Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was "born" close by


Montgomery Ward company, in 1939, gave a thirty-four year old copywriter named Robert  L. May, the task of creating a Christmas story for a promotional booklet to be given out to shoppers. Wards had been purchasing and distributing promotional Christmas booklets for years but they decided to bring the project in house.

Small and shy as a child, May, who was taunted early in life, decided to make the hero of the story an underdog type character. Thus Rudolph was created as an underdog character in his reindeer community because of his abnormal glowing red nose.

May wrote the original story as a series of rhyming couplets and tested the story on his four-year old daughter Barbara.  His daughter loved the tale but May's boss was concerned that people would relate Rudolph's red nose to drinking and drunks which would be unacceptable for a Christmas story.

Not to be deterred, May went to a friend who was an artist in Ward's art department and asked for his help. May and the friend, Denver Gillen, went to the Lincoln Park Zoo where Gillen sketched some deer. Gillen's illustrations sold the Ward's executive team on the idea of the Red-nosed Reindeer and the first booklet was printed in 1939. Though war time limited the printing of the story for a few years, the initial distribution of 2.6 million copies turned to a total of 6 million by the end of 1946.

Licensing demands for Rudolph became tremendous but May saw no income from his creation since he was employed by Wards at the time of the creation. May's wife died about the time Rudolph was created and May was in heavy debt.

In January 1947, May went to Ward's president, Sewell Avery, and persuaded him to turn the copyrights over to him. Avery did and May's financial future was set for life. It was in that same year that the story was printed commercially. Then a nine-minute cartoon was in movie theatres the following year and  May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the Rudolph song.

Turned down by recording studios, the song was picked up by Gene Autry in 1949 and over 2 million copies were sold that year. It went on to be second only to "White Christmas" as the best selling record. The stop-action movie, narrated by Burl Ives was created in 1964 and continues  to be a seasonal favorite.

May quit his copywriting job in 1951 to manage the business of his creation but returned to Wards in 1958, where he worked until retiring in 1971. He died in 1976.

Editor's note: It is nice to know that such an important reindeer who has guided Santa all these years is a former Chicagoan! And how about the act of compassion of Sewell Avery!

For more information: Myths



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