Curator Petra Slinkard and intern Claire Arnold explore the Chicago origins of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Cover of an original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer written for Montgomery Ward & Co. by Robert L. May and illustrated by Denver Gillen, 1939. 1989.708. ICHi-68483
While it may seem like he’s always led Santa’s sleigh, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer first appeared in 1939 in Chicago. That year, Montgomery Ward & Co. began distributing complimentary copies of the illustrated poem to children who visited their stores during the holiday shopping season. Rudolph’s creator was an advertising copywriter named Robert Lewis May who was tasked with creating a character for the promotional giveaway. May later explained that he had an “ugly duckling” type of plot in mind when he developed his tale of the much-teased reindeer who saves the day with his glowing nose. Ward was initially apprehensive about the concept because of the association between red noses and drunkenness, but May insisted that children would relate to the unlikely hero. After considering Rollo and Reginald as possible names, May decided on Rudolph, and the famous reindeer soon sprung off the page into Christmas lore.
Robert May was right about the compelling nature of his story. In the 1939 holiday season alone, Ward distributed roughly 2.4 million copies at stores across the country and after wartime paper shortages ended in 1946, Rudolph returned to its previous success. Meanwhile, Ward capitalized on Rudolph’s popularity and sold toys, clothing, and other Rudolph-related items. In 1947, Ward released the copyright for Rudolph to May, who finally began receiving royalties for his work. May benefited greatly from his creation, often referring to his home in Evanston as “the house that Rudolph built” and crediting Rudolph for putting his six children through college.
Rudolph crying and his nose shining. From the Museum’s original copy. ICHi-68484
Since the publication of the poem, Rudolph has crossed genres to star in a song and two animated Christmas specials, as well as a sequel written by May in 1954, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Shines Again. He’s become such a Christmas mainstay that many people have forgotten his commercial origins. However, Montgomery Ward & Co. continued to use Rudolph through the 1990s in advertising and promotional material, as well as field inquiries about his origin.
In May’s story, Santa delivers presents to the good animals as well as good children and discovers Rudolph and his unusual feature when filling his stocking. Illustration of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer leading Santa’s sleigh. From the Museum’s original copy. ICHi-68485
Amongst information about use and advertising campaigns, the Rudolph section of the Montgomery Ward & Co. records at the Museum includes a bundle of letters from a curious second-grade class in California in 1983.
“What does Rudolph do on Valentine’s day?” Letter dated January 24, 1983 from Joe Rose to Chuck Thorne, media relations manager for Ward, regarding Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Joe included a drawing of Rudolph. ICHi-68478
“I liked you [sic] dad’s story.” Photocopy of a letter from a young boy, Brian, to Barbara May regarding Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, written sometime between 1970 and 1990. ICHi-68479
DePaul University students Bryant Arvesen, Sekordri Lewis, Ryan McGovern, and Kasia Szymanska talked to Michael “Mickey” Loewenstein about his work as a set designer for WTTW, Chicago’s public television station, for this entry in the Museum’s People and Places series. They were students of the Museum’s archivist, Peter T. Alter, as a part of DePaul’s public history program.
Sitting with us in his home, Michael Loewenstein started by telling us about his early years working at WTTW, where he began in 1959. The late 1950s marked the end of the Chicago School of Television. Loewenstein remembered this era “as a student of the Chicago School of Television from its very beginning … The Chicago School produced something that was not movies and not theater, but something that was distinctly television.”
Michael Loewenstein, 2014. Photograph courtesy of Michael Loewenstein.
At that time, television was still a relatively new medium. “It was all about the personalities on the screen and the design of the sets,” he remembered. Loewenstein worked with Burr Tillstrom, one of the fathers of the Chicago School, on the Kukla, Fran and Ollie show. “It was great working with such a large personality and creative person like Burr,” Loewenstein commented.
Left to right: Kukla, Burr Tillstrom, Ollie, and Fran Allison. ICHi-51884.
Loewenstein worked on so many different shows during his forty-plus years at WTTW, it was hard for him to keep track of all of them. He was most proud of creating the set for the Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert movie review show, Sneak Previews. “Working on Sneak Previews was great,” he remarked. “The set design continued through to their time at Disney with At the Movies.” Loewenstein designed the movie theater balcony setting by using an innovative approach called “forced perspective,” which made it appear as if people were sitting in a balcony. In remembering his work, he also mentioned his design philosophy and approach: “You had to work with what you had. Many of the spaces you worked with were small. You had to do what you could to make things work.”
Loewenstein used a technique called “glass shots” to create expansive and opulent-looking environments when the space and budget were small. “There was a time,” he recalled, “when we had to create a ceiling and a chandelier … You can’t have a ceiling because of the lights, and a chandelier would cost too much so you trick the audience.” A “glass shot,” Loewenstein explained, was a shot for which elements were painted onto a piece of glass. The glass was then placed in front of the camera lens to create the illusion of a ceiling or a chandelier being part of the set.
Ultimately, Loewenstein recalled the people and the personalities he got to know on the job: working with the band Earth, Wind & Fire on the show Soundstage, Burr Tillstrom, Ella Fitzgerald, Studs Terkel, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Second City are among those he fondly remembers. Loewenstein recently donated his papers to the Museum for all of us to enjoy. You can visit the Research Center and learn much more about him and the world of television set designing.