Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Advertising Gimmick or Icon

(Frank) (Deb) Well, we’ve got the perfect story for Frank, because this is about a fellow advertising genius, another advertising genius besides Frank. I tell you we all have our favorites and Rudolph is mine. I know it’s Christmas when Rudolph comes on TV. This is about this advertising connection to Rudolph. I’m sure before you researched the story; you were familiar with the elements of the story. (Frank) Yes. I’m not going to get ahead of the story but Montgomery Ward way back when we’re going to reward way back when. (Deb) You know the catalog… (Frank) They wanted an unusual advertising gimmick for Christmas. They gave it to the person who eventually wrote Rudolph, The Red Nose Reindeer. (Deb) I remember hearing and I don’t think that this is in the story and I think that this is true. Oh, Google that stuff, you know, when Gene Autry recorded Rudolph, The Red Nose Reindeer the song, his record company, well, a lot of record companies didn’t want to cut it. (Frank) He didn’t want to do it either. (Deb) He didn’t want to do it but his wife liked it. You keep mama happy. To keep his wife happy he actually recorded the song. Of course it became one of the best selling Christmas songs of all time. (Frank) Well, next to White Christmas. (Deb) Written by Irving Berlin who was Jewish. [Laughs] You know White Christmas when he wrote that song, he thought of it as a gift to America just to- (Frank) And Bing Crosby didn’t want to do it either. [Laughs] Then it became his biggest hit. Anyway, let’s see about Rudolph, The Red Nose Reindeer. For the real story behind Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, we turn to Fact Checker Snopes.com: Rudolph came to life in 1939 when the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward Company asked copywriter Robert L. May, who had a penchant for children’s stories and limericks, to come up with a Christmas story they could give away in booklet form. Drawing in part on the tale of The Ugly Duckling and his own background, he was often taunted as a child for being shy, small, and slight, May settled on the idea of an underdog ostracized by the reindeer community because of his physical abnormality: a glowing red nose. He wrote Rudolph’s story in verse as a series of rhyming couplets, testing it out on his 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, who was thrilled with Rudolph’s story. However, May’s boss was worried that a story featuring a red nose — an image associated with drinking and drunkards — was unsuitable for a Christmas tale. May responded by taking a friend from the company’s art department to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch some deer. The illustrations of a red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesitancy of May’s superiors, and the Rudolph story was approved. Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in 1939 and millions more throughout the war, despite paper shortages. Since Rudolph had been a “work for hire project,” May received no royalties for his creation. Deeply in debt from the medical bills resulting from his wife’s terminal illness, she died about the time May created Rudolph, May persuaded the company’s president to turn the copyright over to him in January 1947, and May’s financial security was assured. The Rudolph phenomenon really took off when May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for a Rudolph song. Marks’ musical version was recorded by cowboy crooner Gene Autry in 1949, sold two million copies that year, and went on to become one of the best-selling songs of all time, second only to “White Christmas”. A stop-action television special about Rudolph narrated by Burl Ives was first aired in 1964 and remains a popular perennial holiday favorite in the U.S. May died in 1976, comfortable in the life his reindeer creation had provided for him.

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