Time Machine

Time Machine: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Montgomery Ward advertising copywriter created Christmas legend

This ad, from Nov. 18, 1951, introduced a syndicated comic strip about Rudolph that appeared during the holiday seasons
This ad, from Nov. 18, 1951, introduced a syndicated comic strip about Rudolph that appeared during the holiday seasons from 1951 to 1956 in The Gazette. (Gazette archives)
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Can anyone prove that the famous Rudolph with the bright, shiny red nose has ever been in Iowa?

Probably not.

Rudolph, the most famous reindeer of all, first appeared in the mind of Robert L. May, an advertising copywriter for the Montgomery Ward Co. in Chicago.

In 1939, May’s boss asked him come up with a new Christmas promotion for the retail and catalog chain — something new and different.

May thought about the story of the Ugly Duckling and how he could fit that theme into a Christmas rhyme. He tried out his verses on his 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, as he was writing them. He worked on the project in his spare time, while his wife was dying of cancer.

May’s tale of a shy little reindeer, teased by his fellow reindeer because of his bright red nose, but whose glowing snoot helped Santa on a foggy Christmas Eve, debuted in a gift booklet illustrated by May’s friend, Denver Gillen.

Nearly 2.5 million booklets were distributed in Ward stores in 48 states that year.

As the world became engulfed in World War II, the story of the little reindeer with the shiny nose lay dormant until 1946, when Montgomery Ward published another 3.6 million copies.

Gaining Copyright

The following year, May went to the department store and asked for the Rudolph copyright.

Whether the company was charitable or just didn’t think there was much more profit from a story that had been distributed millions of times, it turned the rights to the story over to May.

May found a publisher and put out another 100,000 copies of the book in hard cover.

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Along with the books, May marketed Rudolph as a stuffed toy, an RCA Victor record album and more than 50 other products as well as books. A color movie hit theaters in November 1948.

May, who remarried after his wife’s death, had four more children. He later said the kids got tired of being so immersed in the little reindeer’s saga.

In 1949, songwriter Johnny Marks, who was May’s brother-in-law and who was home from World War II service, decided to write a song about Rudolph. He formed St. Nicholas Music and enlisted Gene Autry to record the song. It sold more than 2 million copies the first year.

Comic Strip

In 1951, The Gazette began running a new comic strip, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” every day for several weeks around Christmas. New characters Grover Groundhog and J. Baddy Bear were introduced to young readers in five years of holiday strips written by May.

Cedar Rapids had an annual holiday parade. In 1952, it was graced with Santa and his reindeer. The Gazette story about the event said there were “eight tiny reindeer, closely followed by Rudolph, a spotted fawn with a red nose.” Somehow, a photographer caught all the reindeer in his lens except Rudolph.

May left his job at Montgomery Ward to manage his reindeer business but returned in 1957, taking a job as assistant editorial director for the company’s catalogs.

He told an interviewer then, at age 54, when the Rudolph phenomenon began to wane, “Luckily, I was old enough when I had this oil gusher to know enough to put some of the profit away.”

In 1964, the TV version of the story, with Burl Ives as narrator, began its annual airing. (It ran this year on Dec. 2 and 14 on CBS.)

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With the success of Rudolph, the May family was able to move from their Chicago apartment to a new four-bedroom house that May referred to as “the house that Rudolph built.”

May died in 1976.

‘Felt Like a Misfit’

When Rudolph turned 50 in 1989, The Gazette’s Mike Kilen talked to May’s daughter, Barbara May Lewis, who was living in San Francisco.

“He always liked the story of the Ugly Duckling,” she said. “He felt he was a misfit. He was a scrawny kid, and he wanted to be an athlete. He felt left out as a child.”

May’s younger daughter, Virginia Herz, said of her humble, gentle father, “He was such a self-effaced man. Even when Rudolph took off, he didn’t have a big ego about it. It really changed our lives. Dad was able to put six children through college, along with braces.”

Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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