on the house. I needed to be digging up bushes in the backyard rather than digging up another Rankin/Bass treasure somewhere."

He moved out of the house and into the apartment in Worth, taking the Rankin/Bass archives with him. Goldschmidt now sees his kids on the weekends and has started playing music again with a new band, the Starving Artists, featuring his brother on drums and his youngest sister on tambourine. They've been gigging at small clubs on the north side and are currently recording a CD of Goldschmidt originals. One of the songs, "Modern World," is about the entertainment business not having the quality it used to when he was a child. The booklet will feature an illustration by Paul Coker.

In the meantime, Goldschmidt has found a girlfriend and lost 36 pounds on the Subway diet. And he's become an authority of note on other favorites from his childhood. "The type of work that I do branches into other areas," he says. He wrote the liner notes and supplied photos for collector's compilations of music from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy. He attends conventions and provides clearance for his stills and photos of Rankin/Bass materials. In January he'll attend the Sundance Film Festival as a guest of the producer of a documentary called Ringers: The Lord of the Fans, about people inspired by the Tolkien books and films. (Rankin/Bass produced TV versions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King.)

"I've just been asked to be a guest on Animal Planet, which really makes my son happy," Goldschmidt says one night after returning from the recording studio to pack up cartons of Rudolph books for Amazon.com. "It's for a show about famous Christmas animals, and who's more famous than Rudolph?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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