The Northwest connection between Burl Ives, Sam the Snowman, and ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’

Dec 23, 2020, 8:58 AM | Updated: 9:03 am

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has been a fixture on national TV every year since 1964. But not many people know that the animated narrator of the show has a direct connection to the Northwest.

Burl Ives, the Academy Award-winning actor who performed the voice of the narrator Sam the Snowman, lived in Anacortes in Skagit County on Fidalgo Island from 1989 until he passed away in 1995. Ives and his wife Dorothy – who passed away in 2016 – moved to Anacortes after visiting a friend there. As it turns out, the couple left something of a special “Rudolph” legacy in Anacortes that still resonates decades after they first arrived.

Maggie Murphy is Burl and Dorothy’s granddaughter. She spent her teenage years around the couple, and she still lives in Anacortes.

What’s it like for Murphy to see a close relative – her grandfather – depicted on-screen as a stop-frame animated snowman?

“Oh my God, it’s so awesome,” Murphy said.

With his kind and grandfatherly demeanor – Murphy called him “Papa” – and his large husky frame, Burl Ives “embodied that snowman,” Murphy said, agreeing that the facial features of Sam really captured her grandfather’s look and mannerisms.

And what did the old TV show – that he starred in – mean to Burl Ives and his family?

“The big deal was when ‘Rudolph’ was on, our grandmother would call everyone,” on the phone, Murphy said, remembering a time in the mid-1990s after her grandfather had passed away. Her grandmother Dorothy would call and say, “‘Rudolph’s on tomorrow’ [or] ‘Rudolph starting in 10 minutes,’” Murphy recalled, to make sure that family members didn’t miss the annual broadcast of the program.

Looking back from an age of streaming on-demand video – which was preceded by ages of DVDs and VHS tapes – that national broadcast was pretty special, and not just to her family, says Murphy.

“You knew that everyone was watching it at the same time, and that’s what was really cool,” Murphy said. “There were families all over the country watching this at the same time. You were part of a very awesome tradition.”

Murphy, who was in her 20s when her grandfather passed away, said she never sat down and watched “Rudolph” with him, but she shared an interview with Burl Ives from the 1970s that was filmed at Ball State University in Indiana.

In a section of the interview about Christmas and Christmas songs, the interviewer asks Burl Ives, “Do you get tired of ‘Rudolph’?”

“No,” Ives quickly replies. “I’ve watched ‘Rudolph’ – I have watched it every year since we did it – and I will watch it again this year, God willing. This will be the 15th year. And I have seen it every year, and it’s always nice. It’s amazing how well it holds up. I’m very pleased with it. It’s the oldest running special, and has had the greatest audience.”

Murphy doesn’t get tired of “Rudolph,” either – the TV special or the song – or of hearing any of her grandfather’s holiday songs, especially her favorite, “Silver and Gold.”

“It makes me smile from within,” Murphy said. “In the grocery store, it happens a lot this time of year. You’re running around during the hustle and bustle of the holidays, and I hear that very distinct voice in the distance. And it’s just like a lucky little wink that I give to myself.”

“I forget sometimes how incredible his voice really was,” Murphy continued. “But when you’re in a setting where everything’s kind of chaotic, and I hear that over the loudspeaker, … it just puts a smile on my heart.”

Now that it’s been a quarter-century since Burl Ives passed away, what remains of his legacy in Anacortes?

Laurie Gere is mayor of Anacortes. She got to know Burl and Dorothy Ives through her catering business and events she catered at the couple’s home on Oakes Avenue.

Mayor Gere says it was like a little slice of Hollywood landing on Fidalgo Island, but Burl and Dorothy embraced the community, and were embraced right back.

“He jumped right in and he gave live performances, he did a benefit concert,” Mayor Gere said, recalling the early 1990s when Burl and Dorothy had only recently arrived in town – as well as a later concert that was Ives’ final public performance, and which the family recently shared online.

“They started what they called the Skagit Community Enhancement Foundation, and they donated money. Today, we still have Skagit Community Foundation, but they started it. They took care of everything from preschool needs to medical needs” through the foundation and other charitable endeavors.

