While it’s a common complaint that holiday traditions and stories have become too commercialized, this beloved tale actually began as a commercial gimmick.
Robert May created the concept of a misfit reindeer in 1939 at the behest of his employer, the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago. Ward’s had traditionally given a free coloring book to children at holiday time. That year, store executives decided it would be more cost-effective to create an original children’s book in-house. They didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but had the notion it should be an animal story with a main character like Ferdinand the Bull. They gave Robert May, a 35 year-old Jewish copywriter, the project because he was known for his witty impromptu party limericks. As creative and well-suited to penning this poem as May was, the timing couldn’t have been worse. His young wife was dying of cancer, most of his meager salary was going to her medical treatments, and he had a four year-old daughter, Barbara to raise. Several months into the manuscript, May’s wife died, and his boss offered to take the project off his hands. By then attached to the work-in-progress, May refused to let it go. He continued to work on the story by night, using Barbara as a sounding board.
When he first presented his concept, it fell flat with the corporate executives who pointed out that bulbous red noses were associated with alcoholism. Not willing to relent, May convinced his friend and coworker, illustrator Denver Gillen, to create an adorable, child-friendly character. After a number of research trips to the Lincoln Park Zoo, the story came to life in pictures, and Montgomery Ward gave the project the green light. (Click here to view that original, handwritten, illustrated manuscript.) The first year, more than two million copies Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were handed out and the public fell in love with the story. The verses best come to life when read aloud, as in the video below.
Although the story of Rudolph was “work for hire,” and therefore belonged to Montgomery Ward, the corporation allowed the rights to the intellectual property to revert to Robert May after he fell upon hard financial times. His brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks then wrote new verses for the story, set it to music, persuaded Gene Autry to record it, and it became a hit. The song’s success paved the way for many more commercially successful ventures including the 1964 animated TV special starring Burl Ives.
Robert May eventually remarried a coworker, converted to Catholicism, and had five more children. He left Montgomery Ward because managing Rudolph became a lucrative full-time job. May died in 1976, but his Christmas story lives on. True to the song, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer has, indeed, gone down in history!