Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, who turns 50 this year, saved more than just Christmas when he pulled Santa's sleigh by the light of his famous snout. He saved his creator, Robert May, from financial ruin, May's daughter recalls.
"My father said that Rudolph was the only reindeer in history that kept the wolf from the door," said Virginia Herz, of Novato, Calif. "It was definitely the highlight of his life."
May was an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward in Chicago when he invented the little reindeer--originally called Rollo--as a promotional gimmick in 1939.
The store handed out millions of copies of the story annually until the paper shortages of World War II. It reintroduced Rudolph in 1946, but gave up the copyright to May the following January, his daughter said.
It proved a turning point for the May family fortunes.
May had the story commercially published with some success in 1947, and it was released in 1948 as a 9-minute theatrical cartoon.
But it was in 1949 that Rudolph really took flight, when songwriter Johnny Marks, married to May's sister, put Rudolph's story to music and it was recorded by Gene Autry.
The song sold millions of copies during the 1949 Christmas season, she said. In 1974, it became the basis for an animated television special.
Rudolph's popularity translated to concrete gains for the Mays, Herz said.
The family was able to move from a small apartment to a four-bedroom house--"the house that Rudolph built," May would joke--and the copyright residuals paid for college for May's six children.
The copyright now is held by a company formed by May's children and managed by Herz.
Before his death in 1976, May donated his original manuscript and the original pencil illustrations to Dartmouth College, which he attended.
The Rudolph bonanza gave May a feeling of accomplishment he hadn't experienced before, she said.
May "was kind of an underdog," Herz said, hence his story of the reindeer that gets called names and refused entry into reindeer games.
"In a way, Rudolph is almost his story," she said.