The Chicago-based Montgomery Ward company and department store operators had been purchasing and distributing children’s coloring books as Christmas gifts for their customers for several years. In 1939, Montgomery Ward tapped one of their own employees to create a book for them, thus saving money. 34-year old copywriter Robert L. May wrote the story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and 2.4 million copies were handed out that year. Despite the wartime paper shortage, over 6 million copies had been distributed by 1946.
May drew in part on the story The Ugly Duckling and in part from his own experiences as an often taunted, small, frail youth to create the story of the misfit reindeer. Though Rollo and Reginald were considered, May settled on Rudolph as his reindeer’s name. Writing in verse as a series of rhyming couplets, May tested the story as he went along on his 4-year old daughter Barbara, who loved the story. Robert May’s wife died around the time he was creating Rudolph, leaving May deeply in debt due to medical bills. However, he was able to persuade Sewell Avery, Montgomery Ward’s corporate president, to turn the copyright over to him in January 1947, thus ensuring May’s financial security when commercial printing began.
Rudolph’s first screen appearance came in 1948 in the form of a nine-minute cartoon short produced by the Max Fleischer/Jam Handy Corporation and shown in theaters. The following year May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, wrote lyrics and a melody for the story. This musical version was turned down by many recording artists who did not want to meddle with the Santa Claus traditions, was finally recorded by Gene Autry, at the urging of his wife, in 1949. The rest is history as they say, with the song selling over two million copies that year alone, going on to become second only to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas as the highest selling Christmas song of all time!
In 1958 Golden Books published an illustrated storybook, with the illustrations created by the fabulous Richard Scarry. And in 1964 Rudolph made his television debut when Rankin/Bass produced their now annual holiday favorite, stop-motion animated special, narrated by Burl Ives. Rudolph is indubitable a Christmas icon well established as part of American folklore.
It is interesting to note that although the story is today remembered by the song and subsequent TV appearances, the original tale as penned by May was a bit different. Rudolph was not one of Santa’s reindeer, nor did he live in the North Pole, but in an ‘ordinary’ reindeer village. He was taunted by other children reindeer, but his parents loved and adored him, and he was never an embarrassment or outcast. It appears that the lesson of May’s story was accepting one’s differences; encouraging self-esteem in a time when that phrase was unknown! Santa Claus discovered Rudolph quite by accident while delivering presents on Christmas Eve during a thick fog. The glow of Rudolph’s nose through his bedroom window beckoned the red-suited man and his sleigh. They had already suffered a number of accidents and delays, Santa enlisting Rudolph to help them out so his task to deliver all the presents would be completed. In the end, Santa tells Rudolph, “By You last night’s journey was actually bossed. Without You I am certain we’d all have been lost!”
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