But do you recall, the most “famous Reindeer” of all?
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, who first appeared in a 1939 book written by one of Montgomery Ward’s advertising copywriters Robert L. May and given free to children as a way to drive traffic to the stores.
May donated his hand-written first draft and illustrated mock-up to Dartmouth College before his death at age 71 in 1976, and his family later added to what has become a large collection of Rudolph-related documents and merchandise, including a life-sized papier-mache reindeer that now stands among the stacks at the Rauner Special Collections Library. But May’s scrapbook about the book’s launch and success went unnoticed until last year, when Dartmouth archivist Peter Carini came across it while looking for something else.
The scrapbook, which has since been restored and catalogued, includes May’s list of possible names for his story’s title character — from Rodney and Rollo to Reginald and Romeo.
The scrapbook also chronicles the massive marketing campaign Montgomery Ward launched.
Near the front of the scrapbook is a large, colored poster instructing Montgomery Ward stores about how to order and distribute the book. An illustration of Rudolph sweeps across the page, his name written in ornate script. There are exclamation points galore. “The rollinckingest, rip-roaringest, riot-provokingest, Christmas give-away your town has ever seen!” “A laugh and a thrill for every boy and girl in your town (and for their parents, too!)”
Rudolph is described as “the perfect Christmas crowd-bringer,” if stores follow a few rules, including giving the book only to children accompanied by adults. “This will limit `street urchin’ traffic to a minimum, and will bring in the PARENTS … the people you want to sell!”
The response was overwhelming — at a time when a print-run of 50,000 books was considered a best-seller, the company gave away more than 2 million copies that first year, and by the following year was selling an assortment of Rudolph-themed toys and other items.
But lest this become a story about corporate greed, it should be noted that in 1947, Montgomery Ward took the unusual step of turning over the copyright to the book to May, who was struggling financially after the death of his first wife.
“He then made several million dollars using that in various ways, through the movie, the song, merchandising and things like that,” Carini said. “I think it’s a great story, because it shows how corporations used to think of themselves as part of civil society, and how much that has changed.”
May eventually left Montgomery Ward to essentially manage Rudolph’s career, which really took off after May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the song (made famous by Gene Autry in 1949), and the release of a stop-motion animated television special in 1964.
Both the song and movie depart significantly from May’s original plot, however. In May’s story, Rudolph doesn’t live at the North Pole or grow up aspiring to pull Santa’s sleigh — he lives in a reindeer village and Santa discovers him while filling Rudolph’s stocking on a foggy Christmas eve.
May’s story is written in verse, similar to “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore, and opens, “‘Twas the day before Christmas and all through the hills/ The reindeer were playing … enjoying the spills.”
Merry Christmas——Paul Schrader