“The Chicago Roots of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” by S.M. O’Connor

      These days, most people know Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from the Christmas special that’s appeared on television every year since 1964.  Before that, though, he was the subject of the second-biggest hit song in the history of record sales, and before that he was the hero of a children’s book that millions of children received for free because their parents were customers of the mail-order retailer and department store chain Montgomery Ward & Company in Chicago.  In 1939, Robert Lewis May (1905-1976), an in-house catalogue copywriter, created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for Montgomery Ward, which eventually gave away at least 6,000,000 copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the 1930s and ‘40s.  He wanted to write a story about a helper for Santa Claus that families would read and re-read over the years.[1]  Surely, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  According to Charles Panati, author of Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, sociologists called Rudolph the only new addition to the folklore of Santa Claus in the twentieth century.”[2]

May was a 1926 graduate of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.[3]  Despite having the privilege of having been educated at an Ivy League research university, he viewed himself as an outsider. As near as I can make out, his family had been affluent, but his parents lost everything in the Second Great Depression (1929-1941).

“May had always felt that he was a bit of a misfit himself.  He was small and weak, was never picked first for sports teams as a child and never excelled socially, even as an adult.  While his Dartmouth classmates went off to take high-powered jobs, he labored away as a lowly copywriter.  May said that he modeled Rudolph on how he felt about his own life.”

Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College[4]

Further, it was a very trying time for May when he sat down to write the children’s book because his (first) wife was dying of cancer and would pass away before he was finished.  He would later recall that in January (of 1939) he was thirty-five years old, deeply in debt, and disappointed to still be writing copy at a time when he aspired (like so many writers before and since then) to write “the great American novel” when his department head summoned him and related a plan to save money for the company by publishing their own coloring book to give away at Christmas instead of purchasing coloring books to give away.[5]  The (unnamed) boss told him the protagonist should be a male animal “like Ferdinand the Bull.”[6]  [Munro Leaf (1905-1976) wrote the children’s book The Story of Ferdinand and Robert Lawson (1892-1957) illustrated it.  Viking Press published it in 1936.  Walt Disney Productions adapted it as the animated short film Ferdinand the Bull (1938), which RKO released.  It won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons).  20th Century Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios adapted The Story of Ferdinand as the 3D computer-animated full-length feature film Ferdinand (2017).] May pondered what kind of animal should be the hero of this proposed coloring book when his thoughts turned to Santa Claus, reindeer, and his then four-year-old daughter Barbara’s love of the deer at Lincoln Park Zoo.[7]  What moral lesson could a reindeer teach children?[8]  At the time, he felt he was a loser, and the story of an underdog who triumphs in the end occurred to him.[9]  Naturally, a reindeer would aspire to lead Santa’s team.[10]  With fog drifting in off Lake Michigan the idea struck him that this heroic reindeer would lead Santa out of a fog bank.[11]  The next day, he pitched the idea to his boss and asked his friend Denver Gillen in the art department if he could draw a reindeer with a bright red nose that looked appealing.[12]  The next Saturday, he took Barbara and met Denver at the deer coral at Lincoln Park Zoo, where Denver made some sketches.[13]  They presented the sketches the following Monday to the boss and he told May to write the story.[14]  Spring gave way to summer and May’s parents-in-law moved in with his family as his wife’s condition worsened.[15]  In July, they lost her.[16]  His boss told him he did not have to continue with the project, but though May was grateful for the gesture he needed somewhere to direct his energy and in late August he read the finished story to Barbara and his parents-in-law.[17]  “In their eyes, I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped.”[18]

May liked the alliteration of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.[19] Other names he considered included Reginald, Rodney, Roland, Rollo, and Romeo.[20]  The Rauner Special Collections Library has a hand-written list with the names Rudolph and Reginald encircled.[21]  Wee Barbara liked the name Rudolph, while Montgomery Ward executives rejected Rollo and Reginald.[22] 

To hear Barbara May Lewis, who describes herself as “Rudolph’s big sister,” talk about the book for N.P.R.’s Morning Edition news program, click here. May’s original handwritten manuscript, illustrated by Denver L. Gillen, is in the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College.[23]

