Novelty reindeer song still has legs, 30 years later
By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Its staying power has defied expectations, a Christmas song both beloved and despised.
Written as a joke more than three decades ago, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” made famous by former Windsor resident Elmo Shropshire, is a fixture of the yuletide season.
The ballad of a grandmother who drank too much eggnog and got run over by Santa’s sleigh remains a staple of radio, pops up in movie soundtracks and on ringtones.
The quirky jingle has sold 11 million copies since it was first broadcast on a San Francisco radio station in 1979, according to Shropshire, a former veterinarian who’s made millions of dollars from it.
He never expected it would be so big.
“I’m always surprised at the power of the song,” he said from his home in Novato. “The song was so bizarre at first. There was a buzz to hear a Christmas carol where grandma gets killed at Christmas.”
Part of its appeal is the counterpoint it provides to sentimental carols about chestnuts on an open fire or being home for Christmas.
From the start, Shropshire discerned a positive underlying message to what would become his one and only hit:
“The first time I sang the song, the main thing running through my mind was ‘This proves there’s Santa Claus.’ I didn’t think ‘Grandma’s getting killed.’”
But the catchy melody and humorous lyrics delivered in Shropshire’s Kentucky twang also can be an earworm to those who make a point of avoiding it.
It has perennially topped the list of most disliked Christmas songs, competing with the likes of Jingle Dogs’ 1955 recording of “Jingle Bells,” in which dogs woof the tune, one bark at a time.
Radio stations that specialize in Christmas formats say “Grandma” is part of the rotation for a reason.
“We, of course, conduct extensive local music research every year to find out the best Christmas songs to play — the songs our listeners like — and that’s definitely one of them,” said Andy Holt, program director for San Francisco’s 96.5 KOIT-FM.
Shropshire, or Dr. Elmo as he prefers to be called, still gets calls from stations all over the country.
In the early and mid-1980s, and a couple years in which the song surpassed Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” as Billboard’s top Christmas single, “every disc jockey in the country called me up — it was just bedlam,” he said.
He did nearly 190 radio and TV interviews one year leading up to Christmas. He still does 90 to 100 each holiday season, “mostly all unsolicited,” he said. And, of course, they usually involve a sing-a-long with “that Grandma song.”
Shropshire and his wife, Pam Wendell, typically get into high gear by July and August with the marketing push for the Christmas season.
The song “has become such a cottage industry,” he said.
It’s in musical Christmas cards, a theme of Christmas ornaments, even stuffed toy reindeer at Walmart, K-Mart, Home Depot, Rite Aid, Walgreens and Safeway that have sold in the millions. Press one paw and it plays “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Press the other paw and it changes to “Grandpa.”
“It’s almost as lucrative as all the record sales,” said Shropshire, who by 2005 was “a millionaire five times over,” according to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine.
“The toy thing really became a wonderful boon to us. It’s just the nature of this song,” he said. “It does have a life of its own.”
Even an hourlong animated TV movie of the song plays a dozen or so times each season on the Cartoon Network. And the reindeer running over grandma has made it into national political cartoons illustrating seniors being flattened by health insurance changes.
“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” was written by songwriter Randy Brooks when he and his band got stranded in a snowstorm in Lake Tahoe in 1978.
The song was inspired by Brooks’ grandmother, who “did like to drink herself happy and we did worry about her leaving home,” Brooks said in a TV interview.
He taught the song to Shropshire, then part of a bluegrass group with his wife, Elmo ‘n’ Patsy.
They recorded it and shopped it around to radio stations. After getting airplay, it gained some notoriety with protests from the Gray Panthers, who complained it was ageist.
But it was a wacky video of the novelty song, shot on Shropshire’s Windsor ranch, that garnered airplay on MTV and TNN, vaulting it onto the national stage.
Elmo and Patsy divorced years ago, but they continue to split publishing revenues from the song and Brooks receives the writer’s share.
Shropshire has re-recorded and re-released the song on other compilations.
“This thing’s got legs,” said Doug Jayne, owner of Santa Rosa’s Last Record Store, who said “Grandma” is on about 15 different collections of Christmas tunes.
“It seems to come out every year,” said Jayne, who hosts music programs on KRSH and KRCB radio. “It’s funny how this thing keeps creeping back into our consciousness.”
Dr. Elmo’s latest Time-Life release “Bluegrass Christmas” took him to No. 6 in 2010 on the Billboard Christmas chart. It includes an instrumental version of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
At 76, Shropshire doesn’t show much sign of slowing. He’s a competitive runner who ran his first marathon six years ago and recently won his division in the USA Track and Field 5k Cross Country National Championship.
He also plays in the Bay Area with his “holiday all star” Reindeer Band, featuring Christmas music, of course.
It’s not just a thrown-together band. Keyboardist Frank Martin has played with the likes of Madonna, Elton John, Sting and Whitney Houston and a number of jazz luminaries.
Dr. Elmo and the band will play at 6 p.m. Sunday at Rancho Nicasio in Marin; at 8 p.m. Dec. 14 at 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley; and at 8 p.m. Dec. 23 at Hopmonk Tavern in Sebastopol.
Asked if he ever gets tired of playing “Grandma,” Shropshire said, “I can hardly ever remember if it was a chore. I don’t play it much during the year.”
“When I play it, everyone lights up so much,” he said. “It’s just a grand thing.”
News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.