I Swear

April 18-24, 2016

Rudolph: The Hidden Story

This column is about Rudolph, the reindeer with the red nose. Or, rather, the literature via which he was created. I heard that it all started in a department store. Could this be true?

After investigation, I can report that Rudolph indeed was the 1939 brain child of a 34 year-old Montgomery Ward copywriter.

The Chicago-based retailer had been purchasing, and then giving away, Christmas coloring books each year. In 1939, to save money, Robert May, who had a gift for writing poetic children’s stories, was assigned the task of creating a giveaway Christmas booklet.

As a child, May had been teased about his shyness. He was an aficionado of “The Ugly Duckling.” It was no surprise, then, that he conceived the idea of a reindeer with a physical abnormality – a red nose.

May’s four-year-old loved the idea, but his boss was not immediately receptive. A red nose, after all, suggested drunkenness – hardly appropriate for a promotional children’s story.

Taking exception, May asked a co-worker from the art department to accompany him to Lincoln Park Zoo. The friend sketched a deer and added a glowing red nose. This persuaded management that inebriation would not be inferred, and the project went forward.

May’s story was different from the song that his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote later. May’s Rudolph lived well away from the North Pole. And, although teased by peers because of his nose, he was brought up well and became a responsible member of society when the night of his heroics came about.

As he is delivering presents to Rudolph’s home, Santa notices the glowing red light coming from Rudolph’s room and has an idea. The fog is thick that his annual trek around the globe is taking, like, forever! Santa wakes up Rudolph and drafts him into service. Santa later commends Rudolph in verse:

“By you last night’s journey was actually bossed.

Without you I’m certain we’d all have been lost.”

(I wonder if anyone, reading that, advised May not to quit his day job?)

That first year, 2.4 million copies of May’s booklet were given away. Another 3.5 million were distributed in 1940-46. Since May was an employee, Ward’s owned the copyright, and there was no royalty income. May, who had gone deeply into debt as a result of his wife’s having a terminal illness, prevailed upon Ward’s president Sewell Avery to give him the copyright in early 1947.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was printed commercially in 1947 and shown in 1948 as a nine-minute cartoon. About that time, Marks wrote his song, which was snubbed by several stars before being recorded by Gene Autry. Over 2 million copies of the record were sold in 1949. May left Ward’s in 1951 and exclusively managed Rudolph for seven years. He then returned to Ward’s and worked until retirement in 1971.

Rudolph made it to the small screen in 1964, when Rankin/Bass produced an animated TV special, which has become the longest running TV special ever. An animated feature-length film of Rudolph was made in 1998, but after a brief theatrical release, it was confined to the home video market.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.