The Red-Nosed Reindeer the song about the
odd one out among Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen has become one of the
world's best-selling songs of all time. The
lyrics tell the story of Rudolph's victory over the narrow-minded mentality of
the other reindeer scorning him because he is different
and were written by Robert May in 1939.
May & Rudolph
May was a short man, barely five feet in height. Bullied at school, he was ridiculed
and humiliated by other children because he was smaller than other boys of the
same age. Even as he grew up, he was often mistaken for someones little
brother and the theme of ostracism and being different from the herd had featured
strongly in his own childhood. May graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College
in 1926 and joined Montgomery Ward in 1936. At 34, he worked as a copywriter for
the Chicago-based chain of department stores which had started as a mail-order
house in 1872, delivering goods to America's farmers and country people by train.
the eve of World War II, the company asked May to come up with a Christmas story
they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick. It was a difficult
time for the employee. His wife Evelyn was chronically ill with cancer and most
of their money was spent on medical treatments. The prospect of his wife's impending
death, life with her in a rundown apartment, and huge debts left May, like his
alter ego, Rudolph, wallowing in self-pity.
night in early December of 1938 and two years into his wifes illness, his
four-year-old daughter Barbara climbed onto his knee and asked, Daddy, why
isnt Mummy like everybody elses mummy? It was a simple question,
asked with childlike curiosity. But it struck a personal chord with Robert May.
His mind flashed back to his own childhood. He had often posed a similar question,
Why cant I be tall, like the other kids? The stigma attached
to those who are different is hard to bear.
tale goes that May decided to write a story and chose the name of his star reindeer,
Rudolph, after rejecting Rollo and Reginald. He then proceeded to use his
daughter Barbara to test Rudolph's antics. The power to bring joy to others, precisely
because you are different, is the moral of the story. Santa saves the day by elevating
Rudolph to the front of the team, where the reindeer leads the way with his glowing
wrote Rudolph's story in a series of rhyming couplets. The undervalued but gifted
writer's story was a winner. May's boss at Montgomery Ward was not so impressed.
Rudolph's very essence, his fait d'etre, his shiny red nose, was called
into contention as an image clearly associated with drinking a little too much
Christmas brandy. May responded to the innuendo that Rudolph was a drunk by sending
an illustrator friend, Denver Gillen, to sketch some deer in the Lincoln Park
Zoo. The resulting cute-as-a-button illustration of the underdog Rudolph was enough
to convince the jaded executive to go with the Rudolph Christmas booklet. The
slim promotional booklet was printed on the flimsiest of pulp paper, a prime example
of what librarians call ephemera, something made to be here today and gone
tomorrow. By 1946, Montgomery Ward had handed out more than 6 million copies of
the book to every child who visited their department stores and it eventually
became an international best seller.
for May, the success had a bitter edge. His wife had died before the book became
popular and even six million copies later May held no copyright for the story
and never made a cent from Rudolph
the Red-Nosed Reindeer those
first seven years. It was, after all, a giveaway brochure. In an undeniably Rudolphesque
moment, May overcame his sheepishness to persuade Montgomery Ward's corporate
president, Sewell Avery, to turn over the copyright to his story in 1947. Avery
was a shrewd CEO who was not known for his generosity, so his decision to cede
the Rudolph rights to May was met with surprise. In 1947 Rudolph:
The Red-Nosed Reindeer went
to commercial print and a nine-minute cartoon graced the cinema screens the next
the story doesn't end there. In Greenwich Village in the City of New York, Bob
May had a brother-in-law who wrote songs. His name was Johnny Marks. Young John
had been pretty hopeless himself as a kid. His piano teacher had given up on him.
But he grew up to be a songwriter anyway, and in 1946, when brother-in-law Bob
sent him Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, he had a notebook full of other
ideas and was only passingly interested. And so Rudolph sat on the shelf, forgotten.
Until one hot summer's day in 1949, when Johnny Marks was strolling through the
city, thinking about writing a Christmas thing, and from out of nowhere a Rudolph
song came to him, unbidden and fully wrought.
excited, he recorded "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and sent
copies to Dinah Shore, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and other famous folks. As an afterthought,
he dropped one to Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, who was shopping around for
a new Christmas ditty to top his 1947 hit "Here Comes Santa Claus."
Gene Autry thought "Rudolph" was about the dopiest song he'd
ever heard and refused even to consider it. His wife, though, loved the little
tune, and so, she insisted, would every kid on Earth. Purely to please her, Autry
reluctantly stuck "Rudolph" on the B side of "If It Doesn't
Snow on Christmas," which he was sure was going to be his next big hit.
The throwaway was recorded in a single take, tossed into the last 10 minutes of
the recording session. "If It Doesn't Snow On Christmas" bombed.
As for "Rudolph"...
September, Gene Autry and his famous chestnut stallion "Champion" galloped
into Madison Square Garden along with 200 Cowboys and Indians for the annual rodeo.
Amid the barrel races and the broncos and the war-dancing painted braves, Autry
the Red-Nosed Reindeer" from
Champion's back. The instant smash sold more than 2 million records in its first
year, and sales never stopped. "Rudolph" is one of the greatest
hits in the music business, a close second only to Bing Crosby's "White
as the all-time top-selling single. At least 500 other versions of the
song have been made, in practically every language and conceivable style, from
Lena Horne to 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' to John Denver, and altogether they have
sold at least 150 million copies.
humble, soft-spoken man, Bob May was gratified that children had so responded
to his little story. He referred to Rudolph as my generous son, claiming
that the reindeer enabled him to send his six children to college. In 1958 May
donated the original manuscript to the Baker Library at Dartmouth College, which
now houses the Robert L. May Collection. May left Wards in 1951 to manage
Rudolphs career, but returned to the company in 1958 and retired in 1970.
Autry lived to be 91 but never had another song that sold more than the 15 million
copies of his "Rudolph." Johnny Marks left about 900 other songs
behind him when he died in 1985, not one of them nearly so big as "Rudolph."
Robert May wrote a few other children's books before he died in 1976, none successful.
Most of his life, he mused, had, in fact, been spent "working for a reindeer."
This didn't seem to bother any of them much, because Rudolph made them all quite
wealthy and, as the song goes ... "they all went down in history."
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