On Christmas, reindeer and singing cowboys

As a young child in Ireland many years ago, two Christmas songs vied for the designation of being my favourite.

Pat Murphy, Guest Columnist

As a young child in Ireland many years ago, two Christmas songs vied for the designation of being my favourite. One was Jingle Bells, while the other was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Although the competition was nip and tuck, Rudolph generally edged it. Even then, I was a sucker for a story.

Not all children were equally impressed. Thousands of miles away in Toronto’s East York, my future wife took a different view. The story of Santa’s annual delivery was already perfectly told in the classic ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. And as that managed nicely with just eight reindeer, adding another was spoiling a good thing.

Rudolph had its genesis in a promotional poem written for the Montgomery Ward department store in 1939, being later turned into a song by a guy called Johnny Marks. At first, it was difficult to find a taker. Names like Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Dinah Shore turned it down. Eventually, it found its way to the Singing Cowboy himself, Gene Autry.

Although legend has it that Autry wasn’t particularly keen, he recorded the song on a June 1949 day in Los Angeles. Released that September, it became an enormous recurring Christmas hit, reputedly selling over two million copies in its first year. And as Autry biographer Holly George-Warren notes, it went on to sell many more millions over the ensuing decades.

But the story’s interest derives from more than the creation of a hugely lucrative novelty hit. It’s also about two men – Marks and Autry – who can be accurately described as quintessential 20th century American types.

Born into affluent circumstances in Mount Vernon, NY, in 1909, Marks specialized in writing songs for the Christmas market. The fact that he himself was Jewish was neither here nor there. He was a craftsman, and craftsmen found their market niche and duly serviced it.

(Interestingly, the man who wrote the most popular Christmas song of all – White Christmas – was also Jewish. But, unlike Marks, Irving Berlin’s range of themes was much broader.)

After graduating with a 1935 B.A. in English, Marks turned to songwriting, something that he later said he had wanted to do since he was 13. When war came, he joined the army and served in Europe.

While Rudolph was certainly his biggest success, Marks wasn’t exactly a one-trick pony. Other hits included I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (based on an 1863 Longfellow poem), and Have A Holly Jolly Christmas. His craftsmanship even allowed him to survive the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, courtesy of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Run Rudolph Run.

And in an industry where the creators were often fleeced by the smart guys, Marks was nobody’s victim. When he was ready to unleash Rudolph on the world, he set up his own music publishing company so as to own all the rights.

Autry’s beginnings were much humbler. He was born in 1907 rural Texas, coming into the world on credit as his father had disappeared on a periodic ramble during his mother’s pregnancy. But what he lacked in formal education, he more than made up for in pure street smarts. In later life, he put it this way: “Actually, working with numbers was what I did best. What I did less well was sing, act, and play the guitar.”

Although he didn’t invent the Singing Cowboy movie genre, Autry was both the most successful exponent and the first to fully exploit it, pushing the boundaries into merchandising. And after concluding that his contract with Republic Pictures was one-sided (albeit legal), he cleverly manoeuvred a re-negotiation.

Like Marks, Autry served in the Second World War, in his case flying transport planes in Asia. Afterwards he returned to making money – lots and lots of it.

In this, his financial acumen wasn’t confined to the management of his show business career. He was also an extremely shrewd investor, so much so that for many years Forbes magazine listed him as among the 400 richest Americans.

Still, when Autry died in 1998, he left behind more than a large fortune and fading cultural memories. If you’re ever in Los Angeles with a few hours to spare, visit his Museum of the American West in Griffith Park. You won’t regret it.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.