Christmas Past

The fascinating stories behind your favorite Christmas traditions

Backstory — Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

image of rudolph the red-nosed reindeer

The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a classic underdog story, but maybe not the way you think. In this episode, we discuss the unlikely journey of Robert L. May from workaday copywriter to creator of an icon.

Rudolph began his life as the subject of a story told in rhyming verse, that was given away to shoppers at the Montgomery Ward department stores. Millions of books were handed out over several seasons at all of Montgomery Ward’s stores.

Robert May eventually owned the rights to the character and his brother in law, a prominent songwriter, wrote the familiar song. The story and song would later be adapted into a full length television special that introduced characters and plotting not included in May’s original.

Fun links

Music in this episode

Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:06
Everyone loves a good Underdog Story. And if that Underdog Story also happens to be a Christmas story, well, that’s even better. There’s one underdog story that gets me right into the Christmas spirit every time. It’s the story of a little guy who always felt inferior. He was smaller and weaker than his peers, and he wasn’t included in their games. But he would go on to leave an indelible mark on Christmas, you might say a big red glowing mark. You know his name. Of course…Robert. You probably weren’t expecting to hear that. But I was talking about Robert L Mae, who created Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer way back in 1939. And the story behind it is almost as magical and endearing and triumphant as the little oddball who goes on to save Christmas. Maybe Robert may didn’t go down in his story, but try imagining a Christmas season without his most enduring creation. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past. I’m embarrassed to admit that until recently, I had no idea that Rudolph started out as a storybook. I’d only ever known the song and the TV show, and we’ll get to those later. I guess it’s not that surprising because the book was first published in 1939. And you can’t buy a copy today. In fact, you could never buy a copy anywhere. That’s because the storybook was a promotional giveaway produced by the Montgomery Ward department store. Year after year Montgomery Ward gave out free books to children of holiday shoppers. But in 1939, the management decided to try to save money by producing its own books rather than buying them from booksellers. And that’s where our story begins. Robert May was a copywriter for Montgomery Ward, us living in Chicago. He’d always had bigger dreams like writing the great American novel. You see, he was educated at Dartmouth College Phi Beta Kappa even, but he always had trouble fitting in.

peter carini 2:09
He was on the small side. He didn’t Excel socially.

Brian Earl 2:12
Peter Carini is the college archivist at Dartmouth, which holds a collection of may’s work.

peter carini 2:17
A lot of his classmates had already found success. And people who were close to him in age like Theodore Geisel, who was class of 25.

Brian Earl 2:24
Theodor Geisel, of course, is better known as Dr. Seuss. And he was May 35 years old, grinding out catalog descriptions of sweaters and dress shirts, all for a meager paycheck. It was January, and all around Chicago, the Christmas decorations were coming down. And that was just fine for Robert May. He hadn’t been feeling very festive. You see his wife Evelyn was dying of cancer. his salary could barely cover the medical expenses. And he was deeply in debt, all while raising a four year old daughter named Barbara. But one day his boss called him into the office and asked him to come up with a story for the christmas giveaway that year. The direction he was given was to write a story kind of like Ferdinand the Bull. And so Robert had at it, he decided that the animals should be a reindeer because Barbara loved the reindeer exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo. And he wanted to do an underdog story, which was partly autobiographical. And he was inspired when he saw the fog rolling off Lake Michigan that made driving difficult and dim to the streetlights. So he put it all together and came up with a story of a Red Nosed Reindeer who was almost named Rolo. And then Reginald before finally settling on Rudolph. The next day, he marched into his boss’s office and presented the idea. And as may himself would later write the response he got was, “can’t you do any better than that?”

peter carini 3:51
No, his boss thought it was a terrible idea. He kind of scoffed at the idea of a reindeer. And he sent him back to to rewrite it.

Brian Earl 4:00
It’s also been said that the boss didn’t like the idea of a red nose because of its association with chronic alcoholism. This was the time when WC fields was a household name, after all,

peter carini 4:11
May though, was really committed to this story and thought it was really good. So he went to his friend Denver, Gillan, who was a illustrator for Montgomery Ward and asked him to draw a mock up for it. And he brought it back to his boss who looked at it and it was just had a completely different reaction once he could see it with the illustrations attached to the story. And he was like, This is brilliant. This is great. We’re gonna go with this.

