Behind the scenes at the first-ever live production of the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” TV classic

Each holiday season, two distinct personalities emerge. There are those who plan ahead and there are those who engage in an arm wrestling competition for the last Whitman’s Sampler at Walgreens at 6:45 on Christmas Eve.
Luckily for the city of Atlanta, Center for Puppetry Arts artistic director Jon Ludwig and resident puppet builder Jason von Hinezmeyer are early planners. Their gift to the city is the first-ever licensed stage production of the 1964 classic Rankin-Bass stop-motion animated TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” currently running through Jan. 2. The show has become such a hit, the center is considering making it a holiday tradition.
Audiences are packing in for the performances that faithfully recreate all the songs and characters from the holiday favorite. For Ludwig, the idea had been swirling around in his head ever since 1964 when he first saw the special as a kid.
“The story’s message of acceptance and tolerance is universal,” Ludwig tells Intel. “It was a dream to do this show. The biggest challenge wasn’t convincing [Character Arts LLC] to do the show but it was finding out who actually controlled the rights.”
Once CA went “ga ga” over the idea, it was left to von Hinezmeyer to create 60 new puppets based on the iconic characters beginning in April. “I was excited until I realized the sheer volume of puppets needed for the show,” he explains. “That’s when the dread set in! ” Hinezmeyer estimates he has now watched the Christmas special more than 200 times, some of it frame by frame to get the characters just right.
In addition to full-scale and miniaturized versions of Rudolph and pals, Hinezmeyer created the entire Island of Misfit Toys and two impressive body puppets for King Moonracer and a truly menacing Abominable Snow Monster.
Six puppeteers bring the story to life as many as three times a day during the show’s run. Tim Sweeney plays the Snow Monster and has to rely on a tiny camera inside the suit in order to properly frighten the small fry cowering in their seats. Dolph Amick plays narrator Sam the Snowman who was originally voiced by Burl Ives. “We’ve tried to get to as close to the original voice performances as we could,” he explains. “We’ve tried to retain the essence of the original.”
One of the show’s cleverest feats is the mixed use of full-scale puppets and miniature doubles. Miniatures of pick ax-licking Yukon Cornelius and the Abominable Bumble are utilized in the duo’s classic plunge off an icy mountain.
Ludwig says the moment can elicit laughs or gasps depending on the audience (adult audience members tend to love the “Matrix”-esque slow-mo stunt).
As for the adults eager to see their favorite Christmas special come to life, only one evening performance has so far been booked for the already jam-packed schedule for the show.
Has Ludwig given any thought to, say, an adults-only midnight performance of “Rudolph” for older kids?
Cracked Ludwig: “Tim and Dolph just fainted!”
“Rudolph” performances are Tuesday-Sunday through Jan. 2. Go to the Center’s website for times and tickets.
Image at right taken by Clay Walker, courtesy Center for Puppetry Arts. All elements under license to Character Arts LLC.