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Story of Red-Nosed Reindeer Was Written Decade Before the Song, 25 Years Before TV Show
Think Rudolph is a funny name for a reindeer? It could have been Reginald, Rollo, or Rodney.
Eighty years ago, those were a few of the names considered for the red-nosed reindeer by Robert May, an Illinois copywriter whose creativity brought Rudolph to life in a 1939 storybook for Chicago-based department store giant Montgomery Ward.
Today, the hit song and iconic television special overshadow the original, as the first Rudolph told a different tale.
Rudolph became a turning point in the life of May, who had hailed from a comfortable New York background and graduated from Dartmouth in 1926 before the Depression wiped out his family’s wealth. In 1937, his wife, Evelyn, was diagnosed with cancer, adding to his woes.
He ended up taking a low-paying job at Montgomery Ward, where he wrote the company’s famous catalogs. The company traditionally distributed free books to children as a Christmas promotion, and in early 1939, May began work on that season’s selection.
Though May dreamed of writing the Great American Novel, his job at Ward came first, and he threw himself into the Christmas project. His wife died in July 1939, leaving him a single father with a pile of medical bills. Still, May refused an offer from his boss to take him off the project.
May conceived a lengthy poem on an outcast reindeer, shunned because of his strange red nose, who ended up as the hero when Santa needed him to “light the way” on a foggy Christmas Eve.
He considered a variety of names for the little reindeer, all beginning with the letter “R.” Among the possibilities were Reginald, Reggy, Roderick, Rodney, Roland, Rollo, and Romeo.
As May worked, he consulted with his four-year-old daughter, Barbara, to see if she understood and appreciated the verse. One change she suggested was to change the word “stomach” to “tummy.”
In a 1975 interview, May remarked that “Rudolph and I were something alike. As a child, I’d always been the smallest in the class…I was never asked to join the school teams.”
He completed the poem in August 1939, and his superiors were less than impressed. In 1975, May recalled his boss said, “Can’t you come up with anything better?” One account reports that the brass worried that red noses are associated with heavy drinking, and would not reflect well on the company.
May, however, was persistent, and kept trying. He recruited a friend from the Ward art department, Denver Gillen, to go to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago to look at the deer. Gillen drew an image of Rudolph that, May hoped, would sway his bosses.
Finally, the project was approved and Rudolph was destined, as the TV show says, to “go down in history.” Some 2.4 million copies of the storybook were given away at the 620 Ward stores in 1939, including 236,000 in Illinois, more than any other state.
There is quite a difference in the plot of the 32-page storybook as compared to the song and the TV show. In the storybook version, Rudolph is the subject of scorn by others, but he lives with his parents in a “reindeer village,” not at the North Pole.
Santa is struggling with the fog, and can barely read street signs and house numbers. As May writes, in one instance he “barely missed hitting a tri-motored plane.”
As he enters Rudolph’s darkened room to leave a Christmas gift, Santa sees the red nose and realizes that could be a solution. He wakes Rudolph from his slumber and the little reindeer, surprised and flattered, accepts Santa’s offer.
Hearing the news, Rudolph’s “handsomer playmates” are regretful, and greet Rudolph’s return with cheers. Santa credits Rudolph with saving his journey, and wants him “on future dark trips as Commander-in-Chief.”
May subsequently remarried in 1941, but was still having financial difficulty despite Rudolph’s runaway success. Incredibly, the president of Montgomery Ward, Sewell Avery, signed the entire rights to Rudolph over to May in January 1947, which proved a life-changing event.
Soon, May licensed a commercial version of the storybook, as well as merchandise such as puzzles, clothing, and View-Master reels. May wrote two sequels to Rudolph, who made his on-screen debut in a cartoon short in 1948.
The next year, popular songwriter Johnny Marks, who was May’s brother-in-law, wrote the famous song. Hollywood and singing star Gene Autry recorded the song, which sold 2 million copies in its first year.
In 1951, May left Ward to manage the Rudolph enterprise, a full-time operation. He returned to the company several years later, working until his retirement in 1971.
The beloved Rankin-Bass “animagic” television special premiered on Dec. 6, 1964, with many variations from May’s original. Several sequels, including a New Year’s show in 1975, were since produced, and Rudolph and his fellow characters have become an enormous part of American Christmas culture.
The original Rudolph storybook has been reprinted several times, and some of the original copies remain in private collections and public libraries.
Robert May died on Aug. 10, 1976 and is buried in River Grove, a Chicago suburb.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.