How Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer Almost Didn’t Happen

How Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer Almost Didn’t Happen

In recent Wall Street Journal, Bob Greene shares a delightful column headlined “Rudolph Almost Wasn’t The Most Famous Reindeer.”

Most all of us can sing a few bars of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” and we certainly hear the song piped in on the intercom as we shop.

But the creation of Rudolph almost didn’t happen. Here’s why:

In 1939, Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert May was struggling with a new assignment: His boss asked him to conceive a picture book that Ward could sell.

The assignment came at a tough time: His wife was suffering from a long illness. He was broke and his only copy assignments were boring… writing about men’s white shirts, for example. Once, he had seen himself writing a great American novel. But now hearing younger colleagues voicing big career plans, May felt like a loser.

As Greene writes, the morning he got the assignment, he was directed to conceive “an animal story with a main character like Ferdinand the Bull.”

But May had other ideas. He went back to a personal essay he had written in the Gettysburg Times about how a small deer, Rudolph, came into prominence. May was quick to decide that the animal should be a reindeer given the Santa Claus theme.

He asked himself, “What could a little reindeer teach children?”

One night, looking out his window, May noticed a street light dimmed by fog. “Eureka! A light! A big bright red nose that could guide Santa through the fog.”

He took his idea to his boss, who rejected it outright. Cartoonists often use red noses to depict drunkenness, an image that could hurt Montgomery Ward, he explained. “Can’t you do better than that?” implored May’s boss.

But May knew in his heart the idea was good one and went around his boss to an art department colleague, Denver Gillen, who drew the deer with a big red nose and made him look endearing.

A week or so later May went back to his boss with the drawing and got the green light to proceed on the project. But it had to be rushed in order to have the books printed in time for Christmas.

Sadly, May’s wife died in July. His boss, thinking May was too grieved to continue working on the book, offered to let someone else finish it.

May resisted. His instincts told him he needed Rudolph more than ever and launched into the writing the book. By late August, it was done.

Montgomery Ward customers loved the Rudolph character and two million of them took home copies of the give-away book. A publisher printed a version for book stores and this mass-marketed edition became a best-seller.

Good things continued to happen. May’s brother-in-law turned the story into a song which Gene Autry recorded in 1949. The record became a mash-hit and was followed by animated TV specials and book spinoffs.

All because Robert May followed his instincts and stuck to his guns.


-Bosses can sometimes be short-sighted. Stand up for your idea. The worst thing that can happen is you are shown the door, but the upside of standing your ground is so worth it.

-Robert May channeled his own loser mentality into the character of Rudolph whose bright nose was viewed as a strange anomaly by  his fellow deer.

-But that all changed when Santa chose Rudolf with his “nose so bright” to guide his sleigh through the dark.

– There’s a big lesson here:

Instead of trying to ignore or change the thing that makes you different: Feature it!

I’m proof positive this can happen. I have a deep southern accent from growing up in rural North Carolina. After hearing me speak at an event, a male attendee asked if I wanted to speak internationally. “You’ll have to lose the accent,” he advised. But he was dead wrong. Over the years, as I’ve keynoted internationally, my accent has become my personal signature. When international audiences are wearing headphones, and I point out my accent and its origin, smiles appear on their faces and my accent playfully bonds me to those audiences.  Moreover, people seem to remember me because of it.

This holiday season, carry the story of Rudolf in your heart.

And, in the New Year when you hit some rough patches, as we all do, remember Robert May who bloomed from “loser” to “a long-remembered, beloved story teller.

Happy holidays, everyone! Contributor

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