Friday, December 19, 2014

Happy Birthday to Rudolph - the Red Nosed Reindeer was Born 75 Years Ago

Most people young and old will be familiar with the story of a down on his luck outcast named Rudolph who wasn't allowed to play with the others in the North Pole's reindeer games or join the crew of Santa's sleigh until one foggy night where his shiny nose went from being considered a detriment to an asset that saved Christmas.  The story of this beloved reindeer is mostly associated with the hit song sung by Gene Autry in 1949 or the 1964 stop-motion animation TV special which have both become iconic pop culture staples associated with celebrating Christmas.  Rudolph though has more humble origins as he was born this Christmas season as a coloring book to promote holiday shopping at Montgomery Ward department stores 75 years ago.

For years Montgomery Ward had been giving out free coloring books to entice shoppers into their stores.  The department store decided to create its own coloring book hoping that would be a cheaper alternative to produce and distribute than buying the product from a vendor.  So in 1939, Montgomery Ward hired a copywriter named Robert May to create a Christmas themed coloring book for them.  Inspired by his own lonely awkward childhood, May created the story of Reginald the Reindeer who overcame prejudice and life obstacles to become a hero.  That cord struck with Depression Era audiences and his story was approved for use in Montgomery Ward's coloring book with one change, Reginald became Rudolph.  The department store distributed 2.5 million Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer coloring books and a cultural icon was born.  Today if you asked children what Montgomery Ward's is they probably couldn't tell you (the retailer which in the early to mid-20th Century was one of the most dominant department stores and mail order providers in the United States went out of business in 2001) but you know they will know who Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is.

CLICK HERE to read Robert May's original manuscript for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

On a sad note, May's wife died while he was working on the coloring book project.  He became buried in debt from his wife's medical bills and struggled as a single father.  After World War II, Montgomery Ward's CEO as a charitable gesture provided Robert May with the rights to the Rudolph story.  In 1944, Rudolph also made his first on screen debut with a theatrical cartoon film produced by Max Fleischer that further increased Rudolph's popularity and opened up opportunities with book publishers for May. The Rudolph story was then published as a real book for the first time by Maxton Books and was followed up with a sequel in 1954 titled Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Shines Again. In 1958, Golden Books published an illustrated storybook written by Barbara Shook Hazen and illustrated by Richard Scarry that was an adaptation of Fleischer's cartoon short.

Rudolph really took off when May's brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote the song Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that was sung by Gene Autry and became a huge hit and sold 2 million records the year it was released!  It was the Gene Autry song actually was the inspiration for the 1964 television special that so many people love which takes some liberties with May's original story.  Reportedly the Marks and Mays families became estranged and fought over the rights to the Rudolph brand and its royalties.  After both  Johnny Marks and Robert Mays passed away the families agreed to come together and their heirs have agreed to share equally the ownership of anything related to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer between the families.

Here are a few other Rudolph tidbits that I found interesting:
  • DC Comics published a series of annual comics titled Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer from 1950 to 1962.
  • In 1998, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer: The Movie was released as an animated feature film in theaters and later made available for home video featuring the voices of John Goodman, Bob Newhart and Whoopi Goldberg.  A sequel was produced in 2001 titled Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys that includes characters licensed from the 1964 television special and the voices of Jamie Lee Curtis, Richard Dreyfus and Rick Moranis.
  • Robert May wrote a sequel book titled Rudolph's Second Christmas in 1947 that wasn't published until 1991 by Applewood Books.
  • The original Rudolph story was written as a poem in the meter of Twas the Night Before Christmas.
  • A live action version of Rudolph (yes including a red nose) is reported to be appearing in this year's DR WHO CHRISTMAS SPECIAL that BBC is airing on December 25, 2014.
Happy Birthday Rudolph! Wishing you many more!

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