The magic ingredient that transformed a marketing scheme into an evergreen if not universally beloved Christmas tradition is a song …with an unexpected side order of corporate generosity.
May’s wife died of cancer when he was working on Rudolph, leaving him a single parent with a pile of medical bills. After Montgomery Ward repeated the Rudolph promotion in 1946, distributing an additional 3,600,000 copies, its Board of Directors voted to ease his burden by granting him the copyright to his creation.
Once he held the reins to the “most famous reindeer of all”, May enlisted his songwriter brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, to adapt Rudolph’s story.
The simple lyrics, made famous by singing cowboy Gene Autry’s 1949 hit recording, provided May with a revenue stream and Rankin/Bass with a skeletal outline for its 1964 stop-animation special.