Seventy winters ago, a 39-year-old World War II veteran living in Manhattan took the gamble of his life. Armed with a notebook inked with leftover melodies, Johnny Marks settled into a cramped office with an upright Crawford piano on the sixth floor of the Brill Building at Broadway and 49th Street.
The Brill Building was perhaps the most important address in American music, the site of New York’s sonic resurgence as the big band era eclipsed the once-dominant novelty songwriters from Tin Pan Alley, 20 blocks south. Brill publishers were behind hits for stars including Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, and some of its songwriters ― Cole Porter, Irving Berlin ― were even more famous than the heartthrobs who sang their tunes.
Marks lived at the fringes of this glitz and glamor. He had been struggling to make a name for himself as a songwriter since the Depression, and was finally starting his own publishing operation, St. Nicholas Music, because none of the respectable, established publishing houses would get behind his latest song.
It wasn’t hard to see why. His most successful song to date, “Happy New Year Darling,” was a throwback to the holiday schmaltz and comedy bits that Tin Pan Alley writers were now struggling to get on the air. Nobody remembers it today, and it was already all-but-forgotten in 1949. His newest tune was even goofier ― a children’s song for Christmas, totally out of step with the jazzy romanticism that dominated the postwar charts. Undeterred, Marks was betting everything that he could rival the biggest names in show business.
It was off to a slow start. Marks had pitched a demo for his new song but the biggest stars weren’t interested. Both Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby turned him down before Marks got a foot in the door with Gene Autry. The “Singing Cowboy” himself didn’t actually like the song, but his wife loved it, and she talked her husband into recording it as the B-side to another Christmas single he was recording for Columbia Records. By the end of the year, Marks’ little ditty about a flying red-nosed reindeer named Rudolph was the biggest song in the country.
Crosby released a new version the following year. Then Dean Martin, and then the Supremes and the Temptations. By 1980, more than 500 different renditions had been commercially released. By the end of the century, it was the biggest Christmas song ever written, and so closely identified with the holiday that it is hard for subsequent generations to imagine the holiday without it. No one since Charles Dickens had so profoundly altered the mythology of Christmas itself.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a new fable that embodied the transformation of Christmas from a second-tier Christian holiday into a secular celebration of postwar America. Marks himself wasn’t even Christian ― like many of the great songwriters from the 1950s and ’60s, he was Jewish ― but he understood the way the holiday spirit captured both the optimism and escapism that were overtaking the national mood. America wanted to be a place where anybody could make it, and a story about a skinny reindeer with a funny nose turned toy-delivery hero was perfect for a nation where a booming, consumer-driven economy promised families that tomorrow would always be better than today.
Rudolph celebrated a national ideal that never quite existed. And most Americans still long for it today, even when it has perhaps never been farther from our grasp.
Marks’ story ― assembled here from obituaries, multiple New York Times features published between 1969 and 1985, an academic journal article, a People magazine profile, and a brief, on-camera interview from 1972 ― is not a rags-to-riches tale. Marks bet everything on “Rudolph,” but he had a lot to wager. Both of his parents had graduated from college ― a rarity in the early 20th century ― and his father had a masters in engineering from Cornell. Veterans benefits were substantial, and included help with home mortgages and small business loans, and Marks, who had finished the war as a captain with a chest full of medals, had not been able to spend all of the money he was paid while on active duty.
So though Marks always described the first two decades of his songwriting career as “years of heartbreak,” he was still able to scrape together $25,000 (about a quarter of a million dollars today) to launch St. Nicholas Music.
Marks also had the good fortune to marry into a creative family. In 1947, he wed Margaret May, who was born into an affluent Jewish family in the New York suburb of New Rochelle. Her brother, Robert, was an ad copy man for Montgomery Ward, and it was Robert who first conceived of the Rudolph character ― for a promotional pamphlet that the department store handed out to lure in shoppers. Robert presented Rudolph’s story as a poem, cribbing the meter from “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the 1823 poem better known as “The Night Before Christmas,” the Ur-text for the American Santa Claus myth.
By the standards of modern children’s literature, Robert’s poem is a bit of a clunker. The plotting is slow (32 ponderous pages compared to the song’s two svelte verses), the rhymes often forced (“people who live there” with “presents to give there”), the metaphors at times vaguely grotesque (“the fog was as thick as a soda’s white fizz”). But Montgomery Ward thought it was good enough to give away for free, and the retailer distributed millions of copies in 1939.
But it was hard to gauge the poem’s popularity. Montgomery Ward didn’t renew Rudolph for another run in 1940, or 1941, or any of the war years. Paper rationing made extravagances like promotional Christmas literature essentially impossible. And so Rudolph disappeared from the public eye ― but not before catching Marks’ attention. When he saw the Rudolph pamphlet his brother-in-law had created, Marks flagged it in a notebook he carried to document random moments of song inspiration.
He banged out a melody for “Rudolph” on the piano, but wasn’t happy with it. In the original version, Marks envisioned the tune dropping low when it reached the “nosed” of “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer” ― a cute, but rather lifeless theme, which Marks put on the back burner until he was struck by a melodic thunderbolt in 1949. Instead of dropping low, Marks tried leaping high to the C. The charming result transformed a random corporate Christmas promotion into a cultural phenomenon.
Gene Autry’s recording sold more than 12 million copies and remained Columbia’s best-selling single well into the 1980s. But that was the tip of the iceberg. By 1980, more than 130 million discs bearing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” had been sold.
Marks’ song was so successful that the marketing gurus of the early 1960s began to wonder if it might translate to television. And so in 1963 producers with the young stop-motion animation house Videocraft International pitched Marks on writing the music to a Rudolph-themed TV special. Like St. Nicholas Music 15 years prior, Videocraft was a startup with a lot to prove. It had never produced a feature-length film.
