Her name was Billie Mae Richards, but to the world she will always be Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. That's right, the voice of Rudolph on the classic 1964 Christmas TV special was really a girl; but unlike the famous outcast reindeer, everyone who met Billie loved her immediately.
We lost Billie on September 10th of this year, at the age of 88. When I heard the news of her death on CBC Radio I was surprised the report didn’t mention her extensive work history at the Mother Corp. She provided voices for dozens of radio shows throughout the 1950’s, most famously giving voice to The Kid on “Jake And The Kid.” Yes, she was playing a boy long before Rudolph came along.
I knew Billie and had the good fortune to work with her on several occasions. Although I stood over a foot taller, I soon learned she had an unfair advantage in any performance. You could labour like crazy to win over the audience, then all she had to do was walk onstage and say, “Clarice thinks I'm cuuute!” and she’d steal the show.
Canada was not alone in feeling her loss; her death was covered in People Magazine, Variety, The Los Angeles Times – she was even eulogized by Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News. Quite a feat for a Canadian entertainer. Oddly (but not surprisingly) she received far more attention from the American press than she did here in Canada. This will be our first Christmas without her, so it seems an ideal time to remember this wonderful actress whose voice came to define the season.
A child singer, dancer and accordion player in Toronto vaudeville of the 1920's, by the time she was 6 she was performing in a variety show called “The Merry Makers” alongside those Canadian icons of World War I, The Dumbells. During World War II Billie decided to join the navy, and it wasn't long before she was asked to put her talents to use by becoming part of the “Meet The Navy” show, touring Canada and playing throughout Europe.
After the War she embarked on a highly successful radio career at the CBC, specializing in providing voices for young male characters. I doubt she ever imagined that her years of experience playing boys would ultimately lead to becoming the world’s most famous reindeer.
Although the beloved holiday special was an American production, the producers came to Canada to record the voices. Our radio drama industry was busy back then, and our voice artists were considered superior to their US counterparts. With the exception of Burl Ives, the entire cast of Rudolph came from Toronto and included many popular (and still active) Canadian actors such as Paul Soles (Hermey the Elf, and the original voice of Spider-Man), Carl Banas (Elf Boss), Larry Mann (Yukon Cornelius) and the late Paul Kligman (Donner). Soles in particular remained close friends with Billie and they later appeared together as husband and wife in the 1998 horror movie “Shadow Builder” where his character attacked her with an axe. Yup, Hermey killed Rudolph. Let that one sink in for awhile.
Unfortunately “Rudolph” was produced prior to the days when actors began receiving residuals for their work, meaning they got paid a one-time fee for performing the voices. In spite of the show’s continued success over the past four decades and the millions of dollars it has generated, the actors never saw another penny for their contributions.
Billie provided Rudolph's voice for two subsequent animated specials, and went on to create voices for many other cartoons series including “Spider-Man,” “Captain Nemo” and “The Care Bears.” She continued to be active in voice, film and TV work well into her 80's, only slowing down in the past few years due to ill health.
This Christmas as I indulge in my annual ritual of watching “Rudolph,” Billie will be front and centre in my thoughts. She spent 80 years as a proud Canadian performer and left a legacy few can match, setting the bar pretty high for all the rest of us.
So Billie, on behalf of everyone whose lives you touched with your friendship, humour and talent, you'll live on in our hearts always. And oh yes, “I think you're cuuute!”