Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer
In a way, one could consider "Rudolph" as one of the pioneers of the "Modern American Christmas"
songs. Not surprisingly, it all started as an advertising campaign for a department store.
In 1939, Montgomery Ward asked one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L.
May, to come up with a Christmas story coloring book they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick.
May, rather sickly, shy and introverted as a child, based the story on his childhood feelings
of alienation from children of his own age. As to the name, May considered and rejected Rollo (too cheerful) and Reginald
(too British) before deciding on Rudolph.
May's boss was worried that a story featuring a red nose -- an image associated with drinking
and drunkards -- wasn't exactly suitable 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 some deer. Gillen's illustrations of a red-nosed reindeer overcame
the hesitancy of May's bosses, and the Rudolph story was approved. As an interesting side-note, you might notice that Rudolph
has a similar rhyme pattern to another Christmas classic - "'Twas the Night Before Christmas". May's story continues below
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid and Donder and Blitzen.,
do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose,
you ever saw it,
You could even say it glows.
All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names;
never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games.
Then one foggy Christmas Eve,
Santa came to say:
your nose so bright,
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
Then how the reindeer loved him
As they shouted out with
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
You'll go down in history."
Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet 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-war demand for licensing the Rudolph character was tremendous, but since May had created
the story as an employee of Montgomery Ward, they held the copyright and he received no royalties.
Deeply in debt from the 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 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, however, when May's brother-in-law, songwriter
Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for a Rudolph song. Marks' musical version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,"
recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, 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."