The touching story behind Rudolf, the reindeer

Bob May had always been different.  Small, weak, and slight as a child, he was regularly ridiculed, bullied, and made fun of.  He spent his whole childhood like that.

Eventually, he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1926 and married the love of his life, Evelyn.  Together they had a beautiful daughter named Barbara.

Bob became a copy writer for Chicago based Montgomery Ward.  It was the great depression, and they led a modest, but meaningful life, before everything changed.

Evelyn got cancer.  She passed away just days before Christmas in 1938. Bob was 34, Barbara was only 4.

Pressed with grief, and stooped in medical bills, the father and daughter struggled to with each passing day.

At work, Montgomery Ward had been purchasing and giving away coloring books each year for Christmas, and this year they decided to make their own to save money.  They approached Bob May and asked him to write a story.

Bob thought of his own life, always feeling different, always feeling like you can’t get ahead.  He associated with the story of the ugly duckling.  Drawing on these powerful emotions, but fueled by the belief in the hidden value within each of us, he wrote the story of a cast-away, mis-fit reindeer.

Originally named Rollo, then Reginald, bob finally settled on Rudolf.  He tested it on his 4 year old daughter, who loved it.

He submitted the story to his boss, who was worried about the red nose (fearing the association with drinking and drunkenness).  But Bob believed in his vision, and took his friend Denver Gillen, who worked in Montgomery Wards art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo to create a sketch of rudolf based on real reindeer.

The illustrations gave life to the story, and it was quickly approved for distribution.

Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of their Rudolf booklet in 1939. In spite of wartime paper shortages, which curtailed printing over the next few years, they still printed 6 million copies by the end of 1946.

Post-war demand for licensing the Rudolf character were enormous, but while May was the creator, he held no copyright, and received no royalties.

Finally, a major publisher approached Montgomery Ward wanting to purchase rights to print an updated version of the story.  Knowing that May was deeply in debt from Evelyn’s medical bills, Montgomery Ward’s corporate president, Sewell Avery, in an unprecedented gesture of generosity, turned the copyright over to May in January 1947.

That year it was printed commercially, featured in theaters as a 9 minute cartoon, and gained huge popularity.  May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, wrote the lyrics and melody for a song based on the Character, titled “Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer”.

The song was originally turned down by Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, but was finally recorded by Gene Autry and became a phenomenal success.  It sold more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of “White Christmas”.

Bob’s belief in the hidden value within us all became a reality that changed his life, and has impacted millions upon millions of people.  His vision and belief had become a reality.

May you recognize the light within yourself, no matter how deeply hidden, and find a way to make it real.

Merry Christmas,

Rusty

Robert May and his creation, rudolf the red-nosed reindeer

Robert May and his creation, Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer, symbolizing his belief in our hidden value.

6 replies
  1. Joe'll
    Joe'll says:

    Rusty,
    Have been so disappointed that you haven’t posted anything since Dec. 23rd. Am looking forward to your next post. What does a Yield sign mean to you in your life?

    Reply
  2. Jeff Westover
    Jeff Westover says:

    Great story — but not true. May did write Rudolph and his wife did, tragically, pass away from cancer. But the events were entirely unrelated. May was a writer for Montgomery Wards who drew the assignment to write a new children’s story for a marketing giveaway at Christmas — as was Ward’s practice for many years.

    May wrote the story based upon The Ugly Duckling. And in May’s original story Rudolph was not maligned. In fact, he grew up well adjusted in a normal home of loving parents. He was “discovered” by Santa who was delivering presents to Rudolph’s house “one foggy Christmas eve”. And that story was printed more than 6 million times until 1946, when Wards gave May the rights to do other things with the story.

    He did. He produced a commercial copy of the Rudolph story in 1947 as well as a 9-minute cartoon. His brother in law, Johnny Marks, wrote the now-famous song on the subsequent versions of Rudolph’s story, including the iconic 1964 television special, were based.

    Rudolph’s story has morphed almost as much as May’s story has. While it is true Evelyn did die of cancer and they did have a four year old daughter, Barbara, at the time. The connection with the Rudolph story to the family situation was a sad fabrication created by…another copywriter working for Wards in 2000, just before they went out of business (for the last time). In a desperate attempt to cash in one last time on Rudolph the whole story of Evelyn’s tragic passing was woven into the history of Rudolph.

    How do we know? May was interviewed in 1975, a year before his own passing, who told the story without all the family heartbreak inserted. In fact, he said he got the assignment, wrote the story and THEN tested it out on Barbara after Evelyn had died — and he did it only to see if a child would respond to it favorably. (She did).

    The story as you’ve written it here is inspiring. It just isn’t true.

    Reply

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