Say the name Robert May, and most people will just shrug their shoulders with indifference. But say the name of Mr. May’s famous creation, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and you’ll likely get a nod and a grin. We all know who Rudolph is. After all, that little reindeer with the shiny red nose has been a main-stay of the Christmas season for many of us for our entire lives.
Rudolph’s story is a familiar tale of the long journey from rejection to heroism. Certainly the metaphors and lessons abound in this Christmas classic. But the story I’d like to share with you today is not fiction at all. But rather an account of how Rudolph actually came to be. It is far lesser known, but still rich in valuable lessons we can all take with us into the New Year.
It was early January, and the holiday season had just drawn to a close. Even though Christmas was 11 months away, department store giant, Montgomery Ward, was already in holiday planning mode. At the time, Ward’s traditional Christmas promotion was to purchase and give away coloring books to children in each of its 620 stores. But this year, Ward’s decided it would be much more cost-effective to create and print its own Christmas-themed book to distribute in its toy departments.
The holiday story was assigned to Ward’s advertising copywriter, Robert May. Mustering-up holiday cheer in the middle of a dreary Chicago January was quite the challenge for this young adman. In addition to an economy that was still impacted by the Depression and growing concerns of an impending war in Europe, Robert’s wife was battling cancer. Mounting medical bills and fears for his wife’s life had become an overwhelming burden. Creating a happy children’s Christmas story would be no easy charge.
Putting these external circumstances aside, Robert searched for inspiration and found it in his own household. Ward’s had wanted the story to feature an animal, and since Robert’s young daughter had always been drawn to the reindeer at the zoo, his mind was made up. A reindeer would be the main character in this story. For the story line, Robert drew from his own childhood experiences of being ostracized because of his shyness and small stature. He also gleaned inspiration from other fables such as The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen.
Robert’s wife passed away in July of that year. Being a good employer, Ward’s offered to reassign the project to someone else. Robert rejected that notion and plowed through to finish his story. In August of 1939 he delivered his 32-page Christmas storybook to the head of the Advertising department.
It was a hit with children, and Ward’s distributed 2.4 million copies that holiday season. The plan was to continue with another 1.6 million copies the following Christmas, but a paper shortage caused by World War II prevented that production run.
Ward’s kept Rudolph on the shelf for the next several years but reintroduced him after the war. Again, the story was a resounding success with 3.6 million books being distributed in its stores.
Although the book was popular with children, Ward’s may not have fully recognized its potential because in 1947, it signed the copyright over to Robert May. Robert appeared to be a bit more forward-thinking than his employer, and he promptly licensed a commercial version of the book. He also developed a variety of Rudolph-themed toys and merchandise such as puzzles, View-Master reels, coffee mugs, snow globes, and house slippers. His vision turned a 32-page promotional giveaway into a major conglomerate that continues to touch multiple generations 80 years later.
2020 likely will go down as one of the most challenging years in recent history. But with challenge comes opportunity. Our hope this holiday season for our customers, staff, friends, and family is that we seize the opportunity and continue to persevere, innovate, and build toward the future. Who knows what impact we may have on future generations?
On behalf of the entire Wind River family, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a healthy, Happy New Year!