I know you know the rest of the reindeer from reading A Visit From St. Nicholas, the original title of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas but “do you recall, the most famous reindeer of all?” Rudolph, of course. A Visit From St. Nicholas was written anonymously in 1823 in the hope of bringing families together in celebrating a holiday that had gotten out of hand with pagan rituals and celebrations not centered around the family. It was only after the poem was a success and families becoming endeared to it and its content that Moore identified himself as its author. It was a little over one hundred years that Robert L. May was asked to write a story that Montgomery Ward in Chicago could use as its department store’s own children’s book.
May was an advertising copywriter whose job was to promote the department store’s image for the holiday season; so it was, in 1939, that May put pen to paper creating the 9th reindeer, Rudolph. May was the perfect choice as his wit and way with limericks and parodies was the perfect lead to writing a children’s story. This obvious reason for the choice was anything but as May didn’t see himself as a winner but a bit of an outcast who at the age of 35 was pounding out ad copy for the department story while “visions” of writing the Great American novel eluded him.
But he took on the task but his boss asked, “Can’t you come up with anything better?” May believed in his story and getting his buddy in the art department to draw up some sketches, they convinced the boss of its promotional advantage.
The success of the book is history with Montgomery Ward printing more than 2 million copies throughout the United States. Through the death of his wife and living on a copywriter’s salary Montgomery Ward offered to take the effort on as its own but May held onto it and after WW II, the store’s CEO gave him the rights to the song, helping him to work his way out of the debts he had incurred during his wife’s illness. Luck is sometimes elusive but in this case May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, a songwriter was asked by May to write a song about Rudolph. By the way, some of the names May was working with were Roddy, Roland, Rollo, Romeo and Reginald. In his own hand, he circled Rudolph and Reginald.
Johnny Marks went onto write the song we all sang this past holiday season and I for one will not miss it for another 365 days as it was my job to teach or reteach 416 elementary children to sing it at our sing-along, the last day of school. There are silly* words that have been added over the years and I had all I could do to keep the children from equating Rudolph’s nose with a light bulb or inserting “monopoly” into reindeer games. When you read May’s story, you will find lines from it woven into the song that Marks wrote. Although of the Jewish faith, Marks enjoyed writing Christmas songs and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, A Merry Merry Christmas to You, The Night Before Christmas song and When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter are some of our holiday favorites. Gene Autry alone sold 25 million records of Rudolph and it was very nostalgic to hear him once again this holiday season. Rudolph went onto fame with the Rankin/Bass cartoon, taking its place with other successful cartoons of the middle 70s.
It would appear by the list of Mark’s songs that the 40s was a successful decade of holiday songs. Well, don’t go any further, you are right with Frosty the Snow Man being written in 1950 by two men, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins. Both Rudolph and Snowy had cute publisher’s names: Rudolph was the St. Nicholas Music Inc. in New York City and Snowy, Hill and Range Songs, Inc. also in the city. The song appears to have taken place in White Plains, New York and at one time, an annual parade was held in the snowman’s honor. Rankin and Bass also set this song to animation and this too can be seen during the holidays with the original lyrics of Snowy coming back someday rather than Christmas day. Gene Autry made this another hit with Nelson and Rollins writing Here Comes Peter Cottontail and the theme song for Smoky the Bear.
In laying out all of the music that I have carried from house to house and school to school, it is interesting to note the myriad of holiday songs written in the early 50s. We just keep on singing them and each generation that learns them hasn’t a clue as to its age or its success for over fifty years. Silver Bells, Up On the Housetop, I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, all making their debut at that time. Even earlier White Christmas, written by Irving Berlin, as early as 1940, was one of America’s most popular songs. Bing Crosby introduced a new version of White Christmas in the movie, Holiday Inn and, of course, it was sung throughout the movie entitled White Christmas. Among Berlin’s successes are Easter Parade, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, There’s No Business Like Show Business and many, many more. George Gershwin, an equally talented musician considered Berlin “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived”.
One of my favorites and the sheet music with the most tears and rips is Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town written in 1934 by Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots with Winter Wonderland written in the same year by Felix Bernard and Dick Smith. Working in the elementary school All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth was a favorite of the 2nd graders as they were losing their front teeth right in front of me. One such fella had his tooth ready to come out but it just wouldn’t cooperate at a holiday sing-along at Barnes & Noble. I offered him a cookie which the tooth devoured with no trouble at all so I asked his mom if he could have a hard cookie; well, the tooth fairy was busy that night leaving him a dollar. My tooth fairies left me a quarter if I remember correctly.
*I won’t tell you anymore of the silly words because I made my kids sing it at least once for me the way Johnny Marks wrote it. One day, knowing I didn’t like the silly words they sang it while “shushing” those kids who insisted on singing them.
Happy New Year Everyone