Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 9, 2016
Going down in history
Often at night, husband Art and I will read before turning off the light. But one night recently, being too tired to keep my eyes open, I asked him to read aloud any article from the “Smithsonian” he was perusing. He chose “Reindeer Games: The very shiny life of a 75-year-old marketing gimmick.”
That article, about how Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer came into being, reminded me of the many ways Rudy has been connected with my Christmases. I was 11 in 1964 when the TV animated cartoon was created and we frequently watched its annual rebroadcast. Sister Gaila always looked forward to it, as I did.
“The abominable snowman scared me the first couple of times,” she told me, and, “I felt sorry for Rudolph ‘cause everyone made fun of him.”
The song was also popular and it seemed we kids sang it for every school Christmas program.
One year when daughter Mariya was about 4, we were eating at Wendy’s when Art encouraged her to sing the song. He was really teasing her, not expecting she would do it in a restaurant of strangers. But she has always been up for a challenge. Without a sign of hesitation, she went through the entire piece. An older couple a few tables away were so taken with her performance that they came over, thanked her and, after asking our permission, dropped a coin into Mariya’s hands.
When I asked her about it recently, she said, “Of course, I remember that. I earned a whole quarter for my excellent vocal skills and general cheerfulness.”
Mom's singing Rudolph was activated by a loud noise, such as a hand clap. After Mom’s death, I wondered if anyone would want what I considered to be "Rudy, the annoying reindeer." But Mariya took him in. She said he reminds her of her grandma and she thinks he’s pretty cute.
All kinds of books have been written about “the most famous reindeer of all.” I have at least one Little Golden Book and Art still has a 1950 coloring book with a front-cover illustration of Santa putting a bell-studded harness on Rudolph. Even late husband Jerome wrote a piece he called “Delbert, the Least-Known Reindeer.”
Rudolph’s actual birth can be traced back to 1939 when the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department stores asked Robert L. May, one of its advertising copywriters, to create a booklet to give away as part of the store’s Christmas promotion. The company had previously purchased such coloring books, but decided it might save money by making one.
In 1939, May's wife Evelyn was battling cancer and he was struggling to make ends meet. In 1975, he shared the details with the Gettysburg Times.
... 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 shirts. It seemed I’d always been a loser...
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 think it should be an animal story, with a main character like Ferdinand the Bull ...
May decided the animal should be a reindeer since it was a Christmas story and his 4-year-old daughter Barbara loved the deer at the zoo.
... 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 ...
His boss was skeptical. A red nose was associated with someone who was a heavy drinker ... not exactly the image they wanted linked to the company. But May persisted, enlisting the help of Denver Gillen, a friend in the store’s art department.
Gillen, May and Barbara went to Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo so Gillen could sketch the deer. May won his boss over with the sketches and was told to go ahead with the story.
... I started writing: “Twas the day before Christmas and all through the hills – The reindeer were playing ... enjoying the spills ...”
Evelyn died in July 1939. His boss told May he’d find someone else to finish the story if it was too difficult for him.
... 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.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was reprinted commercially beginning in 1947, but the story really took off when May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for the Rudolph song. Gene Autry also had misgivings over singing a kids’ song, but was persuaded. The first year, it sold 1.75 million copies, and went on to become the number two best-selling Christmas song, second only to “White Christmas.”
That "Smithsonian" article was actually two years old, so Rudolph will be 77 this Christmas. But much like Santa, while no longer young, Rudy is still going down in history.
Left: Mariya with Mom's singing Rudolph; right: Art holding my copy of a Little Golden Book version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (left) and his 1950 coloring book of the story.