The story of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer was written in 1939 by Robert L. May, a 34-year-old copywriter for the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department stores, as a promotional gift for the store's customers. The stores had bought and distributed coloring books every Christmas and saw writing their own story as a way to save money. Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in 1939. A total of 6 million copies had been given out by the end of 1946, even though wartime paper shortages restricted printing.
Rudolph's story was made into a song when May's brother-in-law, the songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for it. Marks' musical version was first recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, selling 2 million copies that year and going to #1 on Billboard's singles chart the first week of 1950.
Rudolph is a great example of a character whose quirk or deformity turns out to be a superpower. First seen as a freak, he becomes a savior.
The story reflects Robert May's own childhood difficulties as the smallest boy in his class, where he was taunted by other children.
The Rudolph story is an extension of the classic Christmas tale The Night Before Christmas, which finds Santa delivering presents on a sleigh powered by eight reindeer. Published in 1823, the poem was written by Clement Clarke Moore and officially titled A Visit From St. Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas dates back about 2000 years, but it was only in the early 1800s that Americans made him into Santa Claus, the giver of gifts on Christmas. Moore's poem did a great deal to popularize him. Here's the section where Santa appears and the reindeer are named:
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer
With a little old driver so lively and quick
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!"
Sharp-witted children will wonder how Santa and the reindeer can see in the dark. The answer: Rudolph guides them with his shiny nose.
The 1939 book on which this song is based is written in the cadence of The Night Before Christmas, opening with the lines:
Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills
The reindeer were playing, enjoying the spills
In the story, reindeer get presents from Santa just like children. On one particularly foggy Christmas Eve, Santa is having a hard some navigating and is bumbling through houses when he sees Rudolph's glowing nose. He wakes him up and tells him, "I need you to lead my deer on the rest of our flight," a line that in the song became "Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
Rudolph leaves a note so his parents won't worry and takes the lead, guiding Santa's sleigh through the darkness. He also pokes his nose into the children's rooms so Santa can see where he is going in the houses.
When Rudolph returns home attached to Santa's sleigh, the other reindeer - the ones who mocked his ugly nose - are astonished and hail him as a hero.
The reindeer was almost named Rollo or Reginald. May considered both these names before settling on Rudolph.
Autry didn't want anything to do with this song. It was his wife who talked him into recording it, and it went on to become the second biggest-selling Christmas song of all time, next to Bing Crosby's "White Christmas
." Crosby also recorded "Rudolph" and landed at #14 on the pop chart in 1950.
Jeff - Boston, MA
Autry was known as "The Singing Cowboy." He teamed up with Roy Rogers in the 1930s and '40s to make movies in a new genre called "Musical Westerns." Autry had his own TV show in the 1950s and was the owner of the California Angels baseball team, which later became the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Autry, who died in 1998, is the only person with five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which he earned for motion pictures, radio, music recording, television, and live theater.
The song became even more popular when it was used as the basis for a children's TV special made in 1964, also called Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
. Narrated by Burl Ives, it expanded the story, giving Rudolph a love interest (Clarice) and introducing the Island Of Misfit Toys, where irregular toys are abandoned. Rudolph saves the day not only by guiding the sleigh, but by providing homes for the Misfit Toys.
Ives sings "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" along with other songs written by Johnny Marks, including "Holly Jolly Christmas
" and "Silver And Gold." The special, made using stop-motion by the Rankin/Bass team, became a Christmas classic, watched every season in a tradition passed down through generations. It was the first big Rankin/Bass holiday special; they made several more, including Frosty the Snowman
(1969) and The Year Without a Santa Claus
Unlike Santa, the character Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer is copyrighted, which is why in many modern Christmas stories, there are only the eight public-domain reindeer pulling the sleigh. You'll notice, for instance, that when Santa appears on his sleigh at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, it's without Rudolph.
Robert May created the character for Montgomery Ward, but they gave him the copyright, which is controlled by a company called The Rudolph Company L.P., presumably his estate. The song is copyrighted to St. Nicholas Music Inc., which was set up by its writer, Johnny Marks.
A great sendup of the Rudolph copyright issues can be seen in the 1999 British TV special Robbie the Reindeer: "Hooves of Fire", where a young buck named Robbie comes to take his place as heir to the front of the sleigh. His father, though, is never mentioned, with anyone trying to say the word "Rudolph" thwarted.
The Chipmunks did a version that was a hit in Christmastime, 1960, reaching #21 US. The same year, a version by The Melodeers went to #71 and Paul Anka's rendition made #104.
Johnny Marks had the idea for the song jotted down in his songbook for 10 years before developing it. He spoke about the tune's legacy with interviewer Ian Whitcomb: "I thought it was going to be a hit, but a regular hit. I didn't think it was just going to go on forever."
Marks, who was Jewish, also wrote another big Christmas hit: "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree
," recorded by Brenda Lee in 1958.
Because Autry's reputation was that of a Western star, he didn't feel suited to sing a Christmas song. Marks, however, was determined to change Autry's mind (even though he'd never met him). He enlisted an unknown singer named Al Cernik to record a demo in the style of Autry and shipped it to the star in California. After a long wait - and some prodding from his wife - Autry agreed to record the tune. As for Al Cernik, he became Guy Mitchell, who had a #1 hit in 1956 with "Singing the Blues."
The song earned Johnny Marks millions in royalties, but by 1980, he was tired of being chained to Santa's sleigh. "This is not exactly what I hoped to be remembered for," he told People magazine of the enduring classic. "No matter what I write, they always say the same thing: 'It's just not 'Rudolph.'"
Chuck Berry had a holiday hit in 1958 with "Run Rudolph Run
," where Rudolph is kind of a rock star reindeer.
The Temptations included this on their 1970 holiday album, The Temptations Christmas Card. The R&B-flavored cover landed on Billboard's Christmas Singles chart twice, at #16 in 1970 and #3 in 1971. This version was used in the 1987 TV special Claymation Christmas, with the group playing the California Raisins.
The Ventures recorded this as a surf rock instrumental for their 1965 Christmas album, borrowing the riff from the Beatles' "I Feel Fine