The Daily Northwestern

Born in Evanston, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer goes down in history

Adrian Wan, Reporter

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2017 Holiday Guide

Seen in claymation movies, picture books and on any Christmas-themed knickknack, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has long been an iconic character for children all over the world. But few know where Rudolph really came from.

The most famous reindeer of all actually got its start in Evanston, according to newspaper clippings archived at Evanston Public Library. Rudolph was born in 1939 when Robert L. May — an Evanston native and copywriter for Montgomery Ward, a department store — was asked to write a children’s book to be given away in Ward stores. According to the clippings, May wanted his book to feature an animal that was closely linked to Santa Claus and underwent an ugly duckling transformation. From this he came up with the idea of a reindeer with a sparkly red nose.

When Rudolph debuted in a rhyming book that Christmas, the store distributed 2.4 million copies, the clippings said. The story was reprinted after World War II and sold another 3.6 million copies.

After Sewell Avery, then-CEO of Montgomery Ward, returned the copyright to May, he brought his story to Harry Elbaum of Maxton Publishers, the documents said. The company published 100,000 copies of Rudolph’s story in 1947, making the story Elbaum’s best seller. With bids coming from numerous publishers, May quit his job and opened an office at 1618 Orrington Ave. to concentrate on Rudolph-related projects, according to the clippings.

Rudolph’s influence reached its peak when Johnny Marks wrote the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which topped the charts during Christmas 1949.

According to the clippings, May died in August 1976 in Evanston Hospital. He was 71. Rudolph, however, has lived on to spread holiday cheer to all those listening for the sound of clicking hooves on Christmas Eve.

Twitter: @piuadrianw