For most people, myself included, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is either a ditty we hear playing in the background during the run-up to Christmas, or it is a stop-motion movie that captivated us as children (and continues to entertain our “inner children” to this day). Even though the animated film has its flaws — many are due to the social restrictions of 1964 — it continues to inspire people to think outside their restrictive boxes. Forget about the childhood bullying, the parental shame, the banishment of toys that are called “misfits,” and the story urges people to live up to their abilities, even if they initially cause you embarrassment and discomfort. (Remember, this is a pre-Civil Rights/pre-feminist TV landscape. See this week’s Doll Chronicles at our sister website for DOLLS magazine.)
What’s most fascinating is that Rudolph didn’t spring up in the early 1960s or even the mid 1950s. The famous Gene Autry song was a big hit in 1949, and it was inspired by the original Rudolph story, which burst onto the scene in 1939. Yes, prior to America’s involvement in World War II, there was a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but he was initially native to Chicago!
Did you know (I certainly didn’t for a very long time) that Rudolph was dreamed up as a marketing, cost-saving creation for Montgomery Ward. Every Christmas season, the giant department store/catalog fulfiller would order scads of coloring books and storybooks about the holiday that they would hand out as complimentary gifts. Some enterprising, calculating “bean counter” added up how much this charitable giving cost the company and proposed that they’d be better off making their own book and holding the copyright on their own creation.
Yep, the launching of the reindeer with that extra-glowing, red nose came about because of the most Scrooge-like tendency. The executives wanted to cut corners and save money! Created by Robert L. May as an assignment for Montgomery Ward, the storyline and the character were instant hits! The first year, 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph opus were distributed. People instantly responded to the spunky character that used his difference (his bright red nose) to make a difference (guiding Santa’s sleigh)!
Initially, the executive board of Montgomery Ward had fears that Rudolph would be misinterpreted as drunk or slightly inebriated. The notion of a “red nose” suggested too many trips to the spiked-eggnog bowl. In order to combat that association, the illustrator of Rudolph was urged to make him extra adorable and extra vulnerable. Denver Gillen, the artist who tackled this challenge, combined the faces of deer found at Lincoln Park’s zoo and caricatures of deer on Christmas postcards to come up with the right amount of “cuteness.”
Robert May, who was a “low-paid copywriter” for Montgomery Ward, had no initial inkling of what he had conjured up. Raised Jewish, he did not practice any form of Christianity, and only knew the Christmas holiday as another assignment to push toys, attract customers, and get shoppers into the flagship store or to order from the catalog. He decided to drop in the exclusion angle for Rudolph’s backstory because of his own shy, withdrawn childhood. He had often been chosen last for games and sports, so he used that as a literary ploy. Additionally, his wife, Evelyn, was dying from terminal cancer. Her battle was a noble and slow one, and Robert May witnessed it daily. He vented his sorrow and his hope for a happy ending through the Rudolph tale. He hoped some kind of joy could come from all the sorrow.
In 1948, after the war and on the cusp of huge prosperity in America, the Rudolph story became a published book — one that customers had to pay to own. Reprinted and updated, it continued to strike a chord among holiday celebrants. Then, later that same year, Robert May’s brother-in-law wrote the words and music for a song that chronicled Rudolph’s angst and triumph. The Johnny Marks Christmas melody was at first rejected by many big-name singers: Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, and Rosemary Clooney initially said “no way.” Singing cowboy Gene Autry took a chance on it and ended up making it an enduring holiday classic. It became a multimillion seller, and it continues to appear on Christmas compilation albums to this day. It also is perennially recorded anew by singers as disparate as Jewel and the Jackson 5, Perry Como and Alvin & the Chipmunks.
Rudolph merchandise has never gone out of style. He is as recognizable today as he was nearly 80 years ago. Much of his notoriety is due to the 1964 Rankin-Bass television special, and that TV show has its own cult of dedicated viewers (both champions and detractors). What remains unalterable about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is that he is a necessary part of holiday fanfare. It wouldn’t seem right to turn on the radio or the TV without hearing or seeing his travails acted out.
Even though the television script opened up a lot of concerns as it expanded his storyline, Rudolph’s ultimate triumph can’t help but be applauded. And, years after its initial release, the closing credits of the TV show were updated to show the forgotten and abandoned Misfit Toys (a conceit only found in the teleplay) getting delivered, too. So everyone, at least, has a shot at a happy ending! That’s a triumphant message for this Christmas season.