The story behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Posted Dec. 24, 2010, at 5:25 p.m.

Forget “Holiday Inn.” Forget “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They should make a movie about Bob May.

I would guess you have never heard of Bobby. But you sure have heard of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Everybody loves Rudolph, who has eclipsed the elves as our favorite Santa co-star.

May was no dummy, since he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth in 1926. He ended up working for the Chicago department store Montgomery Ward. The company had been giving away expensive coloring books for years. In an effort to trim the budget, Montgomery Ward decided to produce its own book.

Enter Mr. May.

Let’s write the movie script.

I know it’s too late, but I see Jimmy Stewart in the role.

Fade in on a shabby Chicago apartment. The date is late December 1938. The father is trying to comfort daughter Barbara, crying on the couch. I see Natalie Wood, naturally, as the little girl. She asks why her mother, Evelyn, can’t be like the other mommies. The answer is that the mother is dying of cancer in the hospital and the medical bills are taking the money — all the money. There is precious little left for Christmas presents.

Let’s make sure it’s snowing outside. Cold.

The phone rings a few days before Christmas. It is the hospital, telling him that his wife has died.

May’s focus is now exclusively on his daughter. He can’t even buy her any Christmas presents. The best he could do is make a storybook based on the bedtime stories he has been inventing and telling her as nighttime comfort. It would be a story of hope. The story he told her was his own, living as a misfit his whole life. At Dartmouth, May was so skinny and small that the students thought he was someone’s younger brother. This storybook misfit was a reindeer, one with a shiny red nose. The other reindeer laughed at him for his deformity. Then one very foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to Rudolph and his unique nose to guide his sleigh.

Accustomed to copy deadlines, May finished the book just in time for Christmas morning. The book became a family favorite and caught the notice of May’s bosses at Montgomery Ward.

In 1939 Montgomery Ward printed 2.4 million of the Rudolph books. A star was born. By 1946, 6 million of the Rudolph books had been printed and given away.

In a plot almost too corny for Hollywood, a major publisher approached Montgomery Ward, who owned the copyright to Rudolph. The company president awarded the rights back to May.

Naturally (this is a movie) the book became a best-seller which led to marketing and toy deals.

Fade in on Christmas Eve several years later in a much nicer house in a much nicer neighborhood. May is wealthy, remarried and surrounded by his growing family. The floor is covered with Christmas presents.

I see the present opening interrupted by a visit from May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks. Marks tells May that he has written a song about Rudolph. The bad news is that it was turned down by superstars Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore. The good news is that it was recorded by cowboy star Gene Autry in 1949.

The song would sell more versions than any song but “White Christmas.” Well, you can’t beat “White Christmas.”

Let’s end the movie with May telling his new baby that maybe being a little different, like Rudolph, isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Some spoilsports argue that May created the book solely for his company and not to comfort his daughter after her mother died. Humbug. Why hasn’t this movie been made?

Hollywood?

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