Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Turns 50. The Story Behind the Story


Everyone’s favorite reindeer turns 50 this Christmas. The TV Rudolph, that is. The actual character of Rudolph was born 75 years ago in Robert May’s imagination.

You’d be surprised to know that “Rudolph” was almost “Reginald,” but May changed his mind at the last minute. According to Smithsonian Magazine, May based Rudolph’s character on his own lonely childhood. The executives at Montgomery Ward Department Store in Chicago (the people that asked May to come up with a story) were at first afraid that shoppers would think the reindeer was drunk because of his red nose. The company wanted May to come up with a character that they could put in a coloring book to hand out to shoppers. It was a money-saving ploy as they normally bought children’s Christmas stories to hand out to shoppers each year. Surprising everyone at the company, they ended up handing out 2.5 million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that first year…and a legend was born.

Johnny Marks, the man who wrote the famous song about Rudolph, was actually May’s brother-in-law. Gene Autry’s version of the song has sold 150 million copies to date.

The Rankin-Bass production of “Rudolph: the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has aired every year since 1964, making it the longest running program in history. That Rudolph turns 50 this year. However, after the show aired for the first time, audiences called in to complain that Santa didn’t keep his promise to visit the island of misfit toys. So the following year, producers added the scene that has now become permanent. In order to do so, they had to delete a few other scenes such as the elf orchestra and the fate of Yukon Cornelius. But viewers were finally satisfied.

To help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the show, the United States Postal Service has printed 500 million stamps of Rudolph and his friends.

Time Magazine also celebrated by interviewing 84-year-old Paul Soles, the voice of Hermey the elf. The actor said it was ironic to him how the role he was most famous for was an elf that wanted to be a dentist and these days, he doesn’t have any teeth. He also told Time Magazine that the production

“was fun. It was a playground. An after-school play in the park. It was not unlike ice cream on pie after a good meal.”

Adding that,

“It plays three or four times – it’s hard to escape…I don’t believe I own a copy, but I do watch it, it’s nice to be reminded of a good time.”

Rankin-Bass Christmas classic productions have always been a tradition in my family. Ever since I can remember, the month of December consisted of weekly gathering around the TV (those were the days when there was only one TV in the house!) as a family with hot chocolate and marshmallows or spiced apple cider, snuggling up under blankets and watching the Christmas specials, including Rudolph, every year. Just a few years ago, my mom gave me the collection on DVD and I felt just like a little kid again, still keeping up the tradition though I’ve since begun my own household.

What about you?
Did you watch Rudolph and his friends as a kid? If so, do you still?