Telling Rudolph’s Tale

By Jim Bradshaw

Everyone knows today that Rudolph’s red nose leads the way for Santa’s annual trip. But that ruddy nose nearly kept us from hearing about Rudolph at all.
In 1939, Robert L. May, an advertising copywriter for the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago, was asked to come up with ideas for “a cheery Christmas book” that could be given to shoppers. Montgomery Ward had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas for many years and its managers thought creating their own book would save money and be a nice gesture.
May decided to tell Rudolph’s tale, and there are at least two stories of why that came to be. The first is that May’s four-year-old daughter Barbara felt left out because her mother was seriously ill and couldn’t do things with her like her friends’ mothers did. According to this version, he told the story to show there could be a happy ending, even if you are sometimes left out by your playmates. The other version is that he drew the tale from his own childhood, in which he was taunted for being small and shy.
His daughter loved Rudolph’s story, but May’s boss wasn’t so sure it was a good one to be telling kids. He worried that a story featuring a red nose — associated with drinking — wasn’t right for a Christmas tale. A sketch of the lovable reindeer by Denver Gillen, who worked in Montgomery Ward’s art department, changed the boss’s mind.
When May first told the story, Rudolph was not one of Santa’s reindeer. He lived in a reindeer village, not at the North Pole. Santa discovered him only by accident while he was delivering presents and noticed the glow coming from Rudolph’s room. Worried about a thick fog that could ground his sleigh, Santa asked Rudolph to lead the rest of the way.
Montgomery Ward distributed more than two million copies of the Rudolph booklet in 1939. Paper shortages cut back printing during World War II, but still about six million copies had been given out by the end of 1946.
Rudolph came to be known nationwide after the war, when May persuaded Montgomery War officials to turn the copyright over to him. The “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” booklet was printed commercially in 1947 and the story was shown in theaters as a nine-minute film in 1948.
Songwriter Johnny Marks, who was married to May’s sister, wrote the song that we all sing. Cowboy singer Gene Autry recorded it in 1949 even though he didn’t like it very much, and was surprised as anyone when it sold two million copies that year alone. So were Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, both of whom had turned down the song. Autry’s version hit No. 1 on the Billboard singles listing during the week of Christmas 1949 and for many years was the second most popular Christmas song in the United States (behind “White Christmas”).
Rudolph’s immortality was assured in 1964 when Burl Ives narrated his story for a television special.
The story of the red-nosed reindeer also guaranteed May’s future. He quit his copy writing job in 1951 and spent seven years managing his creation before returning to Montgomery Ward, where he worked until retirement in 1971. He died in 1976.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at jhbradshaw@bellsouth.net or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.

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