Christmas specials were not a new idea in 1963, but there were not yet any classics. Charles Schultz would not get to work on “A Charlie Brown Christmas” until the summer of 1965, and the Grinch would not steal Christmas for CBS viewers until 1966. Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” had been a box office flop in 1946, and did not become a national holiday viewing tradition until television producers noticed that its copyright had lapsed and decided to put it on air in 1974.
But by 1963, Marks was an imposing figure in the music business who lent the animated project prestige and commercial promise. He’d followed “Rudolph” with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day,” making St. Nicholas Music one of the most commercially dominant publishing houses in the country, despite its relatively thin output. He’d served on the board of the American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the most powerful organization in the American music business at the time.
And Videocraft struck gold when it partnered with General Electric, which put up $500,000 for the project — enough to secure the participation of a bona fide star in Burl Ives. Ives was such a big name that the screenwriters had to invent a new character and a new narrative to device to make use of him. Careful viewers will realize that the Ives-voiced snowman who narrates televised ”Rudolph” is totally superfluous to the underlying plot ― but it was the smoothest way to get their biggest star’s voice on the best songs Marks wanted to include in the special, “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver and Gold,” both of which Ives released on a hit Christmas record the following year.
The animated “Rudolph” amplified all of the misfit themes from May’s original story. The red-nosed reindeer was paired with an elf named Hermey who refused to do the one job he was allotted in life: assembling toys. As they journey together, Rudolph and Hermey encounter the sad inhabitants of The Island of Misfit Toys: a Charlie-in-the-box who isn’t named Jack, a depressed doll, a spotted elephant. The theme of the feature ― that there is a place for everyone somewhere, no matter how strange or different they might seem — was not only obviously subversive in the conformist, predominantly segregated society of the early ’60s, it carried an unmistakable current of queerness. Rudolph’s father Donner is humiliated by his son’s effeminate, shiny nose and keeps trying to make a “buck” of him by covering it up. Hermey is fastidious and delicate, contrasted sharply with the other gruff and bulbous elves. The whole thing is so gay the screenwriters reassured the audience of their wholesome intentions by writing a female admirer for Rudolph.
People loved it. Like Marks’ song, the Rudolph TV special became a cultural sensation. It remains the longest-running television special ever made. Broadcasts of ″Rudolph″ were still crushing ratings well into the 21st century, and CBS, which purchased the broadcasting rights after NBC aired the original, continues to air it every December despite newfound competition from streaming services.
By the mid-1960s, the Rudolph story ― a product of Montgomery Ward, General Electric and NBC, but also the queer-friendly product of two Jews ― had simultaneously come to embody the most subversive currents in American culture and the bustling mainstream economy of the postwar world.
In championing the misfit as a latent hero, Rudolph lent a moral legitimacy to the consumerist elements of the Santa Claus tale. Animated Rudolph puppets hawked GE appliances in television ads, while within the special itself, toys were portrayed as vehicles for the expression of every child’s unique personality. Even Rudolph’s red nose became acceptable when it saved Santa’s toy operation from ruin. There was a place for everyone in this world of expanding prosperity for all, and the key was to figure out where you fit in.
Of course the real world was far more complex. The expansion of affluence in the 1950s and ’60s was wildly uneven. Though the double-digit unemployment rates of the Great Depression were long gone, the poverty rate among black households at the close of the 1950s was 50%, more than double the rate for white families. Had Marks’ family sailed for the United States a few decades later than they did ― say, during the Holocaust ― they would have almost certainly been turned away thanks to a restrictive immigration law that had been on the books since 1924. Montgomery Ward was so hostile to its own workers that the company refused to recognize its labor union during a wartime strike, prompting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to send federal troops to seize the company’s headquarters. The gains of the era for working families came through struggle and confrontation, not happy trips to the shops on Main Street.
But America can’t shake the ideal of a time when, for all its faults, the country did seem to be improving. For most families ― of any color ― the prospect of a better future was more plausible in 1964 than it had been previously in their lifetime or those of their parents. And the future was indeed bright ― the poverty rate for black and white families plummeted over the course of the next 15 years.
We romanticize the past when the present is too much to bear, and for the past 30 or so years, the present has become progressively more unbearable. Wages are down for everyone outside the top 10% of workers. Entire once-prosperous communities have been hollowed out by globalization. The racial wealth gap is wider today than it was in the early 1980s; over the same period, the wealth of a typical black household has been halved. In most respects, the world of Rudolph’s TV heyday was both more prosperous and more egalitarian than our own.
Every year, ASCAP publishes a list of the 25 most popular songs licensed at Christmas. Songs written between World War II and the first screening of ”Rudolph always dominate the list. Even the more contemporary exceptions, like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” are essentially pastiche reimaginings of ’50s and ’60s pop with a complement of digital synthesizers. When we think of the most wonderful time of year, we instinctively imagine ourselves in a different era.
And why shouldn’t we? Who wouldn’t prefer city sidewalks, busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style to a “Cyber Monday” Amazon special we discovered through a Facebook ad distracting us from the conspiracy theories our high school friends have posted? In the 21st century, we have all the evils of the postwar world and none of its charm.
We love Rudolph because he revives a promise ― however far-fetched ― that the political economy of America has reserved a prosperous place for us all. That is a dream worth pursuing, even if it has never truly been fulfilled.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article listed Frank Sinatra as an artist who recorded a Rudolph rendition. Though he is credited with participation in duets, he never recorded a Rudolph piece under his own name. Language has also been amended to avoid the implication that the song “Holly Jolly Christmas” was unique to the special, as it was recorded and released earlier by another group.