Rudolph’s origin predates Gene Autry’s song
Bill Cooke

Neighbor Grover sez Merry Christmas to the best folks in the world—Reporter readers and advertisers! I’ ve had this in my files for as Christmas feature since

2009 and am finally springing it on you. Don’t know where I got it, but I did verify the facts with

To most of us, Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer—immortalized in song and a popular TV special— has always been an essential part of our Christmas folklore. But Rudolph is a decidedly 20th-Century invention whose creation can be traced to a specific time and person.

Rudolph came to life in 1939 when Chicago-based Montgomery Ward (nation-wide department store firm) asked one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to come up with a Christmas story they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick.

Montgomery Ward stores had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year, and May’s department head saw creating a giveaway booklet of their own as a way to save money. May got the assignment because he had a penchant for writing children’s stories and limericks anyway.

May, drawing in part on the tale of The Ugly Duckling and his own background (taunted as a child for being shy and small), settled on the idea of an underdog ostracized by the reindeer community because of his physical abnormality—a glowing red nose.

Looking for an alliterative name, May considered and rejected Rollo (too cheerful and carefree a name for a misfit) and Reginald (too British) before deciding on Rudolph. He then proceeded to write Rudolph’s story in verse as a series of rhyming couplets, testing it out on his 4-year-old daughter Barbara.

Although Barbara was thrilled with Rudolph’s story, May’s boss was worried that a story featuring a red nose—an image associated with drunkards—was unsuitable for a Christmas tale.

May responded by taking Denver Gillen, a friend from Montgomery Ward’s art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch deer. Gillen’s illustrations of a red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesitancy of May’s bosses and the Rudolph story was approved.

Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booket in 1939, and although wartime paper shortages curtailed printing for the next several years, a total of 6 million copies had been given by the end of 1946.

The post-wa r dema nd for licensing the Rudolph character was tremendous, but since May had created the story as an employee of Montgomery Ward, the company held the copyright and he received no royalties.

Deeply in debt from medical bills resulting from his wife’s terminal illness (she died about the time May created Rudolph), May persuaded Montgomery Ward’s corporate president, Sewell Avery, to turn the copyright over to him in January 1947.

With the rights to his creation in hand, May’s financial security was assured. “Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer” was printed commercially in 1947 and shown in theaters as a nine-minute cartoon the following year.

The Rudolph phenomenon really took off when May’s brother-inlaw, songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for a Rudolph song.

Mark s’ musica l version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (turned down by many who didn’t want to meddle with the established Santa legend) was first recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. It sold two million copies that year, and went on to become one of the best-selling songs of all time (second only to “White Christmas”).

A TV special about Rudolph narrated by Burl Ives was produced in 1964 and remains a perennial holiday favorite.

May quit his copywriting job in 1951 and spent seven years managing his creation before returning to Montgomery Ward where he worked until his retirement in 1971. He died in 1976, comfortable in the life his reindeer creation had provided.

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