|Hermey the would-be dentist elf and Rudolph from the Rankin/Bass TV special.|
You may have noticed more than usual seasonal hoopla surrounding a certain adolescent hero who with astonishing speed catapulted himself into the forefront of the modern American Santa Claus narrative. Stores are once again filled with merchandise—not that it ever really went away—and copies of the DVD of the Rankin/Bass stop action animation TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on sale first exclusively at Wal-Mart and subsequently everywhere. The occasion for the revived attention is the 50th anniversary of the show’s first airing on NBC as a GE Fantasy Hour special. Versions of the show have been aired annually ever since making it the longest running Christmas TV special in history.
The connection to Wal-Mart really hurts. The last time the story of the plucky reindeer celebrated a major anniversary it was 2009 and Montgomery Ward stores made him the center of their holiday season in honor of the daring deer’s first appearance as give-away story book promotion in 1939. Two years later the iconic department store chain and catalog merchandiser went bankrupt and vanished from the scene.
That’s right. Rudolph first saw light as commercial come-on. One that proved so wildly popular that he took on a life of his own.
Robert L. May was the son of wealthy secular Jewish family from New Rochelle, New York. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1926. But his family and his personal wealth were wiped out in the Depression. In 1939 he was toiling as a low-paid in-house advertising copywriter at Montgomery Ward headquarters in Chicago. The stores had been buying and giving away coloring books as give away promotions every year at Christmas. But that year someone figured the company could save money if they produced their own in house. May was handed the assignment.
|The original Montgomery Ward booklet.|
When May decided to do a narrative poem based on an outcast reindeer based on his own childhood as an awkward misfit the project took on a special significance for him. His wife was dying on cancer. He read his early drafts to her and his four year old daughter Barbara. Evelyn May died in July as he was still at work on the project. He was so grief stricken that his bosses offered to let him give up the project. May refused, determined to complete it. In August he read the final version to Barbara and his wife’s parents.
Store officials were at first taken aback by the product. They had expected a simple, cheery book featuring some sort of cute animal. What they got was a little morality tale in verse, in in anapestic tetrameter in case you are interested. But it was too late to get anything else so they sent it to the art department for illustration and ordered copies of a thin magazine-like booklet in a bright red cover.
It turned out they didn’t order enough. From the moment the book hit he stores it was a huge success. Printing presses had to run day and night to keep up with demand. In that first year 2.4 million copies were distributed. Shoppers who had never set foot in a Wards store were attracted by word of mouth. They stayed. They bought. The chain had its best holiday sales in years. The booklet was re-issued for the next two years and the appeal hardly diminished.
War time paper rationing suspended distribution for the duration. But in 1946 pent-up demand was so great that 3.6 million copies were distributed. Children all over the country were interrupting readings by their parents of The Night Before Christmas to demand to know where Rudolph was.
Such success was bound to draw other commercial offers. But May was unable to do anything because Montgomery Ward owned the copyright. In 1947 Ward’s boss—the notoriously flinty Sewell Avery most famous for being physically carried out of his office by National Guard troops during World War II for defying the National War Labor Board’s to recognize a union for his employees—uncharacteristically gave May ownership of the copyright to the poem and character free and clear.
A spoken word recording of the poem was made in 1947 and became a hit. Several big name commercial publishing houses had passed on a hardcover edition of the book believing that all of the free copies had saturated the market. Maxton Publishers, a small New York publishing company, took a chance and put out an updated print edition in time for Christmas that year. It became the bestselling children’s book of the year and would remain in print for decades.
In 1948 animation pioneer Max Fleischer made a theatrical cartoon short of the poem, one of his last original productions. Despite being made by a minor studio without a good production deal, exhibitor demand brought it to screens across the country. It would subsequently be shown on television.
May was always convinced his hero needed a theme song. He turned to his brother-in-law, pop composer Johnny Marks then best known for the song Happy New Year Darling co-written with Guy Lombardo’s brother Carmine and a handful of novelty numbers. Marks did not just set the original poem to music—it was too long and complicated. Instead he pared down and re-told the story in the 3 minute format of the popular song and set it to a bouncy, catchy tune easy for a child to remember and sing along with.
|The sleeve for the 78rpm record by Gene Autry.|
Despite the commercial success of the other Rudolph ventures May and Marks had a hard time peddling the tune. They first took it to Bing Crosby, the reigning king of holiday music but Der Bingle was not interested in a kiddy ditty. A disappointing parade of other big names also rejected it. Finally, Gene Autry agreed to do it.
Autry was then at a low point in his career. After the death of his idol Jimmy Rodgers he had become the biggest hillbilly/country singer in the U.S. during the early 30’s and then established himself as the greatest of the movie singing cowboys. His records sold millions and he had success on radio. But after he returned from World War II service as a pilot in the Army Air Force flying cargo Over the Hump in the China/Burma Theater, he found himself eclipsed at Republic Pictures by the younger and handsomer Roy Rogers, the new King of the Cowboys. His record sales were also off although his radio show Melody Ranch was still popular.
The song was successful beyond anyone’s imagination on its release just before Christmas, 1949. I soared to No. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart the week of Christmas and sold 2.5 million copies the first year, eventually selling a total of 25 million copies. It was the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s and still just trail’s Crosby’s White Christmas in all time sales of holiday records. Crosby himself saw the light and recorded it in 1950 and scored a hit with it. Many artists have followed. But the version you are likely to hear on your car radio or piped into crowded shopping malls is likely to feature Autry’s familiar twang.
The song did boost Autry’s career. He followed up with a string of Christmas, holiday, and children’s records that were snapped up by a new young audience including Frosty the Snowman, Here Comes Santa Claus—his own composition—,Teddy Bears’ Picnic, and Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail.
It was a life changer for Marks as well who founded St. Nicholas Music, a publisher, in 1949 and dedicated the rest of his career to composing Christmas music. His contributions include haltingly beautiful, heartbreaking setting for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, and rock and roll seasonal standards Run Run Rudolph for Chuck Berry and Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. He was commissioned by Rankin/Bass to compose and arrange the songs for the 1964 TV special. That one show produced three more modern Christmas classics—A Holly Jolly Christmas and Silver and Gold, both popularized by Burl Ives who played the snowman/narrator of the show, and The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, a huge hit for Andy Williams. May also composed music for other holiday specials. He joins the likes of Irving Berlin, Mel Torme, and Sammy Cahn as a Jewish writer of classic Christmas popular songs.
Rudolph has had many incarnations. Many baby boomers will fondly recall the 1956 Little Golden Book. A lot of folks think it was May’s original book, but it was a re-telling by Barbara Shook Hazen and illustrated by Richard Scarry which closely followed the version in Max Fleischer’s cartoon. DC Comics also issued Rudolph comic books every December from 1952 to 1962 with new stories every year.
There was a sequel to the ’56 animated special, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, and other spin-offs. In 1998 Good Times Entertainment released an entirely new treatment of the story in the animated film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie with an all star vocal cast. But the film veered to far from either the original or the Rankin/Bass version that generations had grown up to believe was canonical that it failed miserably in theatrical release. It recouped in home video sales however, and was followed up by a GSI computer animated film that licensed the Rankin/Bass characters.
Cultural references in other books, movies, and songs are too numerous to mention.
After all these years, everybody still loves the little reindeer with the glowing proboscis.