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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen. They've been hauling Santa's sleigh forever. But Rudolph, it turns out, didn't come along until 1939.

BARBARA MAY LEWIS: Rudolph was born when I was five, so I'm his big sister.

GREENE: That's Barbara May Lewis. She says sister because it was her father, Robert L. May, who introduced the world to Rudolph when she was just a little girl. Robert was a bit of an outcast, just like Rudolph. He skipped a grade or two and so was younger and smaller than his classmates. He was a nerdy kid who saw himself as a loser.

LEWIS: It was his opinion of himself that gave rise to Rudolph, I think, so all the better.

GREENE: Robert L. May always wanted to write the great American novel. As life would have it, he wound up being a catalog writer at Montgomery Ward in Chicago. The department store used to give away free books to kids each Christmas and May thought Rudolph would be a great character in one. His daughter remembers her dad laboring over words, many of which would never make it into the song we now know.

LEWIS: My father read me the manuscript of Rudolph, and what I remember was not liking the word stomach. It seemed really icky so he changed it to tummy.

GREENE: Montgomery Ward printed more than two million copies of Robert L. May's book that year. He got letters from children, teachers and store managers from across the country. Nearly a decade later, the bosses gave May the rights to the story. Barbara May Lewis said they must not have known what her dad had created.

LEWIS: They didn't know. They didn't know. It was just this silly little almost booklet.

GREENE: With help from his brother-in-law, who just happened to be a songwriter, May eventually turned that silly little booklet into a song, one picked up by a very famous cowboy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")

GENE AUTRY: Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose...

LEWIS: Isn't it funny, with Gene Autry of all people?

GREENE: The song blew up in the charts in 1949. Next came the classic holiday film, "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")

BILLIE MAE RICHARDS: (As Rudolph) You wouldn't mind my red nose?

PAUL SOLES: (As Hermey) Not if you don't mind me being a dentist.

RICHARDS: (As Rudolph) It's a deal.

BILLE MAE RICHARDS AND PAUL SOLES: (As Rudolph and Hermey singing) We're a couple of misfits, we're a couple of misfits...

GREENE: All together, "Rudolph" earned Robert L. May enough money to keep him and his family comfortable through the end of his life and beyond. Although the author passed away in 1976, the story of Rudolph, well, it went down in history. It continues to bring wonder and joy to children everywhere, especially those who identify with that oddball reindeer.

And Barbara gets a little twinkle in her eye at holiday time when she sees other people embracing Rudolph, people who know nothing about her connection to the reindeer.

LEWIS: I feel a little bit smug and think nobody knows who I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")

GREENE: I'm looking at sketch right now from Robert L. May's original Rudolph book. It says the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and there's a drawing of this little reindeer with big ears, blue eyes, and yup, a really big red nose. You can see it at our website, NPR.org.

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