Monday, September 28, 2009

You Could Even Say It Glows

It may only be September, but one of our more recent reference questions gave us a hankering for hot chocolate and stop-motion animated TV specials!

On Saturday afternoon, a patron asked us if we could provide her with some information about the history of the popular Christmas song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." After fine-tuning our search strategy within our online catalog, we zeroed in on a book that looked like the perfect resource: Ace Collins' Stories behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. In it, a small section devoted to the history behind everyone's favorite rosy-nosed ruminant mammal comprises the book's 24th chapter.

Thankfully, the item was checked in on our shelves and we, along with our patron, were able to take a gander at the quality of its contents. We were pleased to find that not only was the book helpfully informative, but it was entertaining to boot! According to Collins' work, Bob May, an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward, was the man behind the famous Christmas tune. In 1938, May was struggling to provide for his cancer-stricken wife, Evelyn, and small daughter, Barbara. When his daughter climbed up into his lap one night after visiting Evelyn in the hospital and asked "Why isn't my mommy just like everybody else's mommy?," May was inspired to find a creative way to comfort his daughter and reassure her that being different wasn't always a bad thing.

May used his copywriting magic to create the tale of Rudolph, a reindeer with a large red nose who often felt out of place because of his unique appearance. The story turned out to be a hit with Barbara and its retelling became a nightly ritual within the May family's household, with the plot and characters becoming more elaborate with each evening's recount. Since he was unable to afford an expensive Christmas gift for Barbara that year, May crafted his story into a homemade book for the little girl and presented it to her on Christmas morning in 1938. Barbara was expectedly delighted, and it wasn't long before May's co-workers found out about his heartwarming creation. They encouraged him to share the story at a Montgomery Ward holiday party, which attracted the attention of the head of the company. The generous CEO bought the rights to May's homemade book and had tens of thousands of its copies printed and shipped to Wards stories across the nation just in time for the 1939 holiday season. By 1946, the store had given away six million copies of May's Rudolph, and every major publishing house in the country was clamoring for a chance to print a new version of the story. The rights were given back to May, who had since remarried after Evelyn's passing, and the struggling copywriter experienced a tremendous amount of wealth after the book's mass-market release that year.

Rudolph became an instant best seller, inspiring dozens of toy and product deals shortly after its commercial release. It wasn't long afterwards that May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, who had written music for a handful of major recording stars during that time, suggested that the story be turned into a song. After Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, and a few other popular artists passed on the demo that Marks eventually created, Gene Autry, who was looking for a follow-up tune to his earlier Christmas hit, "Here Comes Santa Claus," finally gave the song a chance. At the urging of his wife, Autry recorded the song for Columbia Records in 1949 and the rest, as they say, is history. Gene Autry's version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" became the second best-selling Christmas song of all time, just behind "White Christmas."

In the immortal words of Paul Harvey, now you know the rest of the story!

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