A Look Beyond Rudolph’s Red Nose

The other evening a commercial came on TV that had a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer theme.

I don’t remember what product the commercial was pushing, but I do remember wondering – for the first time, ever – “Who wrote Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?  And why?  What’s the story behind the song?”

Writers tend to be curious people.

My curiosity stemmed from this:

Many of us learned the lyrics and melody to Rudolph at a very young age, and we’ve been singing it ever since.

I’d even suggest mindlessly singing it, but not in a bad way.  That’s how we sing Christmas carols.  The lyrics and music aren’t as important as the holiday spirit they invoke – religious or otherwise, solemn or silly. 

And there are some truly silly Christmas carols out there.

I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.  Could it get any sillier than that?

Back to Rudolph.

As I wondered about Rudolph it occurred to me that what’s different is that there’s a message in the song, and it’s very contemporary:

  1. Rudolph is different.
  2. The other reindeer make fun of him (read:  bullying).
  3. Santa asks Rudolph for help.
  4. Rudolph becomes a hero, and “then how the reindeer loved him.”

Pretty heavy stuff for a Christmas carol.

A search on the Internet started me on my path to answering my who and why and what.  It turns out that the song was written in 1949 by Johnny Marks, who was the brother-in-law of a man named Robert L. May (pictured), and:

“…May created Rudolph in 1939 as an assignment for Chicago-based retailer Montgomery Ward.  The retailer had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year and it was decided that creating their own book would save money.”

So Rudolph started out as a coloring book, not as a song?

Further research brought the ah-ah moment:

The coloring book author, Robert May, would write from his own experience.

According to History.com,

“‘Rudolph and I were something alike,’ the copywriter told Guidepost magazine in January 1975.  ‘As a child I’d always been the smallest in the class.  Frail, poorly coordinated, I was never asked to join the school teams.’”

And this, from Time magazine:

According to the article, May:

“…was a ‘shy’ and ‘small’ boy, and who ‘had known what it was like to be an underdog.’”

So May knew how it felt to be different.  In addition:

Montgomery Ward’s 1939 Christmas catalogue.

“May was feeling downtrodden about his present life, too.  ‘And how are you starting the New Year? I glumly asked myself,’ he later recalled, describing his mindset in early 1939 when he first received the assignment. ‘Here I was, heavily in debt at nearly 35, still grinding out catalogue [pictured] copy.  Instead of writing the great American novel, as I’d once hoped, I was describing men’s white shirts.’”

And more heartbreak – May’s wife Evelyn was dying: 

“‘My wife was suffering from a long illness and I didn’t feel very festive,’ he recalled.”

But May persevered, thinking about and working on the coloring book:

“As for the idea of a glowing nose apt for navigating, that light-bulb moment came from looking out his office window in the middle of one of Chicago’s infamous winter days, seeing the fog [below]from Lake Michigan and thinking of Santa trying to do his work on such a night.”

And this amazing twist:  The whole idea of Rudolph and his red nose almost got dumped, because a focus group thought the red nose had “connotations of alcoholism”!

Another good story:  Like many writers, May employed alliteration and brainstormed a list of names that began with the letter “R” such as Rollo, Rodney, Roland, Roderick and Reggy.

Can you even imagine Rollo the Red-Nosed Reindeer?

As spring turned into summer, May’s “wife’s parents came to stay with us to help,” he later wrote.  Sadly, Evelyn died in July 1939.

May kept writing, and “Montgomery Ward printed the story as a soft-covered booklet in 1939 and distributed 2.4 million copies for free.” 

Here it is:

Plans to print another 1.6 million copies the following year were shelved by paper shortages due to World War II, and Rudolph remained on hiatus until the conflict’s conclusion.  When the story returned in 1946, it was more popular than ever and Montgomery Ward handed out 3.6 million copies of the book.

In 1947 Maxton Publishing Co. offered to print Rudolph in hardcover and it became a best-seller:

Some of the 89 rhyming couplets in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” hardcover edition.

But it wasn’t until brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote the song, and:

Gene Autry, the “Singing Cowboy.”

“Gene Autry’s recording of the song hit #1 on the Billboard pop singles chart the week of Christmas 1949.  Autry’s recording sold 2.5 million copies the first year, eventually selling a total of 25 million, and it remained the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s.”

Since then, Rudolph and his red nose have gone from best-selling record to a phenomenon:  children’s books, comic books, TV specials, feature-length films, spin-offs, games, and video games.  Along the way, Rudolph acquired parents, siblings and an extended family, countless merchandise items, and a starring role in a Christmas show at SeaWorld:

“Meet Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer™ and friends at SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration.  At Rudolph’s Christmastown, Rudolph leads the way to Christmas joy and holiday fun with all-new ways of making spirits bright.”

And while you’re there…

“If you can’t get enough of everyone’s favorite reindeer, stop by the Holly Jolly Marketplace, a special boutique here for the season with a fun-filled collection of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer gifts, apparel and keepsakes.”

Since Rudolph’s story had a happy ending, it’s only fair that Robert May’s did, too. 

History.com says that May, a widower and single father, remarried and became a father again, but…

“…he still struggled financially.  In 1947, the [Montgomery Ward] board of directors, stirred either by the holiday spirit or belief that the story lacked revenue-making potential, signed the copyright for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer over to May.  In short order, May licensed a commercial version of the book along with a full range of Rudolph-themed merchandise.”

Then came all the successes, and – eventually, inevitably – that commercial I saw the other night.

Of the millions of people who have and will sing Rudolph, watch Rudolph, play Rudolph and buy Rudolph, I hope that some will wonder, as I did, about the who and the why and the what.

And that some will understand, as I now do, that far from being just another Christmas carol, Rudolph is, in author May’s words,

“…a ‘story of acceptance,’ the moral of which was that ‘tolerance and perseverance can overcome adversity.’”

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