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Burl Ives: Everyone's Favorite Uncle

Published: 4/14/2012

Burl Ives (Getty Images / Redferns / GAB Archive)

Burl Ives (Getty Images / Redferns / GAB Archive)

Burl Ives, who died April 14, 1995, is best known today for his part as the snowman-narrator in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but he also enjoyed a decades-long career as a folk singer, actor and writer.

Born as Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives in Jasper County, Ill., Ives was perhaps destined to be a little different. One of six siblings raised by farmers Levi and Cordelia Ives, the young Burl first showed his musical abilities at a soldiers' reunion party, where he performed the ballad "Barbara Allen" at the request of his uncle. As a youth he was also very active in the Boy Scouts, and later in life would often perform at their National Jamborees.

Ives attended and played football for what is now Eastern Illinois University for two years, but decided he was wasting his time. He tried to launch a recording career but his first effort, a version of "Behind the Clouds," was rejected by a label in Richmond, Ind., and so Ives hit the road.

He spent much of the early 1930s hitchhiking across the country with his banjo, doing odd jobs as he learned songs from cowboys, miners, hoboes and itinerant preachers. By the end of the decade he'd landed in New York City, where he built an audience among Greenwich Village's budding folk scene and added acting to his résumé, making his Broadway debut in 1938. Two years later, Ives had his own radio show on CBS, The Wayfarin' Stranger, where he shared some of the folk tunes he'd collected on his travels as a young man – ditties like "Foggy, Foggy Dew" (a song he'd been arrested for performing in Utah), "Blue Tail Fly" and "Big Rock Candy Mountain."

He was an occasional member of folk collective the Almanac Singers, whose members also included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. The group affiliated itself with the American Peace Mobilization (APM), a Communist front organization who opposed American entry into World War II. Just before the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, the group changed its name to the American Peoples Mobilization and demanded the U.S. join the war – a move which forced the Almanac Singers to re-record some of their songs to include pro-war sentiments.

Ives was drafted into the Army, where he served by performing in the cast of Irving Berlin's traveling This is the Army show, a production intended to inspire patriotism and boost the country’s morale. He also made recordings for the Office of War Information.

It was after the war that Ives' multi-faceted career really began to take off. In 1946 he made his big-screen acting debut with Smoky, a film starring Fred MacMurray and Anne Baxter. Two years later he published his first book, an autobiography. Signed to a record deal by Decca, in 1949 he scored a hit with "Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)." Two years later he would have an even bigger success with "On Top of Old Smoky."

But controversy hit when Ives' name appeared in a Red Channels pamphlet identifying him as a suspected Communist, effectively blacklisting him from Hollywood. In 1952 Ives was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he agreed to testify (though he did not "name names"). The move allowed him to return to films, but embittered many of his friends from the folk scene, including Seeger, who wouldn't reconcile with Ives for four decades.

After clearing his name from the blacklist, Ives appeared in a number of notable movies, including East of Eden, directed by fellow HUAC testifier Elia Kazan. Playing against type, the avuncular Ives would be cast as domineering Big Daddy in 1958's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. And for his role in William Wyler's The Big Country (1958), Ives won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Work continued on the music front, too, with 1953's The Burl Ives Songbook becoming required guitar case material for practicing folkies. Ives also recorded 120 songs for the Encyclopedia Britannica's six-album collection Historical America in Song and in 1961 had another best-selling song with "A Little Bitty Tear," a country song written by Hank Cochran that would reach No. 9 on the charts.

And as if work on stage, screen, in books and on records wasn't enough, Ives made a number of television appearances. His small screen credits range from Zane Grey Theatre to Night Gallery to Roots, but what he remains best known for today must surely be his role as the narrator Sam Snowman in 1964's stop-motion holiday classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The show has aired every single year since, now usually appearing multiple times each year during the holiday season.

In 1988 Ives starred in The Mystic Trumpeter, a one-man stage production about Walt Whitman that Ives had written in collaboration with his second wife. He retired from showbiz on his 80th birthday.

A lifelong pipe smoker, Ives was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 1994. A year later, he died at 85.

"I think my life has been a long, slow process of trying to move closer and closer to the spirit by moving closer and closer to the heart," he once said. "I'm not at all afraid of death, because I see that my life is just a matter of growth and change. If a piece of wood will never die, this bouncy thing called Burl will never die as well."

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