The book came first, then the record, then the cartoon, then the song, then the comic books, and then the animated special. Do we have that clear? And, no, parsnip brittle, your original Montgomery Wards copy of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is not worth billions. They gave out over two million copies. It’s not trash, no, but it’s not going to put anything much from Jared’s under the tree.
Here’s the way it goes. Once upon a time in Chicago, Montgomery Wards nought and then gave away Christmas coloring books for kids. Somebody, perhaps Wards CEO Sewell Avery, decided doing a book in-house would save money. Robert L. May, a Jewish ad writer for Wards, whose wife was dying of cancer, was given the job. (Sewell Avery, who fostered a public image not unlike that of Banker Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, found out about Mrs. May and offered to let May off the hook if he didn’t feel like doing a happy, jolly holiday book. May said he could handle it.)
So in the summer of 1939, May wrote about a deer, like the ones his four year-old loved at the zoo, and after discarding the names Rollo and Reginald. He picked a plot based on how he had been teased and bullied as a kid, and turned in the tale in verse of alliteratively-named Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This was immediately rejected. Red noses implied overdrinking, you see, and a main character who reminded people of W.C. Fields wouldn’t go over. May got a Wards artist, Denver Gillen, to draw a really cute reindeer with a really cute red nose, and the book was approved. It hit the market that Christmas and did right well. A war intervened before Wards could reprint, but the book was reissued in 1946. This did even better: in 1944, Fleischer Studios, famous then for Popeye and Superman cartoons, had brought out an animated cartoon based on the book, which ran every December in theatres across the country. Rudolph was flying high.
In 1946, May got an offer from a company which wanted to produce a record of somebody reading the book. Because the book was work he’d done for his employer, he had no say in the matter. Sewell Avery, who had made himself immortal in the meantime with his anti-Roosevelt stand during the war, handed over all rights to the author, free and clear. The record was issued, and then a children’s book company brought out a hardcover version of the story.
All this brought matters to the attention of May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, a Jewish songwriter who was interested in carving out a niche as a writer of Christmas music. He simplified the story enormously, and wrote a song which was immediately rejected by Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, and Gene Autry. Gene Autry’s wife convinced him the song was cute enough to try out, and his version was released in 1949. No, your original record of Rudolph (which should have “If It Doesn’t Snow On Christmas” on the flip side) is not going to make you millions, either. It is the second best-selling Christmas record of all time. (After “White Christmas”, if you couldn’t guess.)
Johnny Marks wrote a number of other Christmas songs, many of which you can find in the Johnny Marks Christmas Songbook, later published as the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Songbook. All of the songs in that book can be heard, mainly in the background, of the 1964 Rankin-Bass stop-motion animation classic. Of course you get “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” right up front, but if you listen carefully, you will also hear his “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, one of the most controversial songs ever recorded by Brenda Lee. (It was the second Christmas hit to mention rock and roll, and people still weren’t ready for a Christmas song utilizing the devil’s music. It was a plot against Christmas, see.)
There isn’t space to go into the Rudolph comic books, the Rudolph sequel stories, the full-length motion picture, the spinoffs (Leroy the Redneck Reindeer, Olive the Other Reindeer, etc.) Robert L. May wrote a little more Rudolph material, but was also responsible for “Benny the Bunny Liked Beans” and “Sam the Scaredest Scarecrow”. He died in 1976, and is buried in River Forest. Johnny Marks wrote “Run Rudolph Run” for Chuck Berry, and was also responsible for “Summer Holiday” and “Happy New Year, Darling” (plus “Santa Claus Express”, “When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter”, and so forth). He passed on in 1985 and was buried off in Weymouth, New York. Gene Autry went on to record “Frosty the Snowman” and “Here Comes Peter Cottontail”. He wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus” himself. And Sewell Avery is remembered as a loud conservative businessman with an Anti-Semitic strain. But he, too, had his Christmas moments.