“They not only came here,” Gere said. “They gave back.”

But there’s one aspect of the Burl and Dorothy Ives legacy in Anacortes that’s a little more whimsical, and more directly tied to Burl’s 1964 star turn as Sam the Snowman.

For their home on Oakes Avenue, the couple commissioned a local artist named Eddie Strivens in the early 1990s to make a series of nearly 20 two-dimensional wooden figures as holiday decorations.

But these weren’t just any old decorations – they’re all characters from “Rudolph” measuring anywhere from about two feet to almost eight feet tall. They would set the figures up in their yard each year, and the people of Anacortes came to love them.

“I have, like hundreds of other people in Anacortes, photos of my kids posed with the figures,” said Bret Lunsford, director of the Anacortes Museum.

Lunsford says families like his would drive by, stop, and get out to take pictures with their children standing in front of two-dimensional wooden versions of Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius, Hermey, the Abominable, and, of course, Sam the Snowman – complete with his signature vest and his Burl Ives face and beard.

Burl and Dorothy Ives didn’t exactly stand around in their front yard greeting visitors, but they were definitely pleased by how much the community embraced the decorations, says Murphy.

Another of Burl and Dorothy’s grandchildren, Samantha Burton, told KIRO Radio that her grandmother only displayed the decorations for a few more years after Burl passed away in 1995. Burton said it was an emotional holiday season that first Christmas after her grandfather had passed away, and then, not long after that, vandals damaged at least one of the characters.

Sometime in the late 1990s, the decorations went into storage. Burton displayed them for her kids and their classmates at the family’s acreage in the early 2000s, but then they went back into Burton’s garage until a few years ago, when the family donated all the “Rudolph” characters to the Anacortes Museum. Since 2017, the museum has displayed them outdoors each year at Washington Park in Anacortes as part of the holiday lights at Wonderland Walk, where they were a big hit with locals who remembered their original run at the Ives’ home.

Museum director Lunsford says that this year, like so many things, the Rudolph decoration display is a little different.

“We can’t have them at the Wonderland Walk, and we can’t invite people into the museum,” Lunsford said. “So we’ve put them in the windows, and they’re waving out from the Anacortes Museum to all the people that care” — and those people can still see them up close, if only through glass.

Is this year’s socially-distanced display working as Lunsford intended?

“Just yesterday, I was putting up some lights to illuminate them in the windows,” Lunsford said. “And I saw somebody walking across the lawn of the museum to pose for their own selfie with Sam the Snowman.”

“That warmed my heart,” Lunsford said.

Maggie Murphy and her family are thrilled about how much the museum and the community have continued to embrace her grandparents and the “Rudolph” and Sam the Snowman legacy, and she loves that decorations are displayed every year, even during the pandemic.

Which of the decorations is her favorite? It’s not who you might think.

“I loved Yukon Cornelius’ character the best,” Murphy said. “He’s just so raw and real.”

And, as if it’s not odd enough that an animated version of her grandfather comes on TV every year, and that she hears him singing Christmas carols in the grocery store, being Burl Ives’ granddaughter means at least one more unusual privilege.

“I ordered a little Sam the Snowman,” Murphy said. “He lights up. He’s in my window, and the other night, I was getting out of my car, taking in some groceries, and a lady was walking by and she goes, ‘I love the Burl Ives in your window,’ and I went, ‘Oh, thank you.’”

Thus, Murphy – and her cousin Samantha Burton – are the only people I’ve ever talked to who can go online and order a light-up version of their grandfather.

The decorations commissioned by Burl and Dorothy Ives are on display at the Anacortes Museum through early January and are accessible 24 hours a day. And, who knows, maybe Anacortes will become world-famous someday for its connection to Burl Ives, Sam the Snowman, and the enduring legacy of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

In the meantime, in case you didn’t hear, have a Holly Jolly Christmas, this year!

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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The Northwest connection between Burl Ives, Sam the Snowman, and ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’