      Montgomery Ward began to distribute Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on November 1, 1939 and soon distributed 2,400,000 copies.[24]  Publication of the book ceased during the Second Great World War, but resumed in 1946 and Montgomery Ward subsequently distributed another 3,600,000 copies.[25]  May had re-married by this time, but he continued to carry debt from his first wife’s hospitalization.[26]  A vice president at Montgomery Ward who was aware of his burden urged the Board of Directors to assign the copyright to May, which they did officially on January 1, 1947.[27]  In 1946, Sewell Avery (1874-1960), the President of Montgomery Ward [and had been founding President of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Science and Industry] gave May ownership of the character so he could make money from a spoken-word record album of the poem.[28]

      In 1947, Montgomery Ward discontinued the practice of giving away booklets at Christmas.[29]  May had Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer published and it sold 100,000 copies,[30] which is especially impressive when you consider millions of children had recently gotten copies for free.

       Johnny Marks (1909-1985), the brother-in-law of May (not his friend, as Charles Panati wrote in Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things), turned the poem into a song.[31]  Before he wrote the song we know, he wrote one even he considered to be terrible. 

      “I thought about it for a while and sat down to write a song about it,” as Marks later recalled. “That song was easily one of the worst songs ever written.  Then about a year later I was walking down the street when a new melody came to me.  It’s the only time that ever happened, and I have to admit, it’s a great melody.”[32]

      Subsequently, he submitted it to Perry Como (1912-2001), who recorded songs for RCA Victor for forty-four years, but he rejected it if he could not change the lyrics.[33] The rodeo star performer, country-western music singer, songwriter, radio show host, movie star (and later television star) Gene Autry (1907-1998), known as “The Singing Cowboy,” sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Columbia Records released the single, and it sold 25,000,000 copies.  This was a matter of Autry cementing his reputation as the “Christmas Cowboy” with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” because he had already had a hit in 1947 and ’48 with “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane).”[34]  He would have turned it down, too, though, Autry recounted if his (first) wife, Ina, had not heard the demo acetate Marks had submitted and been “enchanted” by the Ugly Duckling-like story.[35]  “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” was to be his biggest hit song.  In fact, it was second only to another secular Christmas song for the number of records sold: Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”[36]  By the time Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things was published in 1987, the song had been recorded 300 times, and over 80,000,000 records had been sold.[37]  Around twenty years later, by the time Holly George-Warren wrote Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, published in 2007, the song had been recorded by over 500 singers.[38]  Marks also went on to write “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which was a hit for Brenda Lee in 1958 and “Run Rudolph Run,” which was hit for Chuck Berry (1926-2017) in 1958. 

The Rudolph TV Special

      Through their production company – then known as Videocraft International, Inc. and later as Rankin/Bass – Arthur Rankin, Junior (1924-2014) and Jules Bass produced the stop-motion television special the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which aired for the first time on N.B.C. on December 6, 1964.  General Electric sponsored that first broadcast under the title “General Electric Presents Another Full-Color Fantasy Hour: The Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  Romeo Muller, Junior (1928-1992) wrote the screenplay. 

      Either N.B.C. or C.B.S. has aired the special every subsequent Christmas.  Since 1972, it has aired on C.B.S.  It can also be seen now online via the Freeform streaming video service.  The United States Postal Service issued a fiftieth anniversary Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stamp on November 6, 2014.  The unveiling ceremony took place at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum.

      The singer and actor Burl Ives (1905-1995) provided the voice of the narrator Sam the Snowman.  Ives sings three songs written by Johnny Marks in the special: “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Silver and Gold,” and, of course, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  Decca Records released the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer soundtrack in 1964.  A year later, Decca released a different version of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” sung by Ives as a single.

