This is part 17 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series. This post is the 100th post of “Pastor’s Ponderings” since I began writing again August 29. Thank you for your support. Because you read, I write.
What has become one of the favorite Christmas songs of all time, (Some argue it holds the second spot behind Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” My research,however, shows Gene Autry’s version, the original recording, holds fourth place behind “White Christmas,” Bing Crosby’s “Silent Night” and Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is You.” It may be that with the addition of other recordings such as Burl Ives, The Temptations, The Supremes and the Jackson 5 to name only a few, the combined sales bring it up the the number two position) almost didn’t happen because no one wanted to record it. The likes of Bing Crosby (He did later record the song, after it was already a hit) and Dinah Shore turned it down because they thought the song to silly.
The story behind the song is anything but silly. As Christmas 1938 approached the country was beginning to recover from the Great Depression but many were still hurting. One of those was a copywriter for Montgomery Ward, Bob May, who was watching his wife, Evelyn, unsuccessfully battle cancer. The fight had gone on for two years and both knew the end was near.
The couple had a young daughter named Barbara. One night after visiting her mother’s room, young Barbara climbed up in her daddy’s lap and wanted to know why her mother wasn’t like all the other mothers. Barbara couldn’t remember a time when her mother played with her or read her stories or went for walks with her the way all her friend’s mothers did.
All his life, Bob had been a story teller. He sat down with his daughter and started telling her a story about a reindeer named Rollo who was part Bob and part Evelyn and definitely different from all the other reindeer. Barbara loved it and the next night wanted to hear the story again. The pattern continued for more than a week. Each time Bob would retell the story to Barbara it became more complex. Bob visited the zoo to observe the reindeer. As he walked home he noticed red lights in the Chicago harbor that could still be seen through the growing fog.
May decided to make Barbara a homemade book of Rollo’s story. About the time he finished the book Evelyn passed away. Everyone who came to the May home was introduced to the story by young Barbara. One of the visitors worked with May at Montgomery Ward and convinced him to share the story at the company New Year’s Eve party. May had written many skits for the party in the past so it wasn’t something uncommon for him to be there.
Some people were confused by the story. Some thought it silly. Others loved it. One who loved it was Montgomery Ward CEO Stewell Avery. He saw potential in May’s story. For years Montgomery Ward had given away coloring books to children of customers during the Christmas season. Avery wanted May to turn Rollo into a marketing campaign for the next Christmas. He offered May $300, a good some in 1939, to produce the idea. May, cash strapped after his wife’s medical expenses, grabbed the opportunity. Avery wasn’t crazy about the reindeer angle. A moose was suggested, but May stuck by the reindeer, changing his name to Rudolph and Avery relented.
When Christmas 1939 came, Rudolph was a hit. They repeated the campaign in 1940. Rudolph went into hiding during the war years. Avery and others feared Rudolph sounded to German and didn’t want to be seen as not supporting the war effort. When the war ended Rudolph came back.
A couple of things happened next. Publishing companies were coming to Avery and May and wanting to make book deals. Avery, feeling it was the right thing to do relinquished all Montgomery Ward rights to Rudolph to May. The second thing was the story becoming a song. May had remarried and his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was a song writer. Avery encouraged May to find a more experienced song writer but again May stuck to his plan. Marks said he went for a walk one day and when he returned he had the song. May received five percent of any sales for the song. Marks, always claimed himself as the lone writer but it is safe to say, at best the song was a team effort. The song also gained Marks “Songwriter of the Year” in 1949.
As said above, many people were approached about recording the song who turned it down. Gene Autry wasn’t crazy about the song. He was looking for a Christmas follow-up to his hit “Here Come’s Santa Claus,” but he didn’t think this was it. His wife had heard Rudolph and wanted Autry to record it. He had four hours of studio time where he planned to record three songs, all of which he thought had better chances than Rudolph. When he finished recording the three songs, there was 20 minutes left in his session. Autry decided to pull out Rudolph and give it to the band. They only had time for one take. It was the hit.
Debuting in November of 1949, the song made it to number 1 on the hit parade the first week of January 1950. The next week it fell completely from the charts, making it the only song ever to fall from number 1 to nothing in a week’s time.
Still, in all, Rudolph has become a perennial favorite everywhere. With stories, books, movies, merchandise and five percent of a very popular song, the Montgomery Ward Copywriter became a very wealthy man. That isn’t bad for a story that he made up to help his daughter through the illness and coming loss of her mother. Rudolph took on a life of his own.
Have you ever had a project that took on a life of it’s own?
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.