In the years to follow, there were many animation roles, including several for Rankin-Bass (Willie McBean And His Magic Machine, King Kong, Festival Of Family Classics) and others (The Toothbrush Family on Captain Kangaroo, Tenderheart Bear and Brightheart Raccoon in the Care Bears movies and series, Captain Nemo). What did change, during these years, was the process by which the recordings were made. Performances went from being done with the cast as a whole, simultaneously, to being done on an individual basis. Billie prefers the original way. "The first Rudolph was done with all the cast together. It's the better way to do it, because it comes off more spontaneously. The other actors prompt your responses, and it actually makes it faster. Today everyone does it in line, with no one to play off of. I did Rudolph's Shiny New Year in New York all by myself, which was awful. When you're by yourself you're constantly asking 'Where am I now?' Radio, as a background, creates a concentration, so there's little disruption of lines when the cast is doing it together. To me, the character is there; I just need to place it, to know where we are and how far along we are."
Despite this change, Shiny New Year (1975) is well-loved by Billie. "It has a really pretty song ("Have A Little Faith In Me") that sounded very different went I first went in. I went up to (composer Johnny Marks and musical director Maury Laws) and said 'That song's a tango! Rudolph can't do a tango.'" (At a certain tempo, the song has a specific tango rhythm.) "If Rudolph is going to be floating away on a lump of ice, he's not going to be doing a tango. They said 'Oh. We'll change it,' and they slowed it down."
Rudolph's songs are signature moments of the specials, and they allowed Billie to do some of the musically-oriented work she'd started with as a child on stage. "I like 'Misfits' which I do with Paul Soles in the original. They replaced it with 'Fame And Fortune' the following year. I don't know why they changed it. I guess they felt it didn't fit in." ("We're A Couple Of Misfits" was restored to the special in 1999; both scenes can be seen on the DVD). "I also liked 'No Bed Of Roses' which I did in Rudolph And Frosty's Christmas In July. I can still sing in character (she hums a little of the Roses tune in Rudolph's voice) but I can't sing with my own voice anymore."
The Frosty film was also memorable for giving Billie an opportunity to play off of Jackie Vernon (Frosty) and Ethel Merman (Lilly Lorraine), who joined her for the recording sessions in the radio style all three professionals were accustomed to. Jackie, she recalls, was "noisy." And Ethel was… "Very quiet." Christmas In July (released theatrically in 1979) completed Billie's Rudolph trilogy, and is celebrating its own anniversary of note currently, its twenty-fifth.
With the evolution of animation and a non-stop run of boy characterizations, did the type of role which she had played for so long develop a sameness to her? "The (various characters) sounded similar, but there were a lot of differences in their personalities, and a lot of that came from how much harshness each one had. Sometimes they were bratty, they'd have an edge to them, rather than being soft and pleasant. I saw them all differently in my mind. I saw them according to who they were, what age they were, what the circumstances were. Brightheart Raccoon, for instance, was very much like a Boy Scout." She speaks in Brightheart's voice, sounding like one in crisp military march, quite different from Rudolph. "Of course, they all had a Canadian accent."
This Canadian accent (understandable in a character who lives just north of the Yukon) is one of the attributes that fans have come to associate with Rudolph, along with the unique depth and sincerity Billie has imbued in all of her characters throughout her career. This is partly why, in newer, less well-received knockoffs like the 1998 movie (in which Rudolph is a less-than-luminous blond and his girlfriend is named Zoey) or the more specifically-derived but manufactured 2001 Island Of Misfit Toys video, Billie's touch is so conspicuous in its absence. "Apparently, the new thing they did was terrible, trying to make fun of it. They didn't ask me to do it, and I wouldn't have, anyway. My mind would just lock up. I couldn't do that to Rudolph—he's mine!"
So what is Billie doing these days? She does an occasional commercial, and makes public appearances, often in relation to her "Jake And The Kid" work (she made an appearance at the play "Prairie Seasons" at Theatre Orangeville in 2000, and read through the entire Jake And the Kid Christmas Special at the Stratford Theatre in Toronto in 1998). In May of 2004, she participated in Bruce Bell's Toronto In The Roaring 20s at the King Eddy Theatre, and she makes regular appearances on radio stations whenever Rudolph is about to air. Her most unusual role of recent years, however, may be her brief turn (she is barely seen) as Mrs. Butterman in 1998's Bram Stoker's Shadowbuilder, a horror film in which the erstwhile Hermey, Paul Soles, can be seen taking an axe to his old counterpart's bean.
