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Reindeers Falling Mainly on the Plains

December 26, 2001

Historian's Notes

Who doesn't like the story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer? Since itís a popular and interesting story and it has such a good Oklahoma connection, this topic was a natural for the Almanac. I wasn't aware of the origin of the Rudolph story until I wrote this piece. For information on this subject I did quite a bit of looking online and the finished story is an amalgamation of material I found on at least six different web sites.




Almanac Transcript

Reindeers falling mainly on the plains, this week on the Oklahoma Audio Almanac.

Hello, I'm Steven Knoche Kite.

Almost everyone knows the holiday song Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, but not everyone knows of the songs Oklahoma connection. Rudolf was born in Chicago as a publicity stunt by the now defunct Montgomery Ward Department Store Company. A staff writer concocted the story in 1939, and complimentary copies of the story were passed out to Montgomery Ward customers. The story of Rudolph became an instant hit and demands for additional copies poured in from across the country.

The author of the story, Robert L. May persuaded Montgomery Ward to give up the rights to Rudolph in 1947, and May managed the career of his famous and ever increasingly popular reindeer. Although May created the story of Rudolph, it was his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, who wrote the lyrics and melody for the holiday classic. Both Marks and May shopped the Rudolph song around with no success for almost two years; no singer was willing to tamper with the established Santa Claus story.

In 1949, against the advice of agents and friends, the singing cowboy Gene Autry heard the song and agreed to record it. The song became an instant hit for Gene Autry and provided a comfortable life for Johnny Marks and Robert May. Gene Autry was a household name before Rudolph, but with his recording of the song his fame grew even more, and the song itself went on to become one of the best selling songs of all time.

If not for Oklahomaís role in all of this, however, Rudolph as we know it today might not ever have happened. Gene Autry was born in Tioga, Texas but while still an infant moved with his family to southern Oklahoma. As a small child Autry knew that he wanted to be a singer and was popular in church and school programs. Although poor, the family scraped up enough money, either five or eight dollars depending on what story you read, and bought young Autry a guitar.

As a young man Autry took a job as an overnight telegraph operator at a depot near the family farm. During slow times Autry would sit outside strumming and singing to himself or whoever happened to be nearby. On one fateful night a passenger switching trains heard Autry singing and persuaded him to audition for radio. The passenger was none other than Will Rogers, so of course Autry took his advice! An immediate success, Autry soon went on to become known as "Oklahomaís Singing Cowboy" and of course the voice behind one of the most popular of all holiday songs, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

I'm Steven Knoche Kite.

The Oklahoma Audio Almanac is a joint production of the Oklahoma State University Library and Oklahoma's Public Radio.

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