Writing Wins and Woes: A Spunky little Reindeer

Tis the Christmas season! How fast this year has flown. Speaking of flying, this month’s blogs will be all about Christmasy things and my favorite of all is Rudolph. Few people know how this brilliant story originated. It’s origin is almost better than the cutesy little story itself.

A few months ago I purchased a book at a book sale. Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer, put out by Montgomery Ward, a once popular department store. That fascinated me because I never knew that Montgomery Ward was the source of Rudolph the Reindeer, but it was.

Around the time of the early 1930’s Montgomery Ward was putting out children’s Christmas books to hand out to the children at the store, but the powers that be decided it would be a lot less expensive to come up with their own Christmas book. They handed over this task to a copywriter in their employ, Robert May.

This was a sad task for May. His wife had cancer and his family was in debt due to medical bills. May was a writer, but mostly his writing was commercial for the store he worked for. His dreams of writing fame as a graduate of Dartmouth college had turned to diminishing dollar signs. He just needed cash to keep his family afloat and he had to write whatever paid the bills.

His inspiration for a Christmas book began with his four year old daughter who loved visiting the reindeer at the zoo. The light bulb in his head flashed and voila! there was Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. He worked on it the whole summer of 1939 while his wife’s condition deteriorated. She died in July. His boss offered to turn the project over to someone else but May refused. He needed the little reindeer to assuage his grief. He finished the story in August.

His words were inspired by “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. As for the misfit reindeer, May himself was often tormented in his childhood because he was small and shy. He wasn’t invited to join the sports teams, just like Rudolph wasn’t allowed to participate in reindeer games. Montgomery Ward handed out 2.4 million copies of the book in 1939 but World War 2 kept any more copies from being printed. But in 1946 the store produced another 3.6 million copies of the book.

This story has a fairy tale ending. Unfortunately Robert May was still having financial difficulties. He had married a fellow employee from the store but they still struggled to make ends meet. Montgomery Ward finally signed the copyright of Rudolph over to May in 1947 and he was able to license the sweet reindeer for sweeter profits. Rudolph merchandise and a song written written by his brother-in-law and sung by Gene Autry finally gave Robert May’s family the security they needed. It was all thanks to a little reindeer who refused to let life’s calamities hold him down. Instead he soared to new heights just like his creator, Robert May. hith_rudolph-reindeer-75-poster-ab

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