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Frosty the Snowman was Basically a Ripoff of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

While researching our new biography of Frosty the Snowman, we discovered something that maybe should have been obvious: Dude was a total copy of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Long before it was turned into a beloved animated character, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a hit single for singing cowboy Gene Autry in 1949. The very next year, in 1950, Autry had a hit again with “Frosty the Snowman.”

It was no accident. Turns out that two songwriters, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, had a light bulb go off when they saw Autry’s “Rudolph” sell a whopping two million copies. They quite frankly set out to write another winter-season hit just like it. The two pitched “Frosty the Snowman” to Autry (they had written the Easter tune “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” for him earlier that year) and Autry bit right away. He released the song at the end of 1950 and it went on to sell over a million copies. Mission accomplished!

Autry wasn’t the only one, either. Nat King Cole and comedian Jimmy Durante recorded their own versions the same year.

Everyone was quicker to jump on the gravy train this time around, and right away Little Golden Books released a Frosty the Snow Man book (with a rather disturbing Frosty).

In the 1960s, Frosty copycatted Rudolph again: Rankin/Bass, the nutty animation outfit that had a huge hit with its Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special in 1964, followed up with a Frosty the Snowman TV special in 1969. (They also turned the snowman’s generic winter tale into a Christmas story, but that’s no fault of Frosty.)

To complete the trifecta, Rankin/Bass made an “almost psychedelic” stop-motion version of Peter Cottontail in 1971 with the voices of Casey Kasem and Vincent Price (!). The original 1950 song was straightforward enough:

Here comes Peter Cottontail
Hoppin’ down the bunny trail
Hippity hoppin’, Easter’s on its way

Bringin’ every girl and boy
Baskets full of Easter joy
Things to make your Easter bright and gay

As always, Rankin/Bass writer Romeo Muller took a simple holiday story and added his signature bizarro touches. To wit:

Colonel Wellington B. Bunny, the retiring Chief Easter Bunny, names Peter his successor despite his boasting and lying. Peter, who has dreamed of being the Chief Easter Bunny almost his entire life, gladly accepts. January Q. Irontail, an evil, reclusive rabbit villain wants to be Chief Easter Bunny himself so he can ruin it for children after a child roller-skated over his tail and had to wear a hard iron tail.

…Peter, ashamed that his bragging and irresponsibility led to [an egg delivery failure], leaves April Valley until he meets Seymour S. Sassafras, an eccentric peddler and inventor, who supplies April Valley with the colors to paint the eggs from his Garden of Surprises, from red, white, and blue cabbages and purple corn to striped tomatoes and orange stringbeans. Sassafras then lets Peter use his Yestermorrowbile, a time machine, piloted by a French caterpillar named Antoine to take Peter back to Easter, deliver his eggs, win the contest, and defeat Irontail.

Psychedelic indeed. Well, no matter: the Frosty, Rudolph and Cottontail specials remain strangely popular today.

So do the songs. In 2014, they landed at #8 (Rudolph) and #14 (Frosty) on ASCAP’s top 30 holiday songs of the century. As of this week, Jimmy Durante’s version of “Frosty the Snowman” is at #51 on the Billboard Holiday Hot 100. But the snowman is still behind the reindeer: Gene Autry’s version of “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” is at #9 on the list, and Burl Ives’s version is at #48.

Lyricist Jack Rollins is actually a fascinating hard-bitten West Virginia story all by himself. He took jobs in a glass factory and as a baggage handler at Penn Station while writing songs on the side. He didn’t work at songwriting full-time until he turned 40, in 1946. A few years later he hit it big with “Peter Cottontail” and “Frosty.”

Those songs put Rollins in the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, and have surely turned his heirs into jolly, happy souls. It’s not clear what his estate earns for licensing rights, but “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (first recorded in 1943) still pulls in around $300,000 a year.  Paul McCartney‘s much worse tune, “Wonderful Christmastime,” reportedly clears up to $600,000 a year. And music numbers don’t count revenue from the Frosty TV shows, books, etc.

Copycat or not, that ain’t lumps of coal.

See our full history of Frosty the Snowman »

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