This time of year we hear the song “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” a lot. The story behind the song is fascinating.
In 1938 Bob May, a 34-year-old ad writer for Montgomery Ward in Chicago was exhausted and nearly broke. His holiday season held no comfort or joy. His wife bedridden, losing her two-year battle with cancer. His four-year-old daughter Barbara feeling left out, different.
Bob understood. He’d been a small, sickly boy, constantly picked on and called names. He wanted to show Barbara that being different was nothing to be ashamed of and created a bedtime tale about a reindeer with a bright red nose who found a special place on Santa’s team.
Barbara loved the story so much that she made him tell it every night. Because he couldn’t afford to buy her a gift for Christmas, Bob turned the story into a homemade picture book.
Bob’s wife died in early December. A few days before Christmas, he attended a Montgomery Ward company party where co-workers encouraged him to share the story he’d written. There was a standing ovation when he finished. Everyone wanted copies of their own.
Montgomery Ward bought the rights to the book from their debt-ridden employee. Over the next six years, at Christmas, the store gave away six million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to shoppers. Every major publishing house made offers to obtain the book. In an incredible display of goodwill, the department store returned all rights to Bob.
Four years later, Bob May’s bedtime Rudolph story made him a millionaire. He remarried, had a growing family, and felt blessed by his good fortune. But there was more good fortune to come.
Songwriter Johnny Marks married Robert May’s sister. Marks set the uplifting story to music. Several popular recording artists including Bing Crosby all passed. Finally, Marks approached Gene Autry. Like the others, Autry wasn’t impressed with the song about the misfit reindeer. Johnny Marks begged him to give it a second listen.
Autry played it for his wife, Ina. The line “They wouldn’t let poor Rudolph play in any reindeer games” touched her so she insisted her husband record the tune. Within a few years, the song became the second best-selling Christmas song after “White Christmas.”
As the years passed, the story’s popularity never waned. On Dec. 6, 1964, NBC broadcast the first Rudolph TV special and it has been broadcast every year since making it the longest-running Christmas TV special in history.
Rudolph lives through TV specials, cartoons, movies, toys, games, coloring books, plush toys, greeting cards, and even a Ringling Bros. circus act. The story symbolizes Christmas as much as Santa Claus, evergreen trees, and presents.
And, the backstory is wonderful. However, …
a fact check with Snoops says the often-quoted story is only partly true. Bob May authored the story for Montgomery Ward as part of this job as a copywriter in the PR department and “tested” it on his daughter. After Montgomery Ward had given away copies for 6 years, they looked for something new for their Christmas giveaways. That’s when May asked for his rights back and they gave it to him.
The success part of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer,” on the other hand, is completely true.
Enjoy Gene Autry singing his version with a 1953 Ed Sullivan Show audience.