Dec 19, 2013

Rudolph's Story

 By Susan Knight

While a newspaper reporter, I was lucky enough to be indulged by my editor when I asked if I could research and write the story of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
Following is a slightly condensed account of that article.
One of the most beloved childhood Christmas songs of all times is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Unlike other popular songs and carols, the story of Rudolph is a modern, 20th century account that started off as a poem written by Robert L. May in 1939.
May, 34 at the time, worked for Montgomery Ward in Chicago as a copywriter. The chain needed a promotional gimmick as a giveaway for their customers during Christmas. The store usually gave away coloring books to the children, but the company decided to create its own giveaway that year.
May was tapped to come up with something pleasing to the children.
It so happens, at that time, May’s wife, Evelyn, was dying of cancer. His only daughter, four-year-old Barbara, worried about her mother’s health and wondered why her mother wasn't like everybody else’s mother.
May penned the story of a reindeer who was different from all the other reindeer. Drawing on his own experiences of being a shy child, Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Ugly Duckling,” and the same rhyming method of Clement C. Moore in “The Night Before Christmas,” he wrote the reindeer story in rhyming couplets. He used his daughter’s like or dislike of the poem as an assessment of what other children might like.
The story begins with a young reindeer that was taunted by his peers because he was "different."
“Ha ha! Look at Rudolph! His nose is a sight!
It’s red as a beet! Twice as big! Twice as bright!”
But Rudolph, though lonesome, was always good and obeyed his parents. As Christmas approached, he was anxious to see what Santa would bring him because he knew he had been good. As it happened, Santa had a crisis. It was so foggy he couldn’t see a thing as he traveled the world on Christmas Eve.
“Without any stars or a moon as our compass,
This extra-dark night is quite likely to swamp us.
To keep from a smash-up, we’ll have to fly slow.     
  To see where we’re going, we’ll have to fly low.”

In the story, Santa was worried he wouldn’t be able to deliver the toys while the children were still asleep because of the extra time it was taking him because of the fog. He had trouble seeing inside the homes as well, until he came upon one home where he was met with a glowing red light.
From something that lay at the head of the bed.
The lamp wasn’t burning; the light came, instead,
And there lay – but wait now – what would you suppose?
 The glowing, you’ve guessed it, was Rudolph’s red nose!           
Santa gently wakened Rudolph and asked if he would guide his sleigh. We all know how the story ends.
   That Rudolph, the ugliest deer of them all,
             Rudolph the Red-Nose, bashful and small,              
     The funny-faced fellow they always called names,
   And practically never allowed in their games,  
Was now to be envied by all, far and near.
For no greater honor can come to a deer
Than riding with Santa and guiding his sleigh,
The Number One job, on the Number One day!
May’s daughter loved the story and wanted her father to recite it over and over.
It’s funny that the reindeer’s name wasn’t always "Rudolph." Wanting an alliterative name to go with "red-nosed reindeer," May first tried "Rollo" but his boss didn’t like it. Then he used "Reginald," but that name was deemed "too British." They all finally agreed on "Rudolph."
May’s boss, thinking the public would perceive a reindeer with a red nose as a drunk, didn't like the story. May asked Denver Gillen, from Montgomery Ward’s art department, to sketch the reindeer and the sketches sold the story, which was well-received. People could relate to the underdog, er, deer.
Montgomery Ward gave away 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in 1939.
By 1946, a total of six million copies of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” had been published and May started thinking about all the royalties that could be garnered by licensing his idea.
Since Montgomery Ward owned the copyright to the book, May didn't receive any royalties from his idea. When his wife died, at about the same time the story of Rudolph was first published, May was deeply in debt because of her medical bills. He needed money.
  After some persuasion by May, Sewell Avery, Montgomery Ward’s corporate president, turned the copyright over to him in 1947, and the story was printed commercially as a book, and was also shown as a nine-minute cartoon in movie theaters.     
According to Stanley A. Frankel in “The Story Behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” printed in the “Good Housekeeping” magazine in December 1989, May remarried in 1941 to Virginia Newton and they had three children. May’s new brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the lyrics and music to the popular “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that we are all familiar with.
Marks must have known German because he changed Moore’s original reindeer Donder’s name to Donner, which in German means "thunder," since Blitzen means "lightening." Later, versions of the Moore poem listed the reindeer as "Donner."
The tune was recorded in 1949 by Gene Autry, the singing cowboy. Autry introduced the song at Madison Square Garden in New York City that year. The tune sold two million copies in 1949 and went on to be one of the best selling Christmas songs of all time, second only to Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”
 Rudolph was definitely a hero in both the story and the song. The original account relates Santa as proclaiming to Rudolph and all those within earshot:
"By you last night’s journey was actually bossed.
Without you, I’m certain, we’d all have been lost!
I hope you’ll continue to keep us from grief,
On future dark trips, as commander-in-chief."
This is the book I had in the 1950s
May died in 1976, comfortable in the knowledge that the legend of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had gone down in his-to-ry as one of the most beloved characters and one of the most popular Christmas songs in the world.
You're welcome!


  1. Susan, I love this! What a fun post! and I laughed out loud when I saw the picture of the story book you owned in the 50s. We had that same version in my home as a child. Merry Christmas! hugs~

  2. Thanks Susan! I teach guitar and Rudolph. Everyone of every age knows the song so it is one of the easiest for them to learn to play.


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