By Pam Teel
By Pam Teel
Did you know the man who wrote the original story Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was an adman for a department store. The year was 1939, the Great Depression was waning and a manager at Montgomery Ward in Chicago de- cided that the store should create its own children’s book for the annual holiday promotion.
The boss tapped Robert L. May, an adman for the store, to take a crack at a story. May was a hit at holiday parties for his way with limericks and parodies. May had always felt like a bit of an outcast, and, at 35, he felt he was far from reaching his potential, pounding out catalog copy instead of writing the Great American Novel as he had always dreamed he would. The tradition at MW was to give away coloring books for Christmas every year. May was assigned the task of a new promotional activity: create a holiday booklet to distribute to shoppers. Though a copywriter, May also enjoyed writing children’s stories.
His wife, Evelyn, had been bed-ridden suffering with cancer for two years, and May’s income and savings had gone for her treatments. Dealing with her illness and their finances, he was pretty down and out at the time. Scrawny as a kid, May had often been teased, so he also knew well the plight of being different and feeling ostracized. He’d written stories to comfort his four-year-old daughter Barbara during this time, so he wrote a poem for the booklet that would help Barbara better understand these issues, as well as the meaning of Christmas. The poem was the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Barbara actually helped in the development of the story. May began by telling it to her and seeing which parts she enjoyed making sure Rudolph would appeal to children. If she inquired about the meaning of any words, he would simplify the vocabulary. She even helped decide on the reindeer’s final name.
The now-famous story known to many the world over tells of a young reindeer ousted from the reindeer games because of his beaming bright red nose; an underdog, red-nosed reindeer who was in the right place at the right time just when Santa needed a reindeer with exceptional skills. Everybody knows Rudolph was the last reindeer to join Santa’s crew, but few people know about the department store copywriter who brought his story to the world.
Months into the project, May’s wife died from cancer. Robert became a widower and a single father. His boss offered to take the reindeer project off his plate but May refused. “I needed Rudolph now more than ever,” he later wrote.
May’s boss didn’t particularly like the story because a red nosed image was often associated with drunkenness but the illustrations developed by May’s art department co-worker, Denver Gillen, convinced the boss to run with it. It was an instant hit. Approximately two and a half million copies of the booklet were distributed that Christmas at MW throughout the US.
While Rudolph was hitting it big, things grew worse for May. He was living on a copywriter’s salary and spent years buried in debt from his wife’s medical bills. When World War II started, the giveaway project ceased, yet throughout the war requests poured in for Rudolph books, toys, games, puzzles, records; none of which existed. The demand continued to grow each holiday season when the original booklet was brought out with the holiday decorations and read again to children. May was not able to pursue these requests, nor benefit from them because MW held the copyright and he didn’t even have royalty rights. As a corporate employee when he created the story, the work belonged to his employer. The booklet’s popularity continued, however, and by 1946, over 6 million copies had been given away.
After World War II, Montgomery Ward’s then-CEO Sewell Avery, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, gave May the rights to Rudolph. If ever there were going to be a time for May’s luck to change, this would be it. May gathered the courage to approach the corporate president about the work. Sewell Avery was a wealthy (retired in 1955 with a fortune of $327 million), anti-union businessman, and one with a generous and altruistic nature. May convinced Avery to grant him the copyright. Thereafter, demands for Rudolph products swamped MW and Bob May, with businesses seeking permission to man- ufacture toys, puzzles, pajamas, slippers, and numerous other products. That year, the story was first printed commercially. It was also made into a short cartoon.
It just so happened that May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was an up and coming songwriter. He hadn’t made it big yet, but he was getting there. May talked him into writing a song about Rudolph. That song was picked up by none other than the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. It sold more than 25 million copies and paved the way for the classic Rankin/Bass stop-animation film. Thanks to Rudolph, Robert May’s family was taken care of financially through the end of his life and beyond. And he always delighted in being the man who introduced the oddball reindeer and his triumphant tale to the world.
In 1951, May left Montgomery Ward to manage the Rudolph phenomenon for eight years, but he returned to work at the company that had been so good to him until his own retirement in 1971. His creation, born of simple work as a corporate employee, fueled by the love of his daughter and the courage to stake his claim in the work… became a significant legacy.
And as for Rudolph, well, he, as they say, went down in history!