A Reindeer Tale – How Rudolph became a Christmas hit

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By Bill Bronk

Once upon a time in the wonderful, whimsical world of make-believe an enchanting story was told of a jolly old elf and his high-flying herd of eight remarkable reindeer. As time passed, the story took on a life of its own, and forever after, according to those who really know about such magical things, that seemingly unlikely team of man and antlered beast, without fail, has reportedly been seen every Christmas Eve since, coursing through the moon-lit winter skies, traveling the globe over … pulling a sleigh chock-full of toys and alighting on the snow-covered rooftops of only good girls and boys. And awaited with great excitement and expectation, although a wee bit impatiently!

Our story, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” is a Christmas poem with 56 lines of pure delight which most people know as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  At Christmastime in 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, a Professor of Divinity and Biblical Learning, and a father of six, wanted to do something special for his children: Catherine, Charity, Mary, Clement, William and Teresa. So he wrote the poem for his family’s enjoyment, and read it to them on Christmas Day, not knowing that a family friend, a Miss H. Butler, who somehow garnered a copy, sent it to Orville L. Holley, the editor of the Troy (NY) Sentinel…who published it (anonymously) for the first time a year later on December 23, 1823. Moore, who at first was reluctant to take credit for the poem accepted ownership when it was included in a book of his poetry published in 1844.

St. Nicholas, as every hurried, harried and haggard parent (stalwart hunters of Christmas wish-list items) knows, is the patron saint of children, and harkens back to the Middle Ages. But from the early 19th century onward he is known by many as St. Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santa and Santa Claus. Of considerable significance, up to the time of Moore’s poem, it was believed that no sleigh, and no reindeer, either earth-bound or of the high-flying variety, had ever been associated with Santa Claus as the mode of transportation used to deliver his yearly bounty. Early in his now-celebrated poem, Moore writes this about Santa’s reindeer:

“When, what to my wondering eyes should appear

 But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

But interestingly, something not so well known is that another poem exists…with Santa’s sleigh being pulled by a reindeer. It seems that in 1821, even before Professor Moore wrote what is now considered a Christmas classic, another poem was published, titled “The Children’s Friend, Number III, A New-Year’s Present, To The Little Ones, From Five To Twelve (New York: Published by William B. Gilley, No. 92 Broadway. 1821”.

Appearing in a 16-page booklet, the 32-line poem includes an illustration of Santa in a sleigh filled with goodies, hitched to a reindeer and getting ready to take flight. Santa and his sleigh are sitting atop a roof next to a chimney. The author and illustrator are unknown. And except for his scraggly looking beard, “Old Santeclaus” bears little resemblance to the Santa image created by the German born American cartoonist, Thomas Nast — who pictured Santa as described in Moore’s poem, with a round belly, rosy cheeks, merry dimples and a nose like a cherry, but added such other characteristics as him sporting a big bushy white beard and mustache, wearing a red coat and trousers with white cuffs, black belt and boots, and smoking a long-stemmed pipe. The Santa image we know today was created by Nast in 1870.

Here are four lines from the fourth stanza of the anonymous “The Children’s Friend” poem:

“Old Santeclaus with much delight

His reindeer drives this frosty night

O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow

To bring his yearly gifts to you”.

Was it coincidence, or did Professor Moore know about the earlier poem and borrow the idea of using reindeer and a sleigh for his own?  Or does it even matter? Almost 200 years later, it’s more relevant to know that our furry friends from the frozen North are an accepted part of our Christmas tradition, embedded in the hearts and minds of every one of our kids — past and present and no doubt will be for time immemorial.

At this point you might be disappointed and thinking, “Hey, I don’t think this is about Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Ah, but it is!  First, though, it was important to show how reindeer became an essential part of the most festive, most fun-filled and most anticipated holiday celebration ever, especially for our little ones. Without the presence of reindeer in the delightfully cheery and entertaining tales we’ve cited, it’s unlikely there would ever have been a Rudolph or his hooved brethren lighting the way and pulling the sleigh for Santa on Christmas Eve.

Now that we’ve cleared a pathway and blazed a trail for Rudolph, the young buck reindeer with the prominent, plum-sized proboscis that glows a bright cherry red… where did he come from? Who had the spark of genius that created what would eventually become an industry unto itself — with books, games, toys, recordings, clothing, movies, a television show and all other kinds of “what-not” — and in the process propel Rudolph to icon status as the ninth reindeer, “the most famous reindeer of all.”

