Recounting the origin of Rudolph


Our Christmas Internet station, MCXRadio, is getting good reviews so far. (Special thanks to sponsors Rod’s Tire and Service, Hillsboro Ford and Midway Motors!) If you’re a Christmas nut like me, you’ll spend most of your day with it playing in the background.

And if you’re even more like me—heaven help you—you also like to know the background behind all of your favorite Christmas songs.

If that’s the case, make sure you “like” MCXRadio on Facebook for daily holiday music trivia. There’s a Facebook button on the bottom left corner of the MCXRadio home page for your convenience.

But before you do that, here’s a freebie: We all know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid And Donner and Blitzen. But do you really know the most famous reindeer of all?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer originally was the product of a holiday season Montgomery Ward promotional gimmick.

The department store, to draw more customers, had made it a habit to give away children’s coloring books at Christmas­time. But to save some money in 1939 the company decided make their own product instead of purchasing the coloring books from elsewhere.

The execs turned to company copywriter Robert L. Mays, who was known by his colleagues to dabble in limericks and children’s stories. Mays created a story about a little reindeer based off the Ugly Duckling story and his own misfitted childhood.

He considered several names for his reindeer. Rollo was too humorous and Reginald was too British. But his 4-year-old daughter Barbara suggested Rudolph, and it stuck.

At first the boss didn’t like the story—Rudolph’s red nose might imply the reindeer had been drinking. But after Mays took his friend and Montgomery Ward artist Denver Gillen to the Central Park zoo for a few initial sketches, the story was given a green light.

The original tale of Rudolph was written the same rhyming verse as “The Night Before Christmas.”

It was different from the story we’re familiar with today: Rudolph lived with his loving parents in a forest far away from the North Pole. Though the other young reindeer left him out because of his shiny nose, Rudolph was an optimist who wanted to help others.

A heavy fog was setting in one Christmas Eve as Santa came to deliver presents to Rudolph’s house, and when he saw the glowing of Rudolph’s nose inside Santa asked him to lead his sleigh. After the graceful flight, Santa says to Rudolph, “By YOU last night’s journey was actually bossed. Without you, I’m certain we’d all have been lost.”

The story was an immediate success for Montgomery Ward: 2.4 million copies were handed out the first year, and by 1946—despite wartime paper shortages—more than 6 million copies were given away. And demand continued to skyrocket after the war.

May’s wife, meanwhile, had been suffering from terminal cancer and died around the time of Rudolph’s creation. Facing huge medical bills in 1947, Mays asked Montgomery Ward for the full copyright of the story. In a rare business move, the company agreed, and the story was published commercially with its creator receiving all of its royalties.

A seven-minute animated film was produced later that year by Max Fleischer of Popeye and Superman cartoons fame, and the story continued to be a success.

May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks, a songwriter and radio producer, also adapted the story to music. But once it was completed, numerous artists including Bing Crosby turned it down.

Harry Brannon eventually recorded it in 1948, but it was the 1949 recording by Gene Autry, who was then known only as a singing cowboy in B-Western movies, that sent the song straight to the top of the charts.

This is the only time in history that a song hit No. 1 on the charts one week, and completely disappeared the next…. The week after Christmas.

Autry’s rendition sold 2.5 million copies that year, with 25 million to date, making it the second best-selling Christmas song of all time, surpassed only by Crosby’s “White Christmas.”

The 47-minute adaptation of Rudolph staring Burl Ives that we all know today was released in 1964, and is now the longest-running Christmas TV special. However, the version shown now is slightly different than the original.

Rudolph, Hermey and Yukon Cornelius promise to help the population on the Island of Misfit Toys. However, after Rudolph and company leave, they are never shown returning.

Numerous complaints were filed that Rudolph broke his promise, so now the movie ends with Rudolph returning with Santa to collect the toys.

Mays continued to see the success of his little red-nosed reindeer until he died in 1976, long enough to know that his creation had indeed gone down in history.

To ask why, e-mail the writer at david@hillsborofreepress.com.


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