Thursday, December 16, 2010

May in December

Once upon a time at the behest of his employer Montgomery Ward, a man named Robert L. May penned a children’s Christmas tale. This department store chain desired some kind of holiday giveaway that would win the hearts and minds of little girls and boys and, more importantly, the pocketbook loyalties of their mommies and daddies. And suffice it to say, advertising copywriter May didn’t disappoint with his story, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which chronicled the ups and downs of a somewhat unique member of a very cold society that celebrated sameness above all else.

While Rudolph wasn’t exactly autobiographical—May, after all, wasn’t a four-legged creature with antlers and a nose that, both inexplicably and unpredictably, cast a powerfully bright red luminescence into the ether. Nevertheless, he loosely based the Rudolph character on his own youth as a short and shy boy frequently picked on for being somehow different from the rest. Debuting in 1939, Montgomery Ward dispensed with more than two million Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer booklets at their myriad stores. And even with World War II and a simultaneous paper shortage, six million copies were in print by 1946. This could mean only thing: Rudolph was a bona fide phenomenon. Seeking to take this beloved misfit of a reindeer to new heights, wannabe licensees of all stripes came a-calling.

Unfortunately, from Mr. May's perspective, all rights to Rudolph belonged to the Montgomery Ward Company. And, at the time, his personal life was a sorry mess. His wife, who had long suffered with cancer had passed away, leaving him a widower with a young daughter to raise and a pile of medical bills to pay, which he could not afford. May importuned a man named Sewell Avery, the Montgomery Ward chairman, to hand over the Rudolph copyright to its creator, and Avery complied—a rare act of corporate benevolence that would be inconceivable today. May would no longer have to sweat the bucks and could pay his bills and then some, particularly after two million Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer records were sold with Gene Autry singing the lyrics written by Johnny Marks, who just happened to be Mays’s brother-in-law. Of course, it was the 1964 television special narrated by the avuncular Burl Ives that brought Rudolph and friends to life in perpetuity.

As a footnote here, the original story and the television telling are at odds in a few critical areas. For example, Rudolph had a wholly supportive family in the book. His father wasn’t smudging mud on his nose to conceal his so-called deformity, nor for that matter was he "Donner," a member of Santa's elite team of reindeer. Remember old Donner's embarrassed non-reaction to the oafish and callous reindeer flying coach—a prototype of the typical high school gym teacher—who said, "From now on gang, we won't allow Rudolph to play in any reindeer games." In the book, Rudolph’s family also lived in a working-class community of reindeers, not tony Christmas Town lorded over by the irritable King of Jing-a-ling, who could have, by the way, made Rudolph's young, impressionable life a whole lot less traumatic had he only seen the light a little sooner.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.