Friday, December 14, 2012

No ‘Monkey’ Ward? No Reindeer named Rudolph.

Christmas music is everywhere again this season – every store you go into. A mainstay of that music is Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer by any number of different artists.

But where did it come from?

I wrote recently about brands that have disappeared. One of those was Montgomery Ward and Company, known often as ‘Monkey’ Wards. Montgomery Ward was originally a Chicago mail-order business that evolved into a chain of retail department stores, similar to its other Chicago competitor, Sears. It went out of business, closing its last store in 2001.

Fortunately, when it was still a thriving business it gave the world one of the most popular Christmas songs ever – Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.

Wait a minute, I thought that was Gene Autry, you say.

Yes, but without Monkey Wards it would never have existed.

In the 1930s a man named Robert May went to work for Wards in Chicago as an advertising copywriter.

In 1939, he was asked by his boss to write a ‘cheery’ Christmas coloring book with an animal as the central character for Ward’s shoppers. The company had been buying and giving away Christmas coloring books every year as a goodwill gesture. That year they decided to do something in house.

In early 1939, May went to work. He decided to use a deer as the animal (his daughter loved the deer at the Chicago zoo). The coloring book text would be in the form of a poem and thus was born Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in rhyme.

Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the book during the 1939 holiday season and it was immensely popular.

WWII came along and restrictions on the use of paper prevented a reissue until the war was over in 1946. That same year May also authorized a spoken-word recording of the poem, which was produced. (Montgomery Ward owned the copyright to the poem but graciously gave the rights to May, free of charge. A big corporation with a heart, apparently!)

Then in 1948, May’s brother in law, Johnny Marks adapted the poem as a song. In 1949 Gene Autry recorded it and it became a huge hit.

Interestingly, though May and his brother in law Marks were both Jewish they were responsible for one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time. Of course, Irving Berlin, who wrote White Christmas was also Jewish. Moreover, Marks, as a songwriter wrote a number of other Christmas songs including Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree recorded by Brenda Lee; I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Bing Crosby; A Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives who also did a version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer; and Run Rudolph Run which Chuck Berry did.

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