Montgomery Ward stores are gone, but they left behind one thing that will probably live forever. What started as a marketing gimmick has become a beloved Christmas staple.
Back in the 1930s, Montgomery Ward had their Santa Claus give away coloring books. In order to save a few bucks, they decided to create and publish their own little storybooks to hand out to the kids.
They gave the job of writing the book to Robert L. May, who worked at Montgomery Ward as a copywriter. He enjoyed making up stories and based the story on his childhood memories of growing up small and shy. His story was about a little reindeer named Rollo who was made fun of and left out of group activities because of a physical abnormality.
May�s four-year old daughter loved the story. Montgomery Ward executives did not. They especially did not like the reindeer�s name. They didn�t like the second suggestion, Reginald, much better.
Robert May changed the name to Rudolph and got a friend to make funny sketches of the reindeer frollicking at Chicago�s Lincoln Park Zoo.
The Montgomery Ward executives bought it. The first copies of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer were handed out during Christmas of 1939.
May�s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote a song based on the story. Cowboy singer Gene Autry had a big hit with the song in 1949. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer became a star.
A stop-motion animated TV special starring Burl Ives premiered in 1964 and become a perennial Christmas season favorite.
At the time Robert May was writing Rudolph, his wife was terminally ill and the medical bills had left him deep in debt. He persuaded Montgomery Ward to let him have the copyright to the story.
He continued to work for Montgomery Ward until 1971 and the rights to Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer afforded him a comfortable living until his death in 1976