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Snippet of the Stuff You Missed in History Class Podcast: Creation of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer

From Audio: The Creation of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer

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station description Stuff You Missed in History Class
Stuff You Missed in History Class
Duration: 05:28
Most of us grew up with the story of the sweet little reindeer that was picked on by his peers, and becomes the hero who saves Christmas. But Rudolph is unique in that he became part of Christmas tradition almost the moment he was introduced in 1939.
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Most of us grew up with the story of the sweet little reindeer that was picked on by his peers, and becomes the hero who saves Christmas. But Rudolph is unique in that he became part of Christmas tradition almost the moment he was introduced in 1939.
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and because Rudolph's intense popularity was not exactly anticipated, at least not at the level it achieved. It wasn't as though this project was being documented and notated as the initial story was being created. So all of this, you know, kind of narrative shifting and conflicting accounts. It's really pretty normal. And today we're going to talk about Robert L. May and how he created Rudolph, how his reindeer character became a phenomenon. We'll also talk about his collaboration with his brother in law and how this story became an instant classic. And we just want to offer a quick disclaimer here. If you are maybe a parent listening with a younger history fan. This isn't really so much like a fun Christmas story about, uh, you know, the fictional characters. It's very much real world story stuff going on. Some of it is, um, definitely sad. Uh, and we don't, you know, wanna wanna make anybody have a unhappy association with the hurdles around? So if you do like to listen with younger listeners, I would encourage maybe give it a listen first, see if it's at a level that you're comfortable sharing with them and then, uh, you're off to the races, but we're going to jump right into the story. The early life of Robert L. May is just not particularly well documented. We know he was born in 19 oh five and also grew up in New Rochelle, New York, which is the suburb made famous by the Dick Van Dyke Show. Weirdly, I've just never associated it with I've associated it with the the Amtrak train that goes from here to New York City. Well, you mean I mean, you're you're a little bit too young, right? For when the Dick Van Dyke Show was super popular. Yeah, I saw it in syndication. It was always on and re rent somewhere anyway. Not important. His parents were well off. His father, Milton, was from Georgia and owned a lumber business. And while the family was Jewish, they were also secular. Robert attended college at Dartmouth, but a few years after he completed school in 1926 the stock market crash of 1929 happened followed, of course, by the Great Depression. And in the course of all of this, the May family lost a lot of their money. His younger siblings were not able to attend college because of the family's financial situation. In his early career, May worked in copy and advertising jobs for a series of department stores, including Macy's and Riches. He got married to a woman named Evelyn Hamann on November 29th of 1928. The two of them had a daughter named Barbara in 1935. By that point, they had moved to Chicago so Robert could take a new job, working as a copywriter for Montgomery Ward. And to be very clear, Bob May was really good at this job. There was a profile that came out about him as his work started to gain pretty wide recognition later on, and it included this description. Quote words are maize, stock and trade, and people who work with him will tell you only too willingly how clever he is in the use of words, not only in a humorous use but in making them express sympathy, pathos, admiration as well as darn good advertising. In early January 1939 Robert L. May was headed into work. He was not feeling particularly festive, not looking forward to the new year. Later on, he recalled being thankful as he went into his job. The holiday decorations in the streets of Chicago had all been taken down because he was not in the mood for them. And May's lack of enthusiasm at this point was not because he was returning to work after the holidays. His family was going through an incredibly difficult time. His wife, Evelyn, was going through a long series of cancer treatments after having been diagnosed in 1937 and over the two years since her diagnosis. The cost of her care had really put him in a financially precarious state. Additionally, he heard two young men in the elevator who were talking about their plans for the year, and May was struck with this sense of just being a middle aged underachiever. He had gotten into writing to become a novelist, and now he found himself quote at age 35 still grinding out catalogue copy. Instead of writing the Great American novel as I once hoped, I was describing men's white shirts. Robert, who went by Bob, got a call from an admin assistant saying that he needed to report to his boss's office, and at this point, Bob just thought this was some other dull and uninspiring work assignment. But the assignment he was about to receive was anything but. His standard copy requests the story. As May told it went this way, his department head, H E. McDonald, said quote Bob, I've got an idea. For years, our stores have been buying those little Christmas giveaway coloring books from local peddlers. I think we can save a lot of money. If we create one ourselves, could you come up with a better book that we could use? May supervisor went on to tell him that it should have an animal as the main character and mentioned that it should be something like Ferdinand the bull for context, just in case you're not familiar with that story. The story of Ferdinand, written by Munro Leaf, had come out three years earlier, and it was a huge hit, and this tells the story of a young bull named Ferdinand, who has no interest
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