HETRICK: All I know of equality I learned from Rudolph

For the umpteenth year in a row, CBS last week rebroadcast the 1964 stop-motion animation TV special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

I was seven years old the first time I saw Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) tell the story of Rudolph, Santa, Hermey the Misfit Elf, Yukon Cornelius, Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster and the Island of Misfit Toys.

I was 53 before I saw the cruelty of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” masquerading as family television.

If you’re too old or too cynical to have watched “Rudolph” lately, let me provide some highlights.

The setting, of course, is the North Pole, a.k.a. Christmastown.

As our story begins, Donner, introduced by Sam the Snowman as a “proud papa,” is gushing to his wife over their newborn son. They decide to call him Rudolph.

The little fellow looks up, revealing a glaring red light bulb of a nose.

Suddenly, Mama and Papa Donner aren’t so proud.

“We’ll simply have to overlook it,” says Mrs. Donner.

Just then, Santa walks in—a good boss stopping by the deer den to welcome a new addition to the family.

Unable, at first, to see the shiny nose, Santa remarks that Rudolph looks like a “sturdy little fellow.”

When Rudolph rattles off Santa’s name, Claus remarks that the youngster is “smart, too.”

He hopes aloud that Rudolph will “be on my team some day.”

Then he sees the ruby beak.

“I’m sure it’ll stop as soon as he grows up,” says Donner, trying for a pre-emptive strike.

“We’ll, let’s hope so,” says Santa, “if he wants to make the sleigh team someday.”

As soon as Santa leaves, Donner hatches a plan and shares it with his wife.

“I’ve got it,” he says. “We’ll hide Rudolph’s nose.”

Using a forepaw, he scrapes some mud off the floor and covers the offensive schnoz.

“You’ll get used to it,” Donner tells Rudolph. “You’ll be a normal little buck just like everybody else, right?”

The mud falls off. The nose glows.

“For the first year, the Donners did a pretty fair job of hiding Rudolph’s, uh, non-conformity,” says Sam the Snowman. And as the yearlings begin their reindeer games that April, “Old Donner is determined to keep Rudolph’s nose a secret.”

Donner slaps a black rubber cup atop his son’s proboscis.

“All right, son, try it on,” he says.

“I don’t wanna. I don’t like it,” says Rudolph.

“You’ll like it. And wear it,” says Donner.

“It’s not very comfortable,” says Rudolph.

“There are more important things than comfort: self-respect,” says Donner. “Santa can’t object to you now.”

And with that, the reindeer games begin.

With his nose covered in speech-stifling black rubber, Rudolph makes buddies with the other yearlings. He even catches the eye of Clarice the doe.

In his initial takeoff attempt, he flies better than anyone else.

Then the nose-cover falls off.

“For crying out loud,” says a fawn.

“Get away! Get away from me!” says another.

The taunting ensues: “Hey, look at the beak.” “Hey, fire snoot!” “Rainbow puss.” “Bright schnoz.”

Even Santa gets in on the discriminatory act, telling Daddy Donner: “You should be ashamed of yourself. What a pity. He had a nice takeoff, too.”

Sure enough, despite all his sturdiness, smarts and soaring skills, Rudolph is banned from any further reindeer games.

To add insult to injury, Clarice’s dad tells Rudolph to beat it. “No doe of mine is going to be seen with a red-nosed reindeer!” he proclaims.

Thus bullied at school and banned from service because he’s “different,” Rudolph slinks off to the Island of Misfit Toys.

You know the rest, I’m sure. There’s a big storm with low visibility. Santa’s ready to call off Christmas. Then, lo and behold, the Man With the Bag spots old “neon nose” and realizes that “different” might actually be an asset.

“Even Santa realizes that maybe he was wrong,” Sam the Snowman says.

“I’m sorry, too, Rudolph, for the way I acted,” Donner says.

“Christmas is not off,” Santa tells Rudolph, “and you are going to lead my team—you and that wonderful nose of yours.”

“I knew it all along,” Donner says.

The week before 1964’s “Rudolph” was rebroadcast for the 46th year, the U.S Defense Department released the results of a survey asking whether current service members wanted gay and lesbian troops serving in their midst. Most of those pulling Uncle Sam’s sleigh in combat operations said no.

Something tells me a similar survey in 1954 would have said the same thing about blacks. And a survey in 1974 would have said the same thing about women.

Thus, like Donner, we find ourselves advocating lies and abetting coverups of our good soldiers’ true identities, rather than celebrating the unique talents of every American willing to serve.

Santa should put us all on his naughty list.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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