Would you believe another poem? Yes, but in this case, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, the 1939 brain-child of Robert L. May, a copywriter for the former giant department store retailer and catalog house, Montgomery Ward, known to America’s kids in the ’50s as “Monkey Wards”… began life as one of Ward’s annual Christmas promotions. To save Wards the expense of buying books to be given out by Santa as giveaways to the wide-eyed kids visiting the stores with their parents, May was tasked with coming up with a Christmas story that would be part of a coloring book that Wards would produce themselves.

In the early stages of his assignment, as the story was unfolding, May considered a moose for the starring role, but chose a reindeer because they are known to be more friendly.  Also under consideration was our hero’s name, with Rudolph’s alliterative qualities winning out over Roland, Romeo, Reginald, Roderick and Rollo. For the poem, not surprisingly, May used the same poetic meter as the classic “A Visit From St. Nicholas”.  The story and 32-page coloring book were an instant success and focused on a misfit reindeer who was shunned by his peers because of his peculiar handicap. But all’s well that ends well, as on one foggy Christmas Eve, Rudolph, with his nose so bright, stepped up heroically, accepted the mantle of leadership and went on to fame and glory guiding Santa’s reindeer team through the dusky December night skies.

“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, the song, is not only the second most popular holiday classic behind “White Christmas,” but one of the best selling songs of all time.  How did we get from a children’s poem in a “Monkey Wards” Christmas coloring book to such a lofty status? Serendipity, partially, but also family ties.

After Montgomery Ward, as an act of goodwill, transferred the Rudolph copyright to May in 1947, he didn’t waste any time in establishing his company, the appropriately named St. Nicholas Music, Inc. A best-selling hard-cover book was published that same year, and in 1948 a nine minute cartoon short was shown in theaters. The cartoon included the not yet recorded “The Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” song, written by Johnny Marks, a radio producer and fledgling songwriter…who just happened to be May’s brother-in-law. “Rudolph,” in the film directed by Max Fleischer, was sung by various members of an unnamed choral group (taking turns with the lead) with a nice arrangement by Harry R. Wilson. Additional exposure was received in early November 1949, when Harry Brannon, an American pop singer on New York City’s WOR Mutual Broadcasting Company (which broadcast coast to coast) introduced “Rudolph” to the public via WOR’s radio audience.  While Rudolph was becoming more of a household name, the big breakthrough on the world stage was yet to come.

Enter Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy, not with Champion the Wonder Horse at his side, but with the Pinafores Trio, who in 1949 came up with a rootin’, tootin’ version of “Rudolph,” which in its first year, sold two million copies alone, on the way to becoming the biggest hit of Autry’s recording career. Recorded on June 27, 1949 and released on September 1st (as the B-side of “If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas”), the song quickly moved up the charts in November and December and peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on the 1st week of January, 1950 (Columbia 78 38610; 78 Children’s Series MJV 56-1 with yellow label and image of Rudolph with his red nose). To help promote the song, Autry sang it on his Melody Ranch radio shows on CBS radio and introduced it at his rodeo performances at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

 You know Dasher, and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen

Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen

But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all.

Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, had a very shiny nose

And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows

All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names

They never let poor Rudolph play in any reindeer games.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say

Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight

Then how the reindeer loved him, as they shouted out with glee

Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, you’ll go down in history.

                                                                                                                                       Lyrics by: Johnny Marks

But as sometimes happens with a song not well liked by a singer who’s been asked to record it, “Rudolph” came close to being a footnote to the otherwise successful launch of young Rudolph’s career. Such songsters as Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore and Perry Como, who were offered the song initially, turned it down, concerned that the song was either too slow, changes could not be made to the lyrics or that it might somehow compete with the hallowed ground of the big man himself, Santa Claus. The thought was that it wouldn’t be good for their image. Even Gene Autry had doubts at first. While Autry’s wife, Ina, liked the song, it was not so much her influence that persuaded him to record “Rudolph”, but his music director, Carl Cotner, who told him “I think it’s a good song for you.” With Autry’s go-ahead, Cotner scored the arrangement and “Rudolph” was recorded by Gene and his fellow musicians in one take — something that doesn’t happen too often in the record business. That information, appearing on GeneAutry.com, the official Gene Autry website, is directly attributed to Gene Autry’s official biographer Holly George-Warren in an excerpt from her book “Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry”.

