I have always been a fan of the underdog. William Wallace, even though you KNEW that wasn't going to end well- no matter how good Mel Gibson looked in a kilt. Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi, a Catholic priest who lived in Brancaccio, Spain and singly handily took on the Mafia in the area. He urged children to go to school, built them a soccer field, and called out the Mafia and the politicians working with them during his sermons. It came to a end on 15 Feb 1993, when he was murdered and the Catholic Church finally condemned the Mob. Puglisi was declared a real-life martyr in 2012. Andre Therrien who in 2015 got a phone call saying that he owed $700 on a payday loan that he never took out. The debt collectors wouldn't back down, going so far as to threatening to rape Therrien's wife. This made him so mad that he started investigating the U.S. debt collection industry, a rabbit hole of shady people who would kill for $1,000.00. Therrien was able to track the money to Joel Tucker in Kansas City who had 'packaged 7.7 million in fake debt through loan packages and sold it to the shadiest bidders'. Therrien sent all of his evidence to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), and Tucker was found guilty. He was ordered to pay back an astonishing 34.2 million. All this was accomplished from Therrien's home office. Love the underdogs! Middle-aged men taking on organized crime- it warms the heart!
But, by far- one of my most favorite underdogs is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I remember as a kid watching the movie, sitting on the brown couch in our home in California, eating popcorn and drinking hot coco. At least I think that is where I was at. I remember the Island of misfit toys, feeling like I understood them because I too was considered a misfit. That story spoke to me- I could be more! I could conquer all the bullies at school! I could become popular! At least until 26 December- and then it was back to reality. But, it was a magical feeling and one that through out the years that I have held onto during Christmas. Of course, it was a by-product of the original poem- but that poem inspired the greatest Christmas movie of all time!
As I have gotten older, and started my journey into the true stories of lives behind the myths, I decided that I was going to look into the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Inspiration you can say, into finding that feeling that I use to get as a child. Now, before I start- please go find a tissue. Warm up that cup of coffee (or coco), find your favorite blanket- because this is a story of a underdog behind the story of a underdog (under-reindeer? is that a word?)
The Great Depression had been hard on all Americans. It had been really 4 years of hell (1929-1933), and by 1939 it seemed that the country had gotten it feet back underneath it. In Chicago in 1938, the manager of Montgomery Ward decided that the store should produce its own children's book for the annual holiday promotion. Up to this point, Montgomery Ward had been buying coloring books from other companies and giving them away to children who visited the store. It was extremely popular with the locals, but as you can imagine- very expensive.
Robert May, a ad man for the store, was the sure win for the job. He was known for his limericks and parodies, his words able to bring buyers in with his quick wit and undeniable reach to every potential buyer. It is not what Robert wanted for his life, he wanted to be a writer of the next great American novel- but he was having a hard time at it. I feel for him, I understand! Damn novels. But, lucky for us...Robert took on the challenge and started writing the original manuscript for Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.
Got your tissue? Good. A few days before Christmas in 1938 while writing the American classic Christmas story, Robert's wife, Evelyn, dies of cancer, leaving him a widower, a single father of a little girl (4 year old Barbara), and the owner of outrageously expensive medical bills. The family was forced to move to a two bed-room apartment in the Chicago slums. His boss offers to take away the project and let him focus on recovering from this sudden tragedy, but Robert refuses and later wrote that "I needed Rudolph now more than ever."
The story was influenced by Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Ugly Duckling' (I had no idea that Andersen wrote the Ugly Duckling- did you?), and his own childhood experiences of not being liked and being bullied. He wanted to create a story where the underdog came out on top, but when he presented the book to his company- they were not buying it. The idea of having a reindeer with a red nose concerned them. Why would anyone not like this story? One weird reason- generally red noses are a sign of alcoholism. The mangers didn't want a story that seemed to romanticize drinking. Not sure how they came to that conclusion- but they did. Did this stop Robert? NO! He rallied and grabbed his friend, Denver Gillen, who was employed by the art department and they took a field trip to the local Lincoln Park Zoo. Robert and Gillen spent some time watching the reindeer while Denver made a series of sketches. It was these sketches and the story that convinced the bosses that the story could work. Off to the publishers it went!
That year (1939), the story distributed over 2.4 million copies and by 1946 over 6 million copies had been pass out. Now this in its self is a holiday miracle, because there was a serve paper shortage in the country because of the war. That is how much Rudolph meant to the American people. Fitting I think, end of the WW1, the recovery of from the Great Depression, the start of WW2- the American people NEEDED the story of a underdog becoming something bigger and better. The children needed to know that they would be alright if they just kept trying, parents need to know that their sacrifices would make a difference, society needed a hero!
The story gets better... In 1946, Robert was drowning in medical bills. He didn't make a lot of money as a copywrite, but you know who was? Montgomery Ward was off of the story of Rudolph! Robert went to the CEO, Sewell Avery, and asks if the company would be willing to help him with the medical bills off of the profits that they were getting from the story. Pretty bold if you ask me, not sure if I would have had the guts. Montgomery Ward does something strange, a bit of a Christmas miracle if you ask me, they give him the copyright to the story! In other words, Robert was now the sole owner of his book. Everyone- deep breath of relief! Now, side note- no one really knows why they gave Robert the copyright to the story. Maybe they didn't think that it wouldn't become more than a holiday promotion. Maybe they thought that Rudolph would fade into history. Maybe it was a Christmas miracle. BUT- 'No one else was in the room where it happened'. (Hamilton quote for my sister Jodee, because all deals are made behind closed doors)
The story that you and I know, the one that we sing to in the car and while decorating the tree- that is not the story that Robert wrote. Shocker! Don't worry, I will post the link to the original story for you. That song was written by Johnny Marks and recorded by Gene Autry. It is second only to Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas', but here is the twist of fate that we have come to love. Johnny Marks was Robert's brother-in-law! The movie that we love was produced by Rankin/Bass and narrated by Burl Ives and was aired in 1964. Still an American favorite today.
Robert ended up quitting his job at Montgomery ward in 1951 and for 7 years he looked after Rudolph and his story. But, when he felt that the story was firmly established- he went back to Montgomery Ward and worked for the company until 1971!!!!! Talk about loyalty on both parties.
That is it my friends, the story of the underdog who ended up writing the a American classic about a underdog. It is heartwarming, it is positive, and the story has gone down in history.
Click here to read the original story- it is pretty good if you ask me.