      Canadian actress Billie Mae Richards (1921-2010) provided the voice of Rudolph.  Canadian actor Larry Mann (1922-2014) provided the voice of Yukon Cornelius.  Canadian actor Paul Soles provided the voice of Rudolph’s sidekick, Hermey the elf who aspires to be a dentist.  Canadian actor Stan Francis (1906-1966) provided the voices of both Santa Claus and King Moonracer the winged lion who brings unloved toys to the Island of Misfit Toys, where Rudolph and Hermey find shelter.  [In the real world, a winged lion is the symbol of Saint Mark the Evangelist and as he is the patron saint of Venice, it became the emblem of the Most Serene Republic of Venice as the Standard of Saint Mark.]  Canadian actress Janice Orenstein (1948-2010) provided the voice of Clarice, Rudolph’s love interest.  Romanian-Canadian actor Paul Kligman provided the voice of Rudolph’s father, Donner; as well as Comet, the coach for the Reindeer Games; and Clarice’s father.  Canadian actor and radio show host Carl Banas provided the voice of the Head Elf.  Anglo-Canadian actor Alfie Scopp provided the voice of the Charlie-in-the Box, the sentry on the Island of Misfit Toys.  Canadian writer and actress Peg Dixon provided the voice of Mrs. Claus. 

      There have been three sequels and a feature-length reboot.  Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976) is a stop-motion animated special made for A.B.C.  Rankin/Bass produced Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979) as a feature-length stop-motion animated special that A.B.C. could show at both Independence Day and Christmas.  GoodTimes Entertainment produced Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Toys (2001).  This is a C.G.I. (computer-generated imagery) animated direct-to-D.V.D. film, but done in the style of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated specials.  It is in the same continuity as those specials, unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998), which is a traditionally animated film also made by GoodTime Entertainment.  Unlike the other animated films, this was one had a theatrical release, but it was only a limited release and did not do well at the box office before it was released on home video.  Nevertheless, there were four tie-in books.

The Legacy

      For years, May supported himself and his growing family, with his second wife, Virginia, on revenue from Rudolph.[39]  In 1951, he left Montgomery Ward and devoted the next seven years to managing Rudolph full-time.[40]   Later, he would return to Montgomery Ward and remained there until he was ready to retire in 1970.[41]  He wrote three sequels: Rudolph to the Rescue, published in 1951; Rudolph Rides Again, published in 1954; and Rudolph’s Second Christmas, published in 1970.  Little Golden Books, in 1958, published an adaptation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with text by Barbara Shook Hazen and illustrations by prolific and beloved children’s book author and illustrator Richard Scarry (1919-1994).  This is the version most people have in their homes today.

      In addition to the books, song, and the television special, May licensed hundreds of products, including “toys, pens, mugs, music boxes, pajamas, and dishware,” the Rauner Special Collection Library explained.[42]  He displayed Rudolph memorabilia in the finished basement of his home in north suburban Evanston, Illinois.[43]  His wife wore a silver Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer-themed charm bracelet.[44]   Around Christmas would display a life-sized statue of Rudolph on his front lawn. [45]   Hundreds of children would gather around it to have their pictures taken. [46] 

      Upon his death, in 1976, all of his Rudolph-related papers and memorabilia went to the Rauner Special Collections Library.[47]   He had outlived Virginia and was survived by his third wife, Claire, five daughters, and a son.[48]  In 1989, Dartmouth archivist Kenneth Cramer organized an exhibit on the fiftieth anniversary of Montgomery Ward’s publication of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.[49] According to an article Eileen Ogintz wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1990, May’s descendants held the copyright for any deer with a red nose.[50]

Prompted by a question from his own four-year-old daughter, Nathaniel J. Dominy, Charles Hansen Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth, wrote a paper about Rudolph published online in 2015, “Reindeer Vision Explains the Benefits of a Glowing Nose.”  Hansen explained to young readers, “New findings about the color vision of reindeer could hold important clues about the value of a luminescent nose.  For example, it was discovered recently that Arctic reindeer (scientific name Rangifer tarandus tarandus) can see ultraviolet (UV) light, which is invisible to humans and most other mammals that are primarily active in the daytime.  The benefits of UV vision are unknown, but the ability to see UV light could help reindeer to see important things, such as predators and food.  For example, the white fur of wolves and some important plant foods, such as lichens, absorb UV light, making the lichens look dark, and easier to see in snow, because snow reflects UV light and looks bright.”  

“Overall,” he concluded, “the advantages of a red luminescent nose appear to be greater than the disadvantages, which raises questions about how often red luminescent noses occur in reindeer.  Currently, we know of only one luminescent nose in the reindeer population, but its advantages suggest that it could be passed on to future generations of reindeer.”