Brian Earl 4:37
He had to go ahead to make the concept into a more finished version. And then July of that year, about a month before he finished the story, his wife Evelyn died. His boss offered to take the assignment off his plate, but as May would later write he needed Rudolph then more than ever. He kept at it until the story was finished in August. The story is told in rhyming verse And tell us the story you’re mostly familiar with. But there are a couple of surprising details in the original. For example, on that stormy Christmas Eve, Santa and his reindeer attempt to make the deliveries anyway, despite the fog, and almost ended up getting clipped by an airplane. And when Rudolph blushes, his whole body turns red. It’s really a wonderful story. And thank goodness for the internet because you can find it online. I’ll have a link to it on my website, Christmas pass podcast.com. That year, Montgomery Ward gave away about two and a half million copies of the book at their stores all across the country. The book was a big hit from Montgomery Ward, but it did relatively little for the work of a wordsmith behind it, who was still buried in debt. May was even approached by a publisher who wanted him to do a spoken word recording of the story. But he couldn’t, because Montgomery Ward held the copyright. And then something amazing happened. Something that could even be called a Christmas miracle.

peter carini 5:58
In 1947, Montgomery Ward decided they had had a good enough run with Rudolph and they were going to discontinue using him and Mays boss Yes, that Montgomery Ward turned over the copyright of that story. To may

Brian Earl 6:11
this is really unheard of. And there are conflicting accounts about why it even happened. Some say that Montgomery Ward was being big hearted and wanted to help out may and others say that it was because they just didn’t see the potential. More than 6 million kids already had the book. So what else could they do with it after that? You can believe what you want, but may definitely saw the potential. He even went to Disney with the idea of doing something with the character.

peter carini 6:38
Yeah, he did try to pitch it to Disney. They were not particularly interested at the time

Brian Earl 6:42
it didn’t matter. Because it just so happened that his brother in law was Johnny marks a songwriter who specialized in Christmas songs, you know, rocking around the Christmas tree, Holly Jolly Christmas, silver, and gold. Those are all his. Now these weren’t just Christmas songs. These were hit Christmas songs. So Marx wrote the song, a singer named Harry Brandon saying it originally. But in 1949, the singing cowboy himself Gene Autry recorded a version and it shot to number one on the chart.

peter carini 7:14
And I think that and that generated then two movies, a short that was done in the 40s. And then the 1964 animagic. TV special that we’re all very familiar with. The piece from the 1940s is an animated cartoon that tells the story exactly as it’s told in the storybook.

Recording 7:36
It was the day before Christmas and all through the hills, the reindeer were playing and enjoying the spills of lading and costing and claiming the willows and hopscotch and leapfrog, protected by pillows.

Brian Earl 7:50
You can find it on YouTube, I’ll have a link on my site.

peter carini 7:52
The movie is actually quite a different story. I mean, the basic premise is the same and the outcome is similar. But the movie is much more in depth and has a lot more characters.

Brian Earl 8:02
The show was first aired in 1964 on an NBC show called The General Electric fantasy hour. And since 1972, it’s run every year on CBS, which makes it the longest running Christmas TV special ever. Robert may died a very wealthy man in 1976. And Rudolph remains one of the most enduring Christmas characters. They even put them on a postage stamp a couple years ago, and the TV special has spawned sequels and has even been adapted into a stage musical. It’s touring the country in November and December of this year, and maybe coming to a city near you. You know, watching that Christmas special year after year is one of my favorite Christmas memories. And I think a lot of people do this when they think of Christmas memories. They go into their distant past their childhoods, but one of the great things about Christmas is that every year, we’re given a chance to make new memories like this one from Kathy in New Jersey.

Kathy in New Jersey 8:57
Christmas was never a very big holiday for me growing up. But now that I’m a parent, I’m really hoping to make Christmas a more magical experience for my kids. I thought that this past year, that was not going to happen when my husband broke his foot. A few days before Christmas. On December 23, we were scheduled to host about a dozen people. And that was pretty tough and stressful. But then the next day Christmas Eve, we realized that we had a free day. And we decided on a whim to go to the New York Botanical Gardens for their holiday train show. We got there. My husband was given a wheelchair, and we were sort of given the VIP treatment. Everyone was in the Christmas spirit. Everybody was so kind and just the whole experience was just so sweet from beginning to end. And afterwards we came home we read Twas the Night Before Christmas. We put out cookies. Carrots for Santa’s and the reindeer and ended up having a wonderful Christmas Eve.

Brian Earl 10:06
If you’d like to share a memory it’s super easy. All you have to do is record a voice memo on your phone and send it to me at Christmas Past podcast@gmail.com try to keep it to about a minute and be sure to say your name and where you’re from, again that Christmas pass podcast@gmail.com Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. Thanks very much to Peter Carini and Kathy from New Jersey. And thanks also to you for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t already. It’s just one click away on iTunes or however you get your podcasts. between episodes we can keep the fun going on social media. Come on via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and search for Christmas Past podcast in all three places. That’s how you’ll find me and all of the fun vintage Christmas stuff and Christmas trivia on posting all the time. And also be sure to catch me at Christmas Past podcast.com. That’s my official home on the web and you’ll find show notes for each episode. For this one, I’ll include a link to the old storybooks, the cartoon from the 40s and information about the music you hear on the show. Again, that’s Christmas pass podcast.com. Thanks again for listening and I hope to see you next time.

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