Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the 1939 creation of Robert May, a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward Company in Chicago. He penned the story of Rudolph as a poem for the store’s holiday booklet, an annual giveaway. Some folks thought the reindeer’s red nose would negate any positives of the story of a misfit as the terminology of the day saw someone with a red nose as a drunkard. May convinced his bosses by having Rudolph drawn as a young deer, too cute for anyone to object to. When the store discontinued the booklets in 1947, May acquired the rights to his work. He published the poem as a children’s illustrated book and sold one hundred thousand copies.
That same year, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, a veteran songwriter and radio producer, thought the poem might make a good song. May gave Marks the green light to give it a try. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer came into being as a song and was pitched to some stars of the day; Perry Como rejected it when he was told he wouldn’t be allowed to change any lyrics, and so did Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby.
In 1947, Gene Autry was riding high off his Christmas hit, Here Comes Santa Claus. He was looking for another Christmas song to follow up on his success, but Rudolph wasn’t to arrive on his doorstep until fall of 1949. The Singing Cowboy made the song his own, and Rudolph was released as a single in Christmas week of 1949. The song shot to the top of the charts, partly due to shrewd marketers. Autry’s Here Comes Santa Claus had a colorful cartoon picture sleeve that helped propel its status among very young boomers. It was decided that Rudolph should also have a picture sleeve, paving the way for singles with picture sleeves for the next couple of decades. Since it remained in the number one spot through the week ending January 5, Autry’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the first hit of 1950.
It seemed the timing couldn’t be better for becoming a beloved classic of a burgeoning Baby Boom generation. Stars leapt at the chance to record it for this new generation. The list of recording stars to croon their version of Rudolph over the next two decades reads like a Who’s Who of popular music. More than 500 recordings were made, including:
1950: Bing Crosby (just a few years after rejecting it)
1957: The Cadillacs did a doo-wop version
1959: Dean Martin
1960: Alvin and the Chipmunks
1960: Paul Anka
1963: The Crystals sang the first rock ‘n roll version
1964: Burl Ives sang it for the Christmas animated special
1965: The Supremes
1968: The Temptations
1970: The Jackson 5
The song went on to sell more than 25 million copies, second only to White Christmas.
As Rudolph soared into the zeitgeist of the Baby Boomer generation, it was only natural that the next step would be to bring the story to television. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was an animated TV special created by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass in 1964. Filmed as stop-motion animation, the characters were posed articulated models, shot frame by frame which were combined to form the full-length cartoon. The result was a very relatable homemade look that inspired many baby boomers to create their own animations with their families’ new Super 8 film camera.
The first airing of the TV Christmas special was on December 6, 1964 and it has been broadcast every year since. The show started out on NBC but has been airing on CBS since 1972. In other words, as boomers grew, it became an annual tradition that they now share with children and grandchildren. As to why it continues to strike a cord with boomers and non-boomers alike, well, Mister B feels it has to be the story. We boomers were carving a path of our own in the Brave New World of the 1960s. Rudolph, Hermey the elf and the Island of Misfit Toys were eminently relatable to a generation of underdogs.
Mister Boomer and his siblings watched the special every year since the first airing in 1964, naturally, in black & white. Brother Boomer was never much interested in the TV adaptation, but his sister really enjoyed it. Mister B did like the Misfit Toys, but especially liked the Abominable Snowmonster. By the time the Rudolph song was sung by Burl Ives at the end of the special, it was anticlimactic. Every kid had heard the song for years and knew the Rudolph story, though the TV special put a new spin to it, with memorable characters.
Did you listen to Gene Autry’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on your record player, boomers? And did you watch the Rudolph TV special every year?