[1] Charles Panati, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer: 1939, Chicago,” in Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers (1987), p. 75

[2] Panati, p. 75

[3] Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, “Rudolph in Rauner,” Friday, December 18, 2009

(https://raunerlibrary.blogspot.com/2009/12/rudolph-in-rauner.html) Accessed 12/19/19

[4] Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, “Rudolph in Rauner,” Friday, December 18, 2009

[5] Robert L. May, “Rudolph Created During Time of Personal Sadness,” Bedford Gazette, 13 December, 1975, p. 3

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

See also Panati, p. 75

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Panati, p. 75

[20] Panati, p. 75

See also Jessica Pupovac, “Writing ‘Rudolph’: The Original red-Nosed Manucsript,” Morning Edition, N.P.R. 25 December, 2013 (https://www.npr.org/2013/12/25/256579598/writing-rudolph-the-original-red-nosed-manuscript?utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=20131229&utm_source=mostemailed?utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=20131229&utm_source=mostemailed) Accessed 12/19/19

[21] Jessica Pupovac, “Writing ‘Rudolph’: The Original red-Nosed Manucsript,” Morning Edition, N.P.R. 25 December, 2013

[22] Panati, p. 75

[23] Jessica Pupovac, “Writing ‘Rudolph’: The Original red-Nosed Manucsript,” Morning Edition, N.P.R. 25 December, 2013

[24] Panati, p. 75

See also Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, “Rudolph in Rauner,” Friday, December 18, 2009

[25] Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, “Rudolph in Rauner,” Friday, December 18, 2009

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Jessica Pupovac, “Writing ‘Rudolph’: The Original red-Nosed Manucsript,” Morning Edition, N.P.R., 25 December, 2013

[29] Holly George Warren, Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry. Oxford University Press (2007), p. 250

[30] George-Warren, p. 250

[31] George-Warren, p. 250

See also Eileen Ogintz, “Afterglow,” Chicago Tribune, 13 December, 1990 (https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1990-12-13-9004130503-story.html) Accessed 12/20/19

See also Panati, p. 75

Marks was not simply May’s friend.  He was married to May’s sister.  Panati was likely misled by a primary source, though, because the Daily Herald‘s May obituary, for example, described Marks as May’s friend.

[32] George-Warren, p. 250

[33] George-Warren, p. 250

[34] George-Warren, pages 249 and 250

[35] George-Warren, p. 250

[36] Panati, p. 75

By 2012, the Guinness Book of World Records listed the number of sales of “White Christmas,” written by music composer and lyricist Irving Berlin (1888-1989) and sung by actor, comedian, and singer Bing Crosby (1903-1977) at 50,000,000.

[37] Panati, p. 75

[38] George-Warren, p. 250

[39] William Bentley, “Rudoplh the red nosed Reindeer: Surprised Chicagoan Sees His Christmas Poem Become a Legend – And a Gold Mine,” Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine, 17 December, 1950, p. 1

[40] Eileen Ogintz, “Afterglow,” Chicago Tribune, 13 December, 1990

[41] “Red-nosed reindeer creator May dies,” Daily Herald, 12 August, 1976

See also Eileen Ogintz, “Afterglow,” Chicago Tribune, 13 December, 1990

[42] Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, “Rudolph in Rauner,” Friday, December 18, 2009

[43] Eileen Ogintz, “Afterglow,” Chicago Tribune, 13 December, 1990

[44] Eileen Ogintz, “Afterglow,” Chicago Tribune, 13 December, 1990

[45] Eileen Ogintz, “Afterglow,” Chicago Tribune, 13 December, 1990

[46] Eileen Ogintz, “Afterglow,” Chicago Tribune, 13 December, 1990

[47] Eileen Ogintz, “Afterglow,” Chicago Tribune, 13 December, 1990

[48] “Red-nosed reindeer creator May dies,” Daily Herald, 12 August, 1976

[49] Eileen Ogintz, “Afterglow,” Chicago Tribune, 13 December, 1990

[50] Eileen Ogintz, “Afterglow,” Chicago Tribune, 13 December, 1990

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