How the Great Depression Gave America Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

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The most famous reindeer of them all is also the youngest, born just a couple of years prior to World War II and interestingly, his existence can be linked to a Jew during the American Great Depression.

Robert May grew up in a wealthy Jewish home in the outskirts of New York City; however, the family’s affluence was lost when the Great Depression struck the family hard in 1929 and the May’s lost all of their wealth.

In the years to come, the family moved to Chicago and Robert May took a job as a low-paid advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward.

Throughout the 1930s, the company had been purchasing and giving away coloring books to children for Christmas each year and it was decided that creating their own book would save money and be a nice good-will gesture to customers.

May was tasked by Montgomery Ward officials to write a cheery Christmas book for shoppers, one in which the company suggested that an animal be the star of the book.

During this same time period, May’s wife had contracted cancer and was dying at home, leaving her husband and 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, widowed and motherless.

Drawing on the dark mood he was experiencing in his personal life, May began putting together the words of a poem that would one day find its way into Christmas traditions around the globe.

May’s wife Evelyn died in July 1939 and the following month, he completed the poem.

That Christmas the first Rudolph booklet was distributed and shoppers loved the poem so much that 2.4 million copies were distributed.

The outbreak of World War II restricted paper use and prevented republishing until 1946, when Montgomery Ward distributed an additional 3.6 million copies of the booklet to their customers.

Though Montgomery Ward owned rights to the poem, in 1946, the company’s president gave the copyright rights to the poem to May, free and clear, a gesture of thanks for May’s dedication during the time of his wife’s cancer.

In 1948, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote an musical adaption of Rudolph. Though the song was turned down by such popular vocalists as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, it was recorded by the singing cowboy Gene Autry. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was released in 1949 and became a phenomenal success, selling more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of “White Christmas”.

In 1964, an adaption of a stop-motion video movie of Rudolph was filmed in Tokyo, Japan, with all sound recordings done in Toronto, Canada, the show premiered on NBC, forever solidifying Rudolph’s place as the most famous reindeer of them all.

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