EXPIRED: 09/10/10 – Billie Mae Richards, 88, is known to millions of kids. And every year millions more meet her for the first time, while older kids, and even adults, get reacquainted. And they’ll probably do so until the day they die.
Let me explain.
Richards was born as Billy Mae Dinsmore in Toronto, Canada and could have become an obscure local actress but for one lucky bit of casting — try to sound like a flying reindeer.
Richards started in showbiz at an early age, taking dancing lessons at the ripe old age of two years old. Shortly after that she and her sister started a family vaudeville act at the guidance of their father who played the piano and designed their costumes while the girls sang, danced and did skits.
She never quite stopped until World War Two, when she joined the Canadian Navy. Expecting to see some action, she was surprised when her commanding officers had other plans for her.
Richards instead found herself performing during the war, playing the accordion to entertain the troops or put on shows for the public with a military (read: propaganda-ish) theme.
The show, called Meet The Navy, played throughout Canada England and in Paris and Brussels. When the war was over, the show was made into a 1946 film. Richards was billed simply as billed as ‘Mae Richards’.
After the war, Richards returned to Toronto and enrolled in Lorne Greene’s Academy Of Radio Arts to study radio acting, which led to a career at the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company.
It was also the period – on the radio – in which Richards established her trademark role, that of a little boy. Every time directors had a boy to cast, they’d book Richards. Interestingly, she never was cast to do a girls voice.
Once this type of character had become established as her specialty, the CBC began to bill her as Billy Richards, with no further publicity for who she was. Her performances were so believable that no one caught on. In spite of her acclaim, this condition persists today.
Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer was a 1964 project for the Rankin-Bass Videocraft studios in New York, which had acquired the rights to the 1939 Robert L. May book and the popular 1949 song by May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks.
And since TV seemed to have killed off radio talent in the US, the producers looked to Canada for their cast. When it came to Rudolph – the little boy reindeer – Richards was the logical choice.
The recording was done old school – with all the actors in a single studio, playing off each other. Sequels were done with each cast member in a studio by themselves and Richards hated it. She even refused to do some additional Rudolph versions where they modernized the characters and you can tell because Rudolph lost his Canadian tongue. Say what you will about reindeers, but if they have to speak I’d rather they sound like they’re from the Yukon and not from Los Angeles.
Later Richards voiced characters for Captain Kangaroo, Care Bears, Spiderman and Captain Nemo. She also appeared in Pennies from Heaven with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. But it’s Rudolph we’ll remember her best for.
Oddly enough, Richards’s a more recent role is nothing like the sweet little Holiday movie that made her famous (even if it didn’t make her rich – she only got paid for the original session work and never got a royalty check for the millions of times the film has been seen). She and Paul Soles, who voiced Hermey the-wanna-be-dentist-elf in the Rudolf movie, were cast in 1998’s Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder, a horror film in which Soles takes an axe to Richard’s head. I guess Hermey was kind of a misfit after all…