More than three score years ago, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Dinah Shore flatly turned down songwriter Johnny Marks’ request. Fortunately, the veteran composer talked Gene Autry, the cowboy crooner, into recording “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and the rest is musical history.
In 1949, “Rudolph” became a favorite on THE HIT PARADE (anyone remember Snooky Lanson?). During Christmas week of that year, the song jumped to No. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart. Since then more than 500 artists have recorded “Rudolph,” but Autry’s rendition outsold them all — more than 25 million copies and, until the 1980s, the second best-selling record of all time, after Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
I have a more personal history involving the little reindeer with the glowing red nose. In the late 1940s, my family lived in a sleepy village an hour north of New York City. With four young kids, a drafty farmhouse, a coal furnace akin to Old Man Parker’s, and a husband who hadn’t yet found his profession, my mom squeezed quarters out of pennies.
Most of our birthday and Christmas gifts were hand-made, either on her Singer sewing machine, with metal knitting needles or using a paint brush to decorate wooden furniture for my dollhouse. As kids we thought her masterpiece creation was a hand-forged round aluminum tray etched with our names and birthdays which held the cake and burning candles on our special days.
Shortly before Christmas in 1950, my brothers and I believe, Mom walked into a Woolworth Five Cent Store in Newburgh, New York, and spotted four tiny plastic reindeer. They can’t have cost more than 19-cents apiece. She proceeded to paint each nose bright red and then inked each with our names: Robin, Robert, Ross and Valerie. Every year thereafter, these “Rudolphs" hung from our tinseled tree.
Years passed. My parents moved several times. There were happy weddings, then heartbreaking funerals. One day my sister was rummaging through a box in my late parents’ attic and discovered the red-nosed quartet. She quickly sent each of us “our” Rudolph.
Every December, my brother Ross places his on a mantle in Las Cruces, New Mexico in what he calls “a setting of honor so it’s visible to all Christmas guests.” Brother Robert, who lives in Estes Park, Colorado, told me “it’s the first ornament I put on our tree, always in a prime location.”
My Rudolph prances around the house — sometimes he’s on the windowsill above my kitchen sink, other times he graces a table in the living room.
My sister’s Rudolph? She can’t find hers. (Entre nous: My brothers and I think her Rudolph might be hiding in the back seat of the red Acura that went missing, but that’s another story.)
Today a United States postal stamp features Rudolph. A beloved television cartoon about the red-nosed reindeer has been a Christmas staple for more than 50 years.
But for me, nothing matches the joy and memories my Rudolph gives me every day of December. Thanks to my mom, Rudolph lives!