Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: His Story

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The Magical Animation of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’

Michelle Delgado/SmithsonianMag.com

Reindeer and dentists, puppets and LED light bulbs, Gene Autry and General Electric—these odd pairings might not seem to have much in common. But each played an important role in the making of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a classic Christmas special currently celebrating its 55th straight year of annual reruns. Before Rudolph lit up the small screen, a series of tragedies, twists of fortune and lucky coincidences allowed his tale to endure through decades—eventually ensuring a place in holiday tradition.

Rudolph’s story began with a Jewish Montgomery Ward copywriter named Robert May. The department store began preparing for Christmas 1939 nearly a year in advance, and tasked May with penning an original holiday story they could market to shoppers. May agreed to tackle the assignment, despite difficulties in his personal life. May’s wife had been diagnosed with cancer, and as the year wore on, her health deteriorated. When she died in July 1939, May was given the option to give up the assignment. But he found solace in the story, drawing inspiration from his young daughter’s fondness for reindeer at the Lincoln Park Zoo. “Gratefully I buried myself in the writing,” he wrote at the time.

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