WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When Jenifer Gillen Cohn was a little girl, her mother announced that she had a special Christmas surprise for the children. She produced a booklet depicting Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer beaming as he guided Santa's sleigh.
"Your father created Rudolph," she told them. "These are his drawings."
Pretty cool. No?
"We were basically unimpressed," Cohn recalls with a laugh. "At that point, Pop had his studio in our house, and we kids were always in and out. Drawing was just what Pop did."
And he did it well. Denver Gillen was one of America's top illustrators in the decades after World War II, when magazine illustration was a vital medium. His work appeared in numerous publications. But the world can thank Gillen for drawings that rescued Rudolph, allowing him to "go down in history."
Five of his original Rudolph pictures are at Bruce Webber Gallery in Lake Worth through Christmas Eve, since the famed reindeer has other obligations that night. The exhibition also features prints of the Rudolph gouaches (opaque watercolors) and 17 paintings Gillen created for Outdoor Life magazine.
Originals go for $1,500 a piece, prints are $75, and the paintings can go as high as $4,500. "We created the prints to make them affordable for people who might want them for their children's rooms and such," says Cohn.
The works are from the collections of Cohn and her siblings.
"It wasn't until I was older that I realized the significance of the Rudolph drawings," she says. "They're part of the history of our popular culture."
Despite his red nose, Rudolph nearly got lost himself. In 1939, retailer Montgomery Ward in Chicago wanted a holiday story booklet to give customers. It turned to an advertising copywriter named Robert L. May.
Inspired by "The Ugly Duckling," he wrote a tale in verse about a reindeer who was teased for a disability that turned out to be an asset — his red nose.
But the company worried that red noses were attached to drunkards and were about to nix the project. May hauled co-worker Gillen to Chicago's zoo to sketch deer. His images were so cute, honchos changed their minds. Some 2.4 million booklets were distributed the first year alone, and 6 million by 1946.
Gillen never got rich with Rudolph; Montgomery Ward owned the copyright. But May, faced large medical expenses after his wife became ill, and in desperation, he asked the company's president to turn the copyright over to him in 1947. No grinch, the CEO agreed. (The lyrics to the famous "Rudolph" song were created by Johnny Marks, May's brother-in-law.)
There's a sweetness to Gillen's depiction of Rudolph, and a smile that's like a child's at Christmas. Like most good illustrators, Gillen could skillfully command line and space. The gouaches are sketches with basic blocks of color. They contain a few margin notations about how to perfect the image; perhaps they were notes the artist made to himself or maybe they were suggestions from editors.
"His reindeer are the prettiest," says Cohn, who is retired. "They are slender, nice, and have real reindeer bodies and cute faces."
That's fitting, since in the original story, Rudolph was different from other reindeer, and it was noticed. But he had self-esteem.
The story and lyrics differ in other ways. For example, he wasn't one of Santa's reindeer but lived in a nearby village. While delivering presents to his house, the big guy discovered Rudolph by following the glow of his nose. When a fog threatened to keep him from his rounds, he hitched Rudolph to the sleigh.
It seems to be sheer luck that Denver Gillen's career got started at all. Born in 1914, he was the son of a sea captain from Vancouver, British Columbia.
Apparently, his childhood was a bit rocky. He loved nature, which helped him with his later illustrations for Outdoor Life. Gillen was also an accomplished landscape painter. Gillen and his wife eventually retired to Taxco, Mexico, where he died in 1974.
By the way, Rudolph almost had another name. May toyed with calling him Reginald or Rollo, but they sounded too dignified and too English.
And what will Cohn have in the way of Christmas decorations this year? "There will be two reindeer on the mantelpiece, and one will have a red nose."