You’ll never hear…or see this Christmas Classic the same way again.
It’s 1938…in the depths of the Great Depression.
Bob May is staring out the window of his Chicago apartment into a chilly December night, with four-year-old daughter Barbara sobbing on his lap, unable to comprehend why it was her mommy…Bob’s wife Evelyn, couldn’t come home for Christmas.
Was Evelyn an on-the-go executive with a demanding schedule? A party girl who didn’t give a hoot about hubby and daughter?
Uh…no. If it were only that simple.
Evelyn had cancer. She was dying…and would pass away days before Christmas.
Bob’s grief turned to anger as he considered his life…always picked on as a child, bullied and called names by the other kids…Bob was small as a child and since he was different, never fit in with the others.
But as he matured, he went to college and married Evelyn, who blessed Bob with their wonderful daughter Barbara as he made a living as a copywriter for Montgomery Ward. (The other Chicago-based department store, in case you’re too young to remember “Wards”.)
Evelyn’s fight with cancer drained the May’s savings to a point where they would up in a drafty two-room apartment in the slums of the Windy City…no money to buy any presents…but that wouldn’t stop Bob from doing something to try and bring a smile to his precious daughter.
He turned his life into a Christmas fable, a story book about an outcast reindeer named Rudolph, and gave it to Barbara for Christmas 1938.
The general manager at Wards caught wind of Bob May’s book and bought the rights, printing and distributing some 6,000,000 copies of “Rudolph” before a major publisher offered to purchase the rights from Wards in 1946…looking to publish an updated version.
The CEO of Montgomery Ward returned all rights back to Bob May, who by 1946 was remarried and had a growing family. They became wealthy off the toy and merchandise deals that followed the Wards CEO’s generosity.
But as they say…that’s not all.
Because Bob May had this brother-in-law named…wait for it…
Kinda sad in this age of digital downloads people don’t read record labels and jackets like they once did. Howdya read an mp3?
But Johnny Marks was a legendary Christmas songwriter. He became a legend putting his brother-in-law Bob’s story to music. Many years later…after Johnny passed, a good friend and co-worker of his, Marvin Drager, set out to share “the untold story”. I once had the honor of interviewing Marvin a few days before Christmas. Here he talks about how the New York songwriting establishment – “Tin Pan Alley”- reacted to “Rudolph”, and how a trusted friend helped him follow his heart.
Gene Autry recorded “Rudolph” after such icons as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore turned it down. Today it stands as the second-best selling Christmas song of all time (behind Crosby’s 1942 recording of “White Christmas”), and led to Johnny Marks’ writing more iconic Christmas hits, like “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”.
And “Rudolph” went on to become one of those 1960’s Rankin-Bass TV Classics that are now, forever, a part of the holiday season.
And finally, here’s a charming video of Gene Autry’s hit I found on YouTube.
Special thanks to John Quayle and Dawn Hughes for calling Bob May’s story to my attention…and to Dave – you know who you are – for helping set up the Marvin Drager interview.