The story as it’s been told through the years has become long on sentiment and short on detail. By the time an interview with Rudolph appeared in Playboy in the late 1970s, the wildly popular Rankin-Bass television special had been running annually for over a decade. It had become the only version of the story anyone knew or remembered, and the reclusive Rudolph, then reportedly in his 80s, wanted to set the record straight.
“Reindeer games are no joke,” he explains in the interview, conducted on a secluded beach in Aruba where Rudolph was spending his remaining years and royalty payments free of any frigid reminders of polar climes. “There’s a lot of brutality. Deaths have been reported.”
“But… They didn’t let you play the reindeer games…” reminds the journalist.
“That’s beside the point!” snaps Rudolph with a wave of his hoof, flinging his cigarette into the sand. “It’s a deer-eat-deer world up there, and while you can pretty it up and sugar coat it for mass consumption by gullible humans who want safe stories and happy endings, you don’t know the pressure that organization is under every year. Believe me, you don’t know.”
Perhaps the most illuminating part of the interview is the revelation that Rudolph’s famous ride almost never happened.
“That creepy puppet show skips that part of the story entirely,” explains Rudolph. “Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight..!” he exclaims sarcastically. “Let’s review: A guy is ridiculed. Abused. Exiled. Then left for dead. But when the organization suddenly needs his help, he comes leaping back with his tail wagging like a love-starved puppy? I don’t think so. I may have a tail, but I’m no puppy. I told that fat puck what he could do with his sack of trinkets.”
“You said no?” the journalist confirmed.
“I said no.”
How, then, did Santa convince Rudolph to guide his sleigh?
“Look, that oversized elf knows how to persuade,” says Rudolph with a hint of admiration. “To tell you the truth, I really don’t know how he did it. I mean, I was adamant.”
“I do remember the first thing he did was take me aside and explain how similar we both are. How he was also an outcast; how he had to forge his own way in the world. He told me how he, too, had been ridiculed – for wanting to bring toys to all the children of the world over the course of just one night, and how the technology to accomplish that, even if it could be developed, would be so cost prohibitive that it would take years, decades even, to turn a profit. I think he mentioned something about Amazon, but that was a sidetrack.”
“He said he understood my feelings, how I had every right to say no. Then he described what would probably happen to the other reindeer, to the sleigh and all the toys, to himself, if they had to brave the storm without the equipment suitable to the task. He said they’d probably wind up in the middle of the Indian Ocean, drowning beyond the reach of radar. I have to confess I was privately delighted with this idea. The thought of that bastard Blitzen yelping and treading freezing water until he finally sank from exhaustion sounded like the perfect stocking stuffer to me.”
“And then Santa explained what would probably happen if I did lead the team. How the beacon of red light would cut through the fog and look for all the world like a triumph of deer over nature. How all my enemies and rivals would be forced to acknowledge not only my shiny nose but my big heart.”
“My resolve was beginning to crack. But Kringle must’ve known I wasn’t quite there yet because he went on.”
“He told me that he understood how independent I’d become, having made my way on my own and all, and that a decision to guide his sleigh wasn’t a decision to follow or even join, but to lead. And, he explained, leadership is in many ways an independent enterprise.”
“I guess I must have made doe eyes at him at this point because that absurd twinkle arose in his eyes. ‘Rudolph,’ he said to me quietly ‘Everyone will know your name. Songs will be written about you. You will never be forgotten. But now the wind is up and the hour is upon us. It’s time. Rudolph, with your nose so bright… Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?'”
Rudolph pauses contemplatively. The journalist is on the edge of his seat.
“Did you say yes?”
Rudolph lights another cigarette and glances dismissively at the journalist.
“What do you think I said, you dimwit? You think songs would have been written, movies made, figurines produced, if I’d said no?!”
“Oh, right.” says the journalist, collecting himself.
“But do I get residuals from any of that? Oh, no. Kringle himself negotiated those deals. And like I said: He is one persuasive puck.”
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