Beginning in 1949, according to GeneAutry.com, and over a span of 40 years, Autry’s recording of  “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has sold 25 million copies. One can only imagine how many additional copies have been sold over the last 25 years. And as impressive as those figures are, the hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com website reports that more than seven million copies of sheet music and 160 million recordings of “Rudolph” have been sold by the more than 500 artists who have recorded it, including those reluctant and tardy few who passed on it the first time around.

As noted above, Gene Autry’s rendition of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” went all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard Best Selling Pop Singles chart, achieving the same status on both the Best Selling Children’s Record Chart and the Country & Western Records Most Played chart. His recording is a classic, much favored by its composer, Johnny Marks, and beloved the world over. Autry’s solo performance is enhanced by the Pinafores on the last chorus… and superbly accompanied in the Autry style by guitar, violin, clarinet, piano and those jingling, jangling sleigh bells. It’s a simple song, brought to life with a little bit of magic, and an inspiring message that brings joy to any and all, regardless of age.

What’s interesting about “Rudolph,” performance wise, is that it lends itself to just about every music style or genre you can think of. In addition to Gene Autry’s recording, several other performers or groups, in the decade after “Rudolph” first hit the airwaves, have reached the charts with notable recordings that grabbed the public’s attention.

About a year after Autry’s effort was successful, Bing Crosby hopped on the bandwagon with an entertaining version of his own. “Der Bingle,” along with Jud Conlon’s Rhythmaires and the John Scott Trotter Orchestra crooned softly through “Rudolph,” but humorously injected such adlibs as “I say Rudolph, I say, I say Rudolph” and “Look-a-here, Rudolph,” while a member of the chorus was impersonating Rudolph with a childish voice by singing “I’m Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” etc. The record (Decca Children’s Series 45 9-88050) earned a NO. 6 spot on the Billboard Best Selling Children’s Record chart and No. 14 on Billboard’s Best Selling Pop Singles chart. Crosby liked the song so much, that over the years, on his radio and television shows he performed it with the Andrews Sisters, Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald.

Spike Jones and His City Slickers (a/k/a “The Musical Depreciation Revue), also in 1950, reached No. 7 on Billboard’s Best Selling Pop chart and No. 8 on the Best Selling Children’s Record chart (RCA 45 47-3934) with a very funny rendition. The vocal is by Rudolph (himself) with Santa Claus and The Four Reindeer. The song opens with Spike Jones picking up a ringing phone, saying “Hello, Milky Way Garage, located between Heaven and Earth.” Then Rudolph (actually George Rock), with his child-like voice, says “Hi, this is Rudolph” and immediately gets the brush-off from Jones who says “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Then, Santa calls the garage explaining that all eight of his reindeer are out of commission for various reasons. Rudolph breaks into the conversation seeing an opportunity to save the day. And of course he does. Along with the zany antics, there is some good singing throughout. It’s easy to see why the song (with special lyrics by Eddie Maxwell) was such a big hit…with kids and everyone else.

In 1950, Red Foley, a singer-songwriter, musician and radio and television host, known as “Mr. Country Music”, and the Little Foleys (Shirley, Julie and Jenny)  climbed to No. 8 on Billboard’s Best Selling Children’s Record chart (Decca Children’s Series 78 K-23 (76777).  It was a delightful version aimed for children, with Foley and his daughters taking turns with the lead, slipping in some nice harmony with a rumbling bass voice imitating a tuba …and all of it supported by some interesting accompaniment, including guitars and kazoos.

The Cadillacs, a Harlem doo-wop and rock n’ roll group, peaked at No. 11 on Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues Records chart in December of 1957 (Josie 45 807). With the orchestra directed by Jesse Powell, the group put out a rockin’ good “Rudolph.” Beginning with the narrative, “While walkin’ down the road on Christmas Day, I saw a reindeer with his nose all red — Rudolph!”….the song took off with everything you’d expect from a doo-wop group — great harmonies, plenty of dooby dooby doos, ahs and hand-claps, along with a terrific sax break.

