The Blessing of being Different

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, the song about the odd one out among Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen has become one of the world's best-selling songs of all time. The lyrics tell the story of Rudolph's victory over the narrow-minded mentality of the other reindeer scorning him because he is different and were written by Robert May in 1939.

Robert May was a short man, barely five feet in height. Bullied at school, he was ridiculed and humiliated by other children because he was smaller than other boys of the same age. Even as he grew up, he was often mistaken for someones little brother and the theme of ostracism and being different from the herd had featured strongly in his own childhood. May graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1926 and joined Montgomery Ward in 1936. At 34, he worked as a copywriter for the Chicago-based chain of department stores which had started as a mail-order house in 1872, delivering goods to America's farmers and country people by train. On the eve of World War II, the company asked May to come up with a Christmas story they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick. It was a difficult time for the employee. His wife Evelyn was chronically ill with cancer and most of their money was spent on medical treatments. The prospect of his wife's impending death, life with her in a rundown apartment, and huge debts left May, like his alter ego, Rudolph, wallowing in self-pity. One night in early December of 1938 and two years into his wifes illness, his four-year-old daughter Barbara climbed onto his knee and asked, "Daddy, why isnt Mummy like everybody elses mummy?" It was a simple question, asked with childlike curiosity. But it struck a personal chord with Robert May. His mind flashed back to his own childhood. He had often posed a similar question, Why cant I be tall, like the other kids? The stigma attached to those who are different is hard to bear. The tale goes that May decided to write a story and chose the name of his star reindeer, Rudolph, after rejecting Rollo and Reginald. He then proceeded to use his daughter Barbara to test Rudolph's antics. The power to bring joy to others, precisely because you are different, is the moral of the story. Santa saves the day by elevating Rudolph to the front of the team, where the reindeer leads the way with his glowing proboscis. May wrote Rudolph's story in a series of rhyming couplets. The undervalued but gifted writer's story was a winner. May's boss at Montgomery Ward was not so impressed. Rudolph's very essence, his fait d'etre, his shiny red nose, was called into contention as an image clearly associated with drinking a little too much Christmas brandy. May responded to the innuendo that Rudolph was a drunk by sending an illustrator friend, Denver Gillen, to sketch some deer in the Lincoln Park Zoo. The resulting cute-as-a-button illustration of the underdog Rudolph was enough to convince the jaded executive to go with the Rudolph Christmas booklet. The slim promotional booklet was printed on the flimsiest of pulp paper, a prime example of what librarians call ephemera, something made to be here today and gone tomorrow. By 1946, Montgomery Ward had handed out more than 6 million copies of the book to every child who visited their department stores and it eventually became an international best seller.

Unfortunately for May, the success had a bitter edge. His wife had died before the book became popular and even six million copies later May held no copyright for the story and never made a cent from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer those first seven years. It was, after all, a giveaway brochure. In an undeniably Rudolphesque moment, May overcame his sheepishness to persuade Montgomery Ward's corporate president, Sewell Avery, to turn over the copyright to his story in 1947. Avery was a shrewd CEO who was not known for his generosity, so his decision to cede the Rudolph rights to May was met with surprise. In 1947 Rudolph: The Red-Nosed Reindeer went to commercial print and a nine-minute cartoon graced the cinema screens the next year.

But the story doesn't end there. In Greenwich Village in the City of New York, Bob May had a brother-in-law who wrote songs. His name was Johnny Marks. Young John had been pretty hopeless himself as a kid. His piano teacher had given up on him. But he grew up to be a songwriter anyway, and in 1946, when brother-in-law Bob sent him Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, he had a notebook full of other ideas and was only passingly interested. And so Rudolph sat on the shelf, forgotten. Until one hot summer's day in 1949, when Johnny Marks was strolling through the city, thinking about writing a Christmas thing, and from out of nowhere a Rudolph song came to him, unbidden and fully wrought. All excited, he recorded "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and sent copies to Dinah Shore, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and other famous folks. As an afterthought, he dropped one to Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, who was shopping around for a new Christmas ditty to top his 1947 hit "Here Comes Santa Claus." Gene Autry thought "Rudolph" was about the dopiest song he'd ever heard and refused even to consider it. His wife, though, loved the little tune, and so, she insisted, would every kid on Earth. Purely to please her, Autry reluctantly stuck "Rudolph" on the B side of "If It Doesn't Snow on Christmas," which he was sure was going to be his next big hit. The throwaway was recorded in a single take, tossed into the last 10 minutes of the recording session. "If It Doesn't Snow On Christmas" bombed. As for "Rudolph"... In September, Gene Autry and his famous chestnut stallion "Champion" galloped into Madison Square Garden along with 200 Cowboys and Indians for the annual rodeo. Amid the barrel races and the broncos and the war-dancing painted braves, Autry sang "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" from Champion's back. The instant smash sold more than 2 million records in its first year, and sales never stopped. "Rudolph" is one of the greatest hits in the music business, a close second only to Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" as the all-time top-selling single. At least 500 other versions of the song have been made, in practically every language and conceivable style, from Lena Horne to 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' to John Denver, and altogether they have sold at least 150 million copies. A humble, soft-spoken man, Bob May was gratified that children had so responded to his little story. He referred to Rudolph as my generous son, claiming that the reindeer enabled him to send his six children to college. In 1958 May donated the original manuscript to the Baker Library at Dartmouth College, which now houses the Robert L. May Collection. May left Wards in 1951 to manage Rudolph�s career, but returned to the company in 1958 and retired in 1970.

Gene Autry lived to be 91 but never had another song that sold more than the 15 million copies of his "Rudolph." Johnny Marks left about 900 other songs behind him when he died in 1985, not one of them nearly so big as "Rudolph." Robert May wrote a few other children's books before he died in 1976, none successful. Most of his life, he mused, had, in fact, been spent "working for a reindeer." This didn't seem to bother any of them much, because Rudolph made them all quite wealthy and, as the song goes ... "they all went down in history."


Andrea said…
wow! thank you. i really loved this.

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