Behind the Song: Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer

Bob May had not lived an easy life.  As a child he was bullied and called names.

Bob May
Bob May

Life seemed to be looking up when he graduated college in 1926, married his sweetheart and secured a job at Montgomery Ward, as a copywriter, during the years of the Great Depression.  Then the couple was blessed with a little girl, Barbara.

Unfortunately, just a few years later his wife, Evelyn, was stricken with cancer.  Her bout with cancer put a financial hardship on the family, stripping them of all of their savings.

Bob wasn’t just financially strapped, but losing the love of his life, sad and terribly depressed.

Bob stared out the window one chilly December night trying to decide how to give hope to his little girl.  Two days before Christmas in 1938, Evelyn lost her battle with cancer.

Bob decided that if he could not afford to buy Barbara a present, he would make her one.  He created a story revolving around animal characters and Santa’s land.

Bob originally tried the names of Rollo, Rodney, Romeo and Reginald out for the lead character before disregarding them.  The main character was named Rudolph.  In many ways Rudolph was biographical of Bob May’s childhood.  Rudolph was also an outcast and his peers made fun of him.  Rudolph was a misfit because of his shiny red nose.

Bob finished the book just in time to give it to his little girl for Christmas Day.

Bob’s general manger at Montgomery Ward caught wind of the story about the little story book.  He offered to print the rights to purchase the book, which was distributed to the little boys and girls that visited Santa Claus in their stores.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

The manager at Montgomery Ward was concerned about the red nose and the association it may have of drinking.  May took a friend to the Lincoln Park Zoo, where he sketched some deer and added a red nose.  These illustrations led his supervisors to approve the story.

Rudolph first appeared to the mass public in 1939.  The story is written in rhyming prose, similar to The Night Before Christmas.

By 1946, the company had printed and distributed more than six million copies of Rudolph.

Later in 1946, a major publisher wanted to publish the book.  Montgomery Ward amazingly returned the rights to Bob May’s.  In addition to printing the books, Bob also made marketing and toy deals for Rudolph.

In 1947, a nine-minute cartoon was shown in theaters of Rudolph.

Bob May’s became wealthy from the story he created.  He was able to live in comfort and support his family.  He eventually married again, to Virginia Newton, and had three more children.  He even quit Montgomery Ward for close to a decade, before returning, to run the Rudolph franchise.

Gene and RudolphIt seems possible that this sweet tale was fictionalized.  The official version says that the story was developed and written at the request of Montgomery Ward, as a marketing ploy. May worked on the story at the same time his wife was succumbing to cancer.   May’s then tried the story out on his daughter to ensure the appeal of the story on children.

Johnny Mark’s, Bob’s brother-in-law, adapted the story into a song.  Most people know the story of Rudolph through the lyrics of this song.

Gene Autry, the original singing cowboy, was approached to sing the song.  He initially turned it down.  However, his wife, Ina, loved the song.  She felt that the “ugly duckling” theme would appeal to many.

In 1949, Autry recorded the song and it became the best seller Columbia Records ever had.  The song about reindeer games also became Autry’s biggest seller.  Autry is also known for his song Here Comes Santa Claus.

The song became the second bestselling Christmas song ever, coming in only behind White Christmas.

From Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Movie
From Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Movie

The live-action television special, narrated by Burl Ives, and a Christmas staple to this day, was first aired in 1964.  A sequel to the film, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, was also made to continue the journey of Santa and his lead reindeer.

Two book sequels, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Shines Again and Rudolph’s Second Christmas (now retitled Rudolph to the Rescue) have also been published. 

May donated the first handwritten draft to Dartmouth College, his alma mater, before his death.

By all accounts from those that have read the May books, the popular song and movie differs considerably from the original plot.

“In May’s story, Rudolph doesn’t live at the North Pole or grow up aspiring to pull Santa’s sleigh – he lives in a reindeer village and Santa discovers him while filling Rudolph’s stocking on a foggy Christmas eve.

“And you,” Santa tells Rudolph, “May yet save the day! Your wonderful forehead may yet pave the way!’”

Robert “Bob” May died in 1976, having seen his creation bring much joy to children of all ages.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a story about overcoming adversity and earning respect from adults.

May’s poem closes with the following line, “But Rudolph was bashful, despite being a hero!”

That sounds a lot like the reports of Bob May!


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