By Jeff Westover
It is a sad story.
As his wife lay terminally ill on the couch next to the family Christmas tree Robert May held his young daughter in his lap as they gazed upon a snowy December scene out the window of their Chicago apartment. Barbara, at four years old, knew all too well that things were not normal for her family.
“Why?” she asked her father, Robert. “Why is my mommy different from all the other mommies?”
For Robert May this heartbreaking question would inspire creation within him. As a copywriter for Montgomery Wards department stores May would use this tender parental moment to create one of the most famous Christmas legends of modern invention .
There on the spot May first told the story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, one of Santa’s chosen reindeer who just happened to be different than all the others. It was a story inspired by May’s own sickly youth. As a boy he could not play in the games other children would play because he was “different”.
We do not know if Rudolph’s story did much to comfort young Barbara. But we do know it paid handsome dividends for Robert May.
The legend-behind-the-legend however just isn’t true. And that comes from Robert May himself.
In a 1975 interview, not long before his passing, May said that Rudolph was born of a work assignment – and not a magical parental teaching moment. He was assigned to create an animal-based Christmas story that Wards could use as a Christmas give away.
Montgomery Wards had been producing coloring books as giveaways at Christmastime for years before May drew the assignment to write a new children’s story. May, who did suffer from bullying as a child, coupled his own experiences with a nod towards The Ugly Duckling in developing his Christmas storyline.
He struggled with naming the lead character. His first choice was “Rollo” which seemed almost too happy for a maligned character. He considered “Reginald” but decided against that because the name was too British. He finally settled on “Rudolph” whose problem stemmed from a physical abnormality that nearly nixed the whole project – a red nose.
When May’s boss read the story he was concerned. Rudolph’s red nose was a problem and feared people would associate the lead character in a children’s book with drunkenness.
May, who felt the project slipping past him, took a staff artist to a local zoo and had him create Rudolph – red nose and all – based on the animals seen there. It saved the story.
Wards printed May’s story for Christmas 1939 and distributed millions of copies as demand for the story was unending. In fact, by 1946 and despite paper shortages brought on by World War II the story of Rudolph was distributed to more than 6 million people making it more popular than any best seller of the time.
As the war came to a close and the industry of Christmas started to prosper (this was the era of White Christmas and other classic Christmas creations), May approached the company about acquiring the rights to Rudolph. He may have created the story but Wards owned it. So successful had the campaign been for Wards that May was granted the rights to Rudolph and it set him up for life.
May produced a commercial edition of Rudolph in 1947 and a 9-minute cartoon the same year.
But it was not until May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the verse and the song we all know and love based on May’s story and had Gene Autry record it in 1949 that really turned Rudolph into a Christmas superstar. The song sold millions of copies in 1949 and for each successive Christmas thereafter was second only to White Christmas in popularity.
In 1964, with the song still going strong, the story of Rudolph was adapted yet again into a television special narrated by Burl Ives and produced by Rankin and Bass. That iconic production, like the song and the book before it, ran each holiday season to popular acclaim. Long before video tapes and DVDs Rudolph had become a central part of the American Christmas story.
Robert May probably did not envision such success. His story of Rudolph, after all, is far less complex than the version most know now.
May’s Rudolph did not live at the North Pole, was not the offspring of one of Santa’s reindeer and he did not train, as the television special teaches us, to fly Santa’s sleigh. May’s Rudolph was born of loving parents in a normal home located in a remote village far from Santa. Rudolph was well adjusted and despite his red nose – which is never fully explained by May – and was only discovered by Santa Claus who was delivering presents to Rudolph’s home on a foggy Christmas night.
May’s story was added upon first by Marks, who wrote the famous verse memorized by children ever since. That story was further embellished and characters added – such as Yukon Cornelius and Hermey the Elf Dentist – with the 1964 Rankin/Bass production.
In fact, Rudolph’s story has changed almost as much as May’s has. The sad tale of May first telling his grief stricken daughter the story of Rudolph was a fabrication of another Wards copywriter in the year 2000.
With the company on the verge of bankruptcy, Wards tried to capitalize one last time on the story of Rudolph by publishing May’s inspiration for the story of Rudolph. They concocted the entire tale and published it.
Unbeknownst to them May himself debunked that version of the creation of Rudolph some 25 years previously when he told the story of Rudolph’s creation himself. Barbara, it turns out, was indeed told the story of Rudolph before it ever went public.
But May didn’t do it to comfort the child. He told her the story to test it out – to see if a child would respond to the story favorably. She was, in essence, a focus group of one.
Fortunately for us, young Barbara May did enjoy the story – and Rudolph did indeed go down in history.