Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

The Real Story

by Judi Moreo

Even though most people believe that Rudolph is a folklore legend, it simply is not true. Rudolph was born in 1939 in the Montgomery Ward Department store in Chicago, Illinois.

The holiday season was a time when Santa would give away coloring books to the children who came to tell him their Christmas wishes. The management staff thought perhaps if they created their own giveaway booklet, they wouldn’t have to buy the coloring books and they could save money. So the project of a Christmas give-away was assigned to one of their advertising copywriters, Robert May, who was very good at writing children’s stories and limericks.

Mr. May had an idea of an illustrated poem printed in a small book that families would want to keep and read to their children each year. He came up with the idea of a reindeer with a shiny nose who would be Santa’s helper. He wrote a series of rhyming verses and tried them out on his four-year-old daughter.

He then enlisted his artist friend, Denver Gillen, to draw a reindeer. Mr. Gillen spent many hours at the local zoo creating sketches of reindeer. Together, they completed the booklet, and during Christmas of 1939, 2.4 million copies of the story of Rudolph were given away in Montgomery Ward stores throughout the United States.

In this version of the story, Rudolph did not live at the North Pole. Rudolph lived in an average reindeer village, and while he was often taunted and laughed at for having a red nose, his parents didn’t regard him as an embarrassment. Rudolph was brought up in a loving home and he was a responsible reindeer with a good self-image and sense of worth. Santa discovered Rudolph when he noticed the glow coming from Rudolph’s room while delivering presents to Rudolph’s house. Worried that the thickening fog would keep him from completing his Christmas Eve rounds, Santa asked Rudolph to lead his team. The booklet was a big hit.

The acceptance of Rudolph as Santa’s helper created a need to license the character. As Mr. May had created the story during his employment at Montgomery Ward, the company held the copyright. Mr. May was deeply in debt from the terminal illness and loss of his wife, so he persuaded Montgomery Ward’s corporate president, Sewell Avery, to turn Rudolph’s copyright over to him.

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer became a commercial entity before Christmas of 1947, and in the following year, a nine-minute cartoon was created and shown in theatres. Mr. May talked his brother-in-law, popular songwriter, Johnny Marks, into writing lyrics and a melody for a song about Rudolph. Several professional singers turned down the opportunity to record the song. Then in 1949, Gene Autry consented to do the recording which quickly went to the top of the Hit Parade charts.

Since that time, approximately three hundred different recordings of the song have been made, one hundred million copies of the story sold, and Rudolph’s career continues. In 1964, he became the star of a TV special narrated by Burl Ives which is still a holiday favorite today.

Robert May died in 1976 leaving the legend of Rudolph in all of our hearts.


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