The Charts saw three “Rudolph” entries in 1960: The Chipmunks, The Melodeers and Paul Anka. The Chipmunks with David Seville climbed as high as No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart (Liberty 45 R-55289). The song opens with Seville saying “c’mon fellas, I’ve been walkin’ around the North Pole with you for two days and I’m cold and tired. Where’s the surprise you brought me to see?” The Chipmunks introduce Rudolph to Seville who says, “who’s Rudolph?” Rudolph, who has a cold with a stuffy nose starts singing, telling Seville the story the rest of the world already knows. Throughout the song, Rudolph and the Chipmunks alternate verses and harmonize together, with Alvin, Simon and Theodore engaging in the familiar Chipmunk chatter they are known for.  A popular Christmas novelty number still heard on today’s radio.

The Melodeers, another doo-wop group, managed to eke out No. 71 on Billboard’s Hot 100 (Studio Records 45 9908). This is unmistakably in the doo-wop style, replete with “bong, bong, bongs, sha dah dah dot dot dahs” and backed up by a booming bass voice intoning “Yeah” throughout. Johnny Marks, the composer, whose comments appear on an advertising poster, “A new Rudolph Captures the Nation”:  says …”Look what they did to my song.” But no indication if he liked it. The song was arranged by Vince Catalano…and except for the lyrics, it’s darnn near unrecognizable.

Paul Anka’s 1960 entry only reached No. 107 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under Singles chart…but it’s a keeper (ABC-Paramount 45-10169). Anka warns us: “On Christmas Eve, look in the sky, you’ll see a little red light that’s gonna catch your eye. It’s gonna shine, it’s gonna glow, it’s gonna let the whole world know.” Then he cuts loose on “Rudolph” and never looks back. He swings in the manner of Sinatra, Bennett and Darin. Arranged and conducted by Sid Feller, Anka goes all out with powerful vocals supported by a choral group charming us with “doodely, doodely, doos” and a big band with lots of brass. Anka ends it with a big “Shine on, Mr. Red-Nose”.

With over 500 plus recordings of “Rudolph”, it’s hard to single out a few non-charted efforts to highlight, but here are some terrific versions that should satisfy a wide range of appetites:  Dean Martin (Capitol LP T-91285 – A Winter Romance); The Temptations (Gordy 45 G-7082); Alan Jackson (Arista 45 07882); The Crystals (Pavillion 45 Z58-03333); Ramsey Lewis (Cadet 45 5553);  Lynyrd Skynyrd (CD CMC Internationall – Christmas Time Again); Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians (Decca 45 27803); Ray Charles (Columbia LP FC-40125 – The Spirit of Christmas); Ella Fitzgerald (Verve LP MG VS-64042 – Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas); Burl Ives (Decca LP DL-34327 – Original Soundtrack from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV Special); Merle Haggard (Epic LP – 38307 – Goin’ Home for Christmas); Andre Rieu (Denon CD-2006 – Christmas Around the World); Lynn Morris (The Essential Bluegrass Christmas Collection – Christmas Time’s A Comin’ – Time Life – CD 18988) and Neil Diamond (Columbia CD CK 66465 – The Christmas Album, Volume II).

 

To close with a little bit of humour, here’s one from 1952 that’s served up by the legendary comedian Jimmy (“The Schnoz”) Durante, clearly meant for kids, but everyone ought to get a few chuckles out of this one (Golden Records 78 – S 32:85; Wonderland LP-148). After Durante, with his scratchy voice and crusty demeanor (accompanied by The Sandpipers and the Mitch Miller Orchestra), sings “Rudolph” through once, he says “Stop the music, stop the music.  Is that you, Santa Claus?” Before Santa can answer, Durante, thinking that Rudolph’s nose is no longer red, tells Santa that “my services are available”. Santa tells him that Rudolph and all of his reindeer now have red noses because they’ve just come in after playing out in the snow. Durante responds with “everyone wants to get into the act,” a line that often came up in his television skits. As the song winds down, and before he sings the last refrain Durante says, “It just goes to prove what I’ve always said.  You need a special kind of nose for a special kind of job.” For someone who enjoys Jimmie Durante’s schtick, this song is a gift.

“A Visit from St. Nicholas,” “The Children’s Friend” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” all have one thing in common: Christmastime poems that feature reindeer sharing the spotlight with Santa Claus. Not only have our fantastical flying friends become an important and memorable part of our Christmas traditions, but as faithful and loyal companions to the jolly old elf, they have won the hearts and tickled the funny bones of both the young and the young-at-heart. With Rudolph and his big, beaming, bright-red-nose leading the way, and a world-wide audience roundly singing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, how could we…and Santa… ever get lost?

On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer, on Vixen

 On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner, on Blitzen….on Rudolph!  

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