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Stories, Poems and Humor
Left Book How Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Came to Be
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To most of us, the character of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, immortalized in song and a popular TV special, has always been an essential part of our Christmas folklore. But Rudolph is a decidedly twentieth-century invention whose creation can be traced to a specific time and person.

Rudolph came to life in 1939 when the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward company asked one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to come up with a Christmas story they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick. The Montgomery Ward stores had been been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year, and May's department head saw creating a giveaway booklet of their own as a way to save money. May, who had a penchant for writing children's stories and limericks, was asked to create the booklet.

May, drawing in part on the tale of The Ugly Duckling and his own background settled on the idea of an underdog ostracized by the reindeer community because of his physical abnormality: a glowing red nose. Looking for an catchy name, May considered and rejected Rollo as too cheerful and carefree a name for the story of a misfit, and Reginald as too British, before deciding on Rudolph. He then proceeded to write Rudolph's story in verse, as a series of rhyming couplets, testing it out on his 4-year-old daughter Barbara as he went along. Although Barbara was thrilled with Rudolph's story, May's boss was worried that a story featuring a red nose, an image commonly associated with drinking, was unsuitable for a family Christmas tale. May responded by taking Denver Gillen, a friend from Montgomery Ward's art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch some deer. Gillen's illustrations of a red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesitancy of May's bosses, and the Rudolph story was approved. Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in 1939, and although wartime paper shortages curtailed printing for the next several years, a total of 6 million copies had been given to customers by the end of 1946.

The post-war demand for licensing the Rudolph character was tremendous, but since May had created the story as an employee of Montgomery Ward, they held the copyright and he received no royalties. Deeply in debt from the medical bills resulting from his wife's terminal illness (she died about the time May created Rudolph), May was finally able to persuade Montgomery Ward's corporate president, Sewell Avery, to turn the copyright over to him in January 1947. With the rights to his creation in hand, May's financial security was assured. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was printed commercially in 1947 and shown in theaters as a nine-minute cartoon the following year.

The Rudolph phenomenon really took off, however, when May's brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for a Rudolph song. Marks' musical version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" sold two million copies that year, and went on to become one of the best-selling songs of all time, second only to Bing Crosby's "White Christmas". A TV special about Rudolph narrated by Burl Ives was produced in 1964 and remains a popular holiday favorite.



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