View From Lodi, CA: Rudolph, Gene Autry, and Christmas

[See
also: Joe from last year:



View From Lodi, CA: Christmas Still Alive In Lodi—And
Radio City
]

By the time Gene Autry recorded

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

in 1949, he was already a huge star.

In fact, few realize that Autry was
a star long before his first feature film, the 1934
release,

“In Old Santa Fe.”
 

Although Autry is most well known
as a crooning cowboy, he cut 635 recordings over his
career including more than

300 songs written or co-written by him.

Autry`s singing career started
auspiciously. Shortly after his 22nd
birthday, the great American humorist Will Rogers
discovered him. And before long a local Tulsa radio
station labeled Autry “Oklahoma`s Yodeling Cowboy.”

From that moment on, things
happened fast for Autry. In 1929, Columbia Records
signed Autry to an exclusive contract.

Autry scored his first major hit—a
gold record—in 1932 with

“That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.”

Autry`s recordings sold more than
100 million copies and earned him more than a dozen gold
and platinum records, including the first record ever
certified gold.

As Frank Sinatra once said about
his life-long friend, “Gene Autry did singing the
hard way—while riding a horse!”

During the Christmas season radio
stations play dozens of versions of “Rudolph the
Red-Nosed Reindeer”
but Autry`s is the original.

The recording, the second best
all-time selling Christmas song behind Bing Crosby`s
“White Christmas,”
has sold well over 30 million
copies.

The story of how Rudolph became
“the most famous reindeer of all”
and how the
Singing Cowboy decided to take a chance on the very
unusual tune merits retelling.

In 1939, Chicago-based

Montgomery Ward, a retail department store chain,

was looking for a promotional gimmick.

One of the staff copywriters,
Robert May, invented Rudolph. May based his character,
in part, on himself—an underdog outcast mocked by his
peers.

Even though Montgomery Ward
management was hesitant about marketing a “red-nosed”
character because of the possible

connotations
of drunkenness, May prevailed.

And Rudolph scored an immediate
hit. During the first year, Montgomery Ward distributed
more than 2.4 million promotional pieces that included
Rudolph`s story. And through 1946, Montgomery Ward
circulated over 6 million brochures featuring Rudolph.

By 1949, May`s brother-in-law,
Johnny Marks, set lyrics to Rudolph`s story.

But Marks` song was quite different
from May`s story. In the song, Rudolph did live at the
North Pole and was not one of Santa`s team.

Santa, according to Marks` version,
happened upon Rudolph by accident when he noticed his
glowing nose while making a delivery.

Since the fog was thickening, Santa
asked Rudolph to lead his team to for the rest of the
evening to avoid accidents and delays.

Since Rudolph was a responsible
reindeer, he readily agreed.

Many well-established singers,
including Autry, turned down the opportunity to record
the musical version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed
Reindeer.”

Finally, Autry—at the urging of his
wife Ina—agreed.

And the rest, as they say, is
history.

Time has dimmed Autry`s
contributions not only to music, television and movies
but also to America.

For the fifteen years between 1940
to 1956, America tuned into Autry`s weekly

Melody Ranch radio show
. And when Autry toured, he
played before sell-out crowds. Never one to sell his
fans short, Autry put on two shows a day, seven days a
week for up to 85 consecutive days. Autry was the first
performer to sell out Madison Square Garden.

Autry`s patriotism is legendary.
After joining the

Army Air Corps
in 1942, Sgt. Gene Autry ferried
fuel, arms and ammunition throughout the
China-India-Burma Theater.

After the war ended Autry, who
could have resumed his movie career, instead joined
Special Services to tour with a USO troupe in the South
Pacific.

Autry is the only entertainer to
have

five stars on Hollywood`s Walk of Fame:
one each for
live performances, radio, recordings, movies and
television.

At the peak of his career, Autry
was as big as Clark Gable.

But Autry never let fame go to his
head.

In 1997, on the occasion of Autry`s
90th birthday at the Gene Autry Museum, Marty
Stuart, the country artist and president of the Country
Music Foundation,

said
:

“As a
performer, songwriter and guitar player, Gene Autry is a
study in staying power. The trends have come and gone
around him but he`s remained steady and true.”

The Autry story is remains
compelling today because of his huge influence on so many
aspects of the entertainment industry…and for
introducing generations of Americans to “Rudolph the
Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Joe Guzzardi [email
him], an instructor in English
at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly
column since 1988. It currently appears in the


Lodi News-Sentinel
.