Saturday, December 14, 2013

The History of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

From the Gettysburg Times, on 22 December 1975, in an article entitled, "Robert May Tells How Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, Came Into Being, by Robert May.  Robert May, of Evanston, Illinois asserts in his byline that, "Rudolph and I Were Something Alike." May describes how how he created the beloved Christmas icon Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, while working as a copywriter at the now defunct Montgomery Wards Department Stores (1872-2000) --  An icy January blast tore at my coast as I hurried on my way to work. I noticed that the Christmas street decorations had been taken down, and in a way I was relieved. My wife was suffering from a long illness and I didn’t feel very festive.

I was glad to get inside the foyer of the Montgomery Ward building. In the elevator I leaned back and listened to the younger men eagerly discuss their work.

“And how are you starting the new year?” I glumly asked myself. Here I was, heavily in debt at age 35, still grinding out catalogue copy. Instead of writing the great American novel, as I’d once hoped, I was describing men’s white shirt. It seemed I’d always been a loser.

In the copy department a secretary called. “Bob, the boss wants to see you.”

What now? I wondered.


Our department head stood at the window in his office. “Bob,” he barked, “I’ve got an idea. For years our stores have been buying those little Christmas giveaway coloring books from local peddlers. I think we can save a lot of money if we create one ourselves. Could you come up with a better booklet we could use?”

I started to answer but he kept right on talking. “I think it should be an animal story, with a main character like Ferdinand the Bill.”

Finally I said I’d try.

That night, I wondered about what kind of animal it should be. Christmas. Santa. Reindeer? Of course; it must be a reindeer – Barbara, my four-year-old daughter, loved the deer down at the zoo.


But what could a little reindeer teach children?

Suppose he were an underdog – a loser, yet triumphant in the end. But what kind of underdog?

Certainly a reindeer’s dream would be to pull Santa’s sleigh.

Outside, the fog swirled in from Lake Michigan, dimming the street lights. Light. Something to help Santa find his way on a night like this.

Suddenly I had it! A nose! A bright red nose that would shine through fog like a floodlight.


Rudolph the Red Nosed ReindeerThe next morning I enthusiastically presented my idea to the boss. “For gosh sakes, Bob, can’t you do better than that?”

I retreated to my desk and sat staring at the wall. I had faith in the reindeer I had by now named Rudolph. But how could I convince the boss? I prayed for inspiration.

An idea struck me. A bold, audacious idea. I walked over to the art department, where my friend Denver Gillen worked. “Denver, could you draw a deer with a big red nose and make him look appealing?”

He looked at me quizzically and I explained my idea. The following Saturday morning, Barbara, Denver and I met at the deer corral at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. As he sketched, I held Barbara up so she could better see those gentle creatures.


By afternoon we felt we had something.

On Monday morning we brought the sketches into the boss’s office. He studied them for a long time. “Bob,” he said softly, “forget what I said and put the story into finished form.”

I started writing:

“Twas the day before Christmas and all through the hills – The reindeer were playing . . . enjoying the spills . . .”

Spring slipped into summer. My wife’s parents came to stay with us to help. Suddenly her condition grew worse. Then in July she was gone.

At the office the boss put his hand on my shoulder. “Bob,” he said, his voice unusually gentle. “I can understand your not wanting to go on with the kids’ book. Give me what you’ve got and I’ll let someone else finish it.”

Bob May - author of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

But I needed Rudolph now more than ever. Gratefully I buried myself in the writing. Finally, in late August, it was done. I called Barbara and her grandparents into the living room and read it to them.

In their eyes I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped.

Today children all over the world read and hear about the little deer who started out in life as a loser, just as I did. But they learn that when he gave himself for others, his handicap became the very means through which he received happiness.

My reward is knowing that every year, when Christmas rolls around, Rudolph still brings that message to millions, both young and old.  (source: Gettysburg Times, 22 December 1975)

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