Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer first appeared in 1939 when the Montgomery Ward department store asked one of its copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to create a Christmas story the store could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick.
The retailer had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year; and it was decided that creating its own book would save money. In the first year of publication, 2.4 million copies of Rudolph's story were distributed by Montgomery Ward.
Robert L. May who was a copywriter for Montgomery Ward in Chicago and was apparently known by his peers to be good at writing limericks and children’s stories. Because of this, he was chosen to write a Christmas story to be used for this promotional coloring book.
May was very small as a child and was often picked on, so decided to make it an Ugly DucklingTwas the Night Before Christmas. While he was writing, he tested various versions of the story out on his four year old daughter, Barbara, until he and she were both happy with the results, at which point he presented it to his boss. May’s boss did not like it at first, due to the fact that he felt a red nose implied the reindeer had been drinking. However, once it was partially illustrated by Denver Gillen, who worked in Montgomery Ward’s art department and was a friend of Mays, his boss decided to approve the story.
In the first year after its creation, around 2.4 million copies of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer were given away. By 1946, over six million copies of the story had been distributed by Montgomery Ward, which was particularly impressive considering it wasn’t printed through most of WWII.
After the war, demand for the story skyrocketed, receiving its biggest boost when May’s brother in law, radio producer Johnny Marks, created a modified musical version of the story. The first version of this song was sung by Harry Brannon in 1948, but was made nationally popular by Gene Autry’s 1949 version, selling 2.5 million copies of that version in 1949 alone and has sold to date around 25 million copies.
Interestingly, despite the fact that May created the story of Rudolf and it was wildly popular, he did not at first receive any royalties from it because he had created it as an assignment for Montgomery Ward; thus, they held the copyright, not him. In a rare move for a business, in 1947, Montgomery Ward decided to give the copyright to May with no strings attached. At the time, May was deeply in debt due to medical bills from his wife’s terminal illness. Once the copyright was his, May quickly was able to pay off his debts and within a few years was able to quit working at Montgomery Ward, though just under a decade later he did go back and work for them again until retiring in 1971.
- It was Johnny Mark’s song version of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer that ended up being the version that has been adapted to TV and is po pularly known today. The TV special has since become the longest running Christmas special in history, having been telecast every year since 1964.
- The primary differences between the original story and the one we know today from the song and TV special are as follows. In the original story:
- Rudolf did not live at the North Pole nor was he descended from one of Santa’s reindeer, but was a regular reindeer living elsewhere in the world.
- Santa knew nothing of Rudolf until the end of the story when one foggy Christmas Eve he was delivering presents to Rudolf’s house and saw the glowing from Rudolf’s window. Due to the thickening fog that night, he decided to ask Rudolf to fly the lead.
- Despite being Jewish, Johnny Marks wrote many other Christmas songs, a few of which, like Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, have popularly survived today. These include: Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree; A Holly Jolly Christmas; and Run Rudolf Run, among others.
- Gene Autry’s 1949 version of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer is the only song in history to hit #1 in the United States and then one week later not appear anywhere on the charts (after Christmas).
- Before settling on “Rudolf”, May considered naming the red-nosed reindeer Rollo and Reginald, but thought the former was too jovial sounding and the l atter sounded too British.
- The voice actors who played Rudolph and Hermey in the stop motion CBS classic version of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer now both live in the same retirement community in Ontario.
- In that original TV version, Rudolf, Hermey, and Yukon Cornelius promise to help the toys on the Island of Misfit Toys. However, in that original version, once Rudolf and company leave the island, they never actually bother to help the toys. This resulted in numerous complaints that Rudolf broke his promise, so a new scene was added to the end where Rudolf leads Santa to the island to collect the toys.
- In Finland’s Santa tradition, they also now include a Rudolf character leading Santa’s sled. However, interestingly, in Finnish tradition, these reindeer do not fly.