Unlike many briefly popular seasonal stories, Rudolph’s fame grows and spreads each year. The rudy-schnozzed animal is more popular in Canada than in this country (if that be possible). And he is going abroad, too. England and Australia are taking the shy little critter to heart, and any day now, Rudolph will be speaking Spanish with a Chicago accent and making his way to Cuba and points south. It is doubtful, however, that even heart-winning Rudolph can make the grade across the iron curtain, and spread a rosy glow in Joe Stalin’s bedroom on Christmas eve.
The above quote comes from a December 15, 1950 Chicago Tribune article called “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer: Surprised Chicagoan Sees His Christmas Poem Become a Legend – and a Gold Mine.” Although some aspects of this seventy-year article, such as the reference to Cold War tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R., are no longer true, it is still true that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s fame has never stopped since its creation in 1939. In fact, puppets from the 1964 stop motion film based on the book sold for $368,000 at an auction last month (November 13, 2020).
Despite its obvious fame, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s popularity came as a surprise. In 1939, Robert L. May worked as an advertising copyrighter at the now defunct Chicago department store, Montgomery Ward. For Christmas that year, the store asked May (who was ironically Jewish) to create a children’s Christmas story to give away to its customers. Due to high demand, the store ultimately gave away over 2 million copies of the book in 1939. You can access photos of the original book, as well as listen to May’s daughter read it, on NPR’s website.
Although Montgomery Ward benefitted from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it generously gave the rights away to May after World War II, to help him pay off his deceased wife’s medical bills. May worked with Maxton Books to republish Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1947. Then, in 1948, Max Fleischer (another Jewish man) created an 8-minute animated film based on the book. However, the story’s popularity boomed the following year when the singer, Gene Autry, recorded a song based on the story. The now-famous song was created by Johnny Marks, who had married May’s sister. Marks (who was also Jewish) wrote several other Christmas songs as well including “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” The final boost in Rudolph’s popularity came in 1964, when the stop animation version of the film first premiered on television. This film is now the longest running television Christmas special of all time.
I recently learned that Robert L. May used the proceeds from Rudolph to build his own home in Skokie, Illinois (a northern suburb of Chicago). Construction began in 1949, but the house was completed in 1950. The following photos are of how the house currently looks, as of December, 2020. It appears as if the home’s current owners fully embrace their home’s heritage!
Sources and Further Reading
Bentley, William. “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer: Surprised Chicagoan Sees His Christmas Poem Become a Legend – and a Gold Mine.” Chicago Tribune. December 17, 1950.
Bloom, Nate. “All Those Holiday/Christmas Songs: So Many Jewish Songwriters!” Jewish World Review. December 22, 2014. http://jewishworldreview.com/1214/jewz_xmas.php3 (accessed December 24, 2020).
Bloom, Nate. “Shining a Light on the Largely Untold Story of the Origins of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Interfaith Family. December 20, 2011. https://archive.vn/SIm3a#selection-1441.0-1441.93 (accessed December 24, 2020).
Cronin, Brian. “Did Montgomery Ward Give the Rights to ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ Back to the Story’s Author for Free?” Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed. December 20, 2012. http://legendsrevealed.com/entertainment/2012/12/20/did-montgomery-ward-give-the-rights-to-rudolph-the-red-nosed-reindeer-back-to-the-songs-author-for-free/ (accessed December 24, 2020).
Delgado, Michelle. “The Magical Animation of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’” Smithsonian Magazine. December 23, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/magical-animation-rudolph-red-nosed-reindeer-180973841/ (accessed December 24, 2020).
The Ed Sullivan Show. “Gene Autry ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ on the Ed Sullivan Show.” YouTube, November 5, 2020. Video, 2:39. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMhyOvYzZM0 (accessed December 24, 2020).
Gibbard, M. Daniel. “Towns United in Unusual Way.” Chicago Tribune. August 31, 2004. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2004-08-31-0408310188-story.html (accessed December 24, 2020).
Pupovac, Jessica. “Writing ‘Rudolph’” The Original Red-Nosed Manuscript.” National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2013/12/25/256579598/writing-rudolph-the-original-red-nosed-manuscript (accessed December 24, 2020).
“Rudolph in Rauner.” Rauner Special Collections Library. December 18, 2009. https://raunerlibrary.blogspot.com/2009/12/rudolph-in-rauner.html (accessed December 24, 2020).
“Rudolph, Santa Figures from ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ Sell at Auction for $368,000.” USA Today. November 15, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2020/11/15/christmas-special-rudolph-figures-auction-368-000/6302519002/ (accessed December 24, 2020).
“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Chicagology. https://chicagology.com/goldenage/goldenage015/rudolph/ (accessed December 24, 2020).
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Directed by Larry Romer. New York: CBS, 1964.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: With Christmas Greetings from Montgomery Ward. Directed by Max Fleischer. 1948. https://www.loc.gov/item/mbrs00010235/ (accessed December 24, 2020).
“What Is Skevanston?” It’s Skokie. https://itsskokie.com/what-is-skevanston/ (accessed December 24, 2020).
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