Today, "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" is an iconic Christmas song that has been covered by artists like Dean Martin, RuPaul, and Harry Connick Jr. The first recording of the song happened in 1939 by Gene Autry. It hit #1 and instantly became a classic.
By 1964, the song was so popular that it was given a TV special. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer is now known as the longest-running Christmas special. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it is also one of the most loved movies for the Holiday season. More than 83% of the people surveyed for their article named it as the one they love the most.
Despite the popularity of the song, book, and movie, the story is not without controversy. There have been multiple instances of people suggesting that Rudolph promotes bullying. The Huffington Post and The View both tackled the issue, with both coming to the conclusion that it certainly seemed that it did but with the caveat that it was created at a different time.
The New Republic also claimed that the story promoted a "dystopian society" where money and economic power became the basis for love and respect.
That is not true, according to Barbara May Lewis, daughter of Rudolph creator Robert May. She told Time magazine, "The controversy makes no sense to me. The book itself had very little to do with it [the TV special], and it wasn't lauding bullying."
And the creation of the book, on which the song and Christmas special are based, is a somber story.
Robert May was a sad man. He felt like an outsider by many accounts. For years, he worked with Montgomery Ward as a copywriter. It was not a job that paid very well, and he was heavily in debt. Nor was it his dream job; like many writers, he wanted to write the great American novel. Instead, he lamented that he was describing men's clothing.
In the summer of 1939, Montgomery Ward executives decided to change how they did things. The Chicago-based retailer bought coloring books to give away during the holiday shopping season. Still, the higher-ups decided it was time to bring things in-house to save some money. After looking at their staff, it was decided that Robert would be the best to create a coloring book character for them.
While the assignment seemed to be a dream for Robert, it caused a lot of stress. Smithsonian reports that he had trouble coming up with the story concept for a reindeer at Christmas time.
Part of the reason was his wife, Evelyn, was dying of cancer. He told NRTA Journal in the Nov-Dec 1975 issue that the swirl of darkness around him made creating a cheery, cute character all that much harder. There were worries about the bills that piled up. He was also concerned about navigating Barbara through the loss of her mother.
Once Robert hit on the idea of a reindeer, things began to take off for him. NPR reports that the story was finished within 50 hours when he started writing it. He used The Ugly Duckling, as well as some of his own childhood experiences, as inspiration for the story.
After finishing the pages, he would read the results to his daughter. She fell in love with the story as her dad read it. But there was a problem. Robert needed to figure out what to name the main character.
He played with a few names like Reggy, Rollo, and Roderick, among many others. Time says the list is now at Dartmouth. Barbara took to the name Rudolph, something that Robert agreed with, and therefore gave the name to the soon-to-be-famous reindeer.
Evelyn died on July 28, 1939. Making Robert even sadder than when he began the project.
Once it was finished, he turned it in to his bosses. They loved it. During the 1939 holiday season, they gave away 2.6 million softcover copies for free. It was the hit of the year and brought people into the stores. Publisher Maxton Publishing printed a hardcover copy, and it turned into a best seller.
According to NPR, the book could not be reprinted right away. During the 1940s, there was a paper embargo due to the war. It seemed almost inevitable that the famous reindeer would fall into obscurity. It was printed again in 1946 on a wide scale.
The following year, Montgomery Ward gave Robert the copyright to Rudolph. He maximized the earnings on it almost right away.
Music To Royalties
Johnny Marks got the idea to turn the Rudolph story into a song in 1949. As he began to write the lyrics, he turned to an already famous Christmas poem, A Visit From Saint Nicholas (aka 'Twas The Night Before Christmas). He did this by creating the lyric that names eight of the reindeer, "You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?"
Gene Autry recorded the first version of the song in June 1949. Columbia Records initially decided to push it to children, seeing as that was the target demographic of the book. However, as the holiday season went on, they pushed the song to the pop music market.
According to Time, the gambit worked. The song went to #1 during Christmas and became a venerable hit for Gene. His version often appears on the Billboard charts during the holidays, though lower than it did in its first year.
With the song's success came the special, which has been watched by millions worldwide.
Royalties helped Robert pay off his debt, put his children through college, and have a decent life until he passed in 1976.
During his last interview with Time, he told how his bosses at Montgomery Ward offered to reassign Rudolph. At the same time, he dealt with Evelyn's death. He responded that he needed Rudolph more than ever before, and they left the assignment with him.