The Underdog Who Created the Red-Nosed Reindeer

The most famous reindeer of all first appeared in a 1939 coloring booklet entitled “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” written by Robert L. May.  May’s creation of Rudolph is a fascinating story of how a down-on-his-luck catalog copy writer came to create a tale that would inspire one of the most covered holiday songs as well as one of the best Christmas TV specials.

The Creation of Rudolph

The retailer Montgomery Ward commissioned this coloring book for something to give out for free as a marketing tool. As May tells it, in January 1939 he was 35 years old and in debt with an ill wife, and his dreams of being a writer had been reduced to being a catalog copy writer in Chicago.

So, May was not in a very festive mood when he was commissioned to write the book. But May’s department head thought the company could save money by creating its own promotional coloring book instead of ordering them from others.  He suggested some type of animal story.

That night, May began to focus on a reindeer story because his daughter Barbara loved deer at the zoo. He also thought of his own lot in life, and then began to try to come up with an underdog story.

After May came up with the idea for a reindeer with a red nose, May’s boss nixed the idea. But May went ahead and had someone create artwork of his idea, and May’s boss began to warm to the concept.

May, who considered several names for his reindeer, continued writing into the summer. After May’s wife died that summer, May’s boss offered to let someone else finish the story, but May now felt he needed this scrappy reindeer to help him through his own tough time. By the end of August, May finished the rhyming story, reading it first to his daughter Barbara and her grandparents.

How Rudolph Became the Most Famous Reindeer of All

Within a decade, the story and the book illustrated by Denver Gillen would become more famous than any retailer could have imagined. And in the spirit of Christmas, the head of Montgomery Ward, Sewell Aver, did something that is hard to imagine today. After the book became popular, the company gave the rights to the story to the employee who created it, Robert May.

May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks turned the story into the classic song we know.  And then cowboy crooner Gene Autry made the song a bona fide hit in 1949.

Although Autry reportedly did not like the song at first, his wife convinced him to record it. The recording became one of the best selling records of all time. Here is Autry singing the song live several years later in 1953, where you can see the audience knows all the words too.

Other Versions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Because “Rudolph” is often seen as a kids’ song and not a religious song, through the years performers have not been shy about having fun with interpreting the song in quirky ways. For example, here is Jack Johnson’s version.

Destiny’s Child also recorded the song, but the video is no longer available on YouTube. Here is another quirky interpretation from Jewel and Nedra Carroll, live on HRL.

Check out this guitar instrumental by Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles.

Even Tiny Tim has a version.

In addition to the unusual versions, several artists have made popular rock interpretations, such as this one by The Jackson 5 from 1970.

The Crystals made a famous version for the most famous rock Christmas album of all time, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (1963).

And our most-famous Christmas singer, Bing Crosby, eventually sang the song too, although reportedly he had rejected the idea of recording it before Autry made it a hit. Unlike Crosby’s somber “White Christmas,” his “Rudolph” swings. Crosby also eventually performed an excellent version with Ella Fitzgerald.

The 1964 TV Special Version

Of course, there also is the classic 1964 TV special. That show was scored by May’s brother-in-law and the song’s composer Johnny Marks, who also wrote “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

That is another story. But the TV special did create another classic version of the song by Burl Ives, who played the snowman. This version may be the one you are most likely to hear today.

An Appearance by Donald Trump?

Finally, if you are brave or if you have always wondered what the Christmas special would have been like with Regis Philbin singing, check out this video. For extra measure, Donald Trump appears.

There seems to be a version for every taste, ensuring that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer will go down in history.

May’s Reward

As for Rudolph’s creator Robert May, he once noted that his reward “is knowing every year, when Christmas rolls around” Rudolph brings a message about a “loser” using a handicap to find happiness, a story enjoyed by millions both young and old.

Deep down we are all underdogs, so may the new year bring you many moments of shouting out with glee.

What is your favorite version of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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