Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer has a very shiny connection to Lake Worth Beach
JENIFER GILLEN IS about to spend her first Christmas in her new home. And for perhaps the first time in her life during the holidays, the longtime Lake Worth Beach resident won’t be surrounded by her father’s original paintings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Gillen, 77, moved to an assisted care living facility west of downtown in March after suffering a series of strokes. She uses a wheelchair and said she struggles at times with her memory.
But she is doing as well as she can these days and she isn’t letting her health setbacks get in the way of her lifelong role as tireless champion of her father, the artist Denver Gillen, who in 1939 created the illustrations that helped make Rudolph the most famous reindeer of all.
“He was the illustrator of Rudolph. I'm very proud of that,’’ she said in an interview last month in the lobby of Medicana Nursing & Rehab Center. “That was a big deal.’’
Denver Gillen was a big deal in the years immediately after World War II as one of America’s top illustrators at a time when magazine illustration was still an important medium. His work appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Outdoor Life and other popular magazines.
But he is perhaps best known for an assignment he received in 1939, not long after arriving from Toronto to take a job as an illustrator for retailer Montgomery Ward in Chicago. At the time, the Great Depression was waning and the department store wanted to create a children’s booklet for an annual holiday promotion.
An advertising copywriter named Robert L. May was dispatched to write an original story for the booklet. But when he submitted an underdog tale of a reindeer who was teased for having a red nose, company officials wrestled with a concern: In 1930s pop culture, a red nose often referred to a drunkard.
They were about to kill the project when May turned to Gillen for help. Their mission: Convince the Montgomery Ward big shots that the reindeer in May’s story wouldn’t suggest anything remotely close to a boozer.
May took Gillen to Chicago’s zoo to sketch some deer. The endearing (no pun intended) images Gillen sketched convinced Montgomery Ward to proceed with the holiday booklets. The project was a huge hit. Some 2.4 million booklets were distributed in the first year and millions more in the years after.
Before long, the booklets inspired other Rudolph creations. In 1949, songwriter Johnny Marks — May’s brother-in-law — adapted the story in a song recorded by none other than Gene Autry, the singing cowboy.
Autry’s song went on to become one of the best-selling records of all time, selling more than 25 million copies and inspiring the 1964 Rankin/Bass stop-animation film that turned into a classic television special, aired every year after Thanksgiving.
It would be years before young Jenifer and her siblings understood their personal connection to Rudolph, how their father’s illustrations first brought the popular red-nosed reindeer to life.
Jenifer and her siblings were born in the 1940s, years after Rudolph’s debut in the Montgomery Ward booklets. Their mother divorced their biological father and married Denver Gillen, whom Jenifer said she has always considered “my father.’’
“His reputation in some ways was established by this Rudolph,’’ Michael Gillen, Jenifer’s younger brother, said in a phone interview from his Pennsylvania home.
“The older we got, the more we came to appreciate the significance and how important it was for people all over the country,’’ Michael said. “It was something that never went away. He was the man who created it, the initial images anyway.’’
But for all his talents and accomplishments, Denver Gillen never cashed in on Rudolph like May and others did — a subject that Jenifer said was never a source of regret for her father.
“He didn't receive royalties from it because he was a working guy,’’ she said. “He was working for Montgomery Ward, so he didn't get paid anything extra for it. Back in those days it was the author who got the major credit.’’
Still, when Rudolph’s image appears every holiday season on TV and in stores, the Gillen children can’t help but feel a tinge of regret that their father’s role in creating the character isn’t more widely known.
“Robert May recovered title and rights to the publication. A significant amount of money came to him, the author, but none of that went to my father,’’ Michael said.
“He was paid as an advertising artist for Montgomery Ward. He earned his salary there and moved on. He never complained about it or anything like that, but it seemed like it was somewhat of a travesty that he did not receive more for this wonderful work that he created and is still published all over the world.’’
Lots of Denver Gillen’s artwork, including some Rudolph originals, was passed on to his family after he died in 1974.
“It’s something we grew up with as children,’’ said Dina Hamm, Jenifer’s younger