"We both showed up to audition for the horror movie—neither of us knew the other was going to be there—and Paul said 'Well, this is rather intriguing.' We both got cast, and began shooting scenes in the middle of the night, with hydrowires and special effects and everything." She laughs ironically. "Here we are at 4:30 in the morning, and Paul has just crashed an axe through my head. And we're thinking, Very strange. Still, I got more money for that than I did for Rudolph!"
Her comment points out one of the ironies that is a regrettable aspect of Billie's enduring work; that she, like the rest of the cast, was paid on a one-time basis, the expectations of Rudolph's residual value being exceeded inestimably. But while it would be understandably disheartening to have had such a success go without relative compensation, Billie sees the bigger picture. "It doesn't matter (that I didn't profit from a money standpoint). I'm just so glad that my kids, my grandkids, my great-grandkids and probably my great-great-grandkids will see Rudolph. It's a great thing for kids to grow up with—that's the whole point. That's what Paul said. What could be more rewarding than to be part of a show that has merit, with a moral that doesn't get slammed down your throat, something that's positive, with 100% All-American (or All-Canadian) values? People tell me how they've grown up with it, how they've watched it since they were five, they wouldn't miss it, they watch it with their family, it's a Christmas classic, etc." She chuckles. "What do I need money for?"
As for animation work, Billie recognizes that a different era has begun. "There's a certain point where you have to give way to another generation, to know that what they're doing is good for them and you don't fit in anymore. I don't like foul language or wasting time in the studio. I go there to work. A break for a cup of coffee or something is okay, but to me, once you're in the studio it's time to work."
As for her work itself, what does she make of her achievements on this, the fortieth anniversary of her Rudolph work and the eightieth of her professional career? Her credits include hundreds of radio performances, dozens of animated voiceovers and countless stage performances, supplemented with TV appearances, commercials, and movies. Her career has spanned from 20s vaudeville through 90s horror, with a sweet and everlasting Christmas perennial at its center, and live appearances which continue to this day. Did the profession which "chose her" choose wisely? The Naval veteran, mother of four children and grandmother of twelve, laughs pleasantly. "I've had a great career. My son made a CD of my fifty years in radio, with hundreds of shows. I sometimes wonder how I did all that. W.O. Mitchell once said he felt that he'd given me a persona that had, perhaps, stopped me from doing the Grand acting parts I might have done. But I was happy with radio and voiceover work. And I fulfilled my father's dream."
Her father, whose nickname for Billie was, ironically, "Kid," would probably not have dreamed of the longevity and versatility which have distinguished this unique actress's professional life. Nor could he have expected that a reindeer born when Billie was still a hoofer would find his ideal voice in hers twenty-five years later, and begin a tradition for millions of people that would still stand as firmly as a Christmas tree forty years further on. As for "Fame And Fortune," it can be said that Billie has indeed achieved both, in abundance. If the greatest fame comes from creating characters so believable that the actor vanishes behind them, and the greatest fortune is an audience that grows with the generations, then Billie Mae Richards leads the sleigh. In a career that has been anything but dull, that may be the most glowing tribute of all.
Update '06: In 2004 Billie recorded the voice of Brightheart Raccoon in "Care Bears: Forever Friends" and appeared on local Toronto TV ("The Living City"). She suffered a stroke in 2005 and has been recovering.
Update '10: On September 10, 2010, Billie Mae Richards died in her sleep, at age 88. According to her daughter, Cyndi Richards Jamieson, Billie Mae passed away peacefully, in her home. Her gifts will continue to brighten the lives of generations to come, as long as Rudolph lives on—that is, forever.
Update '11: Janis Orenstein, the voice of Clarice, died on December 30, 2010. We will always remember her sweet, inspiring performance and her heavenly singing voice.
Please note: In recent years, CBS has been airing a poorly re-edited version of "Rudolph" combining footage from both the "We're A Couple Of Misfits" and excised "Fame and Fortune" scenes to create a mismatched, out-of-sync and choppy showing of the special. Let the TV executives know we want the original "Rudolph" back...write CBS today, or go to the following URL and sign the petition:
Credits/Disclaimer: Four of the six photos used here are from Billie's personal collection. The photo of her from 2001 is by Roy G. Biv. The other two photos (Rudolph and Santa, and the cast photo on page two) are copyright Rankin-Bass Productions and used here for non-commercial, biographical purposes only. Reprints of this article are permitted, but please credit the author.
Animation courtesy Freshette's Graphics