I think you’d agree that a Christmas song about Reginald the reindeer whose nose glowed “like the eyes of a cat” would have probably been a dud. But those were some of the preliminary drafts for the description of the world’s most famous and loved reindeer.
In 1939, the Chicago-based company Montgomery Ward assigned one of their copywriters 34-year old Robert L. May (who had a flair for writing limericks and children’s stories) to conjure up a Christmas tale that could be given away as a promotional gimmick to shoppers. The Montgomery Ward chain had been purchasing colouring books and distributing them every Christmas, so a giveaway booklet of their own would cut costs.
May settled upon a variant of the Ugly Duckling, as it seemed to resonate with the way he had suffered as a child for his shyness and diminutive size. Thus was born the idea of a reindeer shunned by his peers because of his physical abnormality: a glowing red nose. He cast about for an alliterative name for this reindeer. The first few options that sprung to mind were quickly rejected: Rollo (too cheerful for a misfit) and Reginald (too British) before he chose Rudolph.
That done, May wrote out Rudolph’s story in verse (in the meter of ‘Twas the Night before Christmas’), in rhyming couplets. His four-year old daughter Barbara was his sounding board, and she loved it. But May’s boss had concerns that a red nose with its association with drunkenness might be inappropriate to a Christmas story. So May took a friend from Montgomery Ward’s art department to the Lincoln Park Zoo to observe and sketch “cute reindeer” using deer there as models, and his drawings of an alert bouncy prototype won over the team.
The story of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was immensely successful. It was still the Great Depression, and the idea of a down-at-heel outcast being given a break seemed to strike a chord. But May received no royalty, as Montgomery Ward held the copyright to Rudolph. May’s wife died from a terminal illness at the time of Rudolph’s creation, and the medical bills from her treatment bankrupted him. In 1947, he persuaded the company to help him by relinquishing the copyright to Rudolph over to him.
Rudolph became a real phenomenon after May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks adapted the poem into lyrics and wrote the melody to create a song. The song was initially turned down by many people within the music industry as they felt it would tamper with the Santa Claus legend. When it was recorded by cowboy singer Gene Autry (after being turned down by Bing Crosby, who changed his mind a year later) in 1949, it climbed to the top of the Billboard pop singles chart that Christmas, selling 2.5 million copies in one year, and an eventual total of 25 million. It became one of the best-selling Christmas songs of all time, second only to “White Christmas”. Autry didn’t really like the song, but his wife loved it, and accurately predicted its runaway success.
The song has also been recorded by a star line-up through the years, from Dean Martin, Ray Conniff, Paul Anka, Burl Ives to the Supremes and the Jackson 5, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Ringo Starr, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Barry Manilow.
The storyline that we know from the song, however, is quite different from the original. The “first” Rudolph was not one of Santa Claus’ reindeer, and did not live at the North Pole. He was raised in an “ordinary reindeer village” by loving parents despite being teased by peers for his shiny red nose. Santa Claus discovered him quite by chance while delivering Rudolph’s present to him, when he noticed a red glow coming from Rudolph’s room. As the night was getting progressively foggier, Santa asked him to lead his team of reindeer. Rudolph agreed, but left an explanatory note for his parents before setting out.
Over time, Rudolph has “gone down in history” in several manifestations: a theatrical cartoon short; a comic book character; an illustrated children’s book; a stop-motion animation TV special (where Rudolph runs away with a comrade-in-arms outcast elf who dreams of becoming, of all things, a dentist! Open wide and say Ah!); and several animated feature-length films.
(An edited version of this article was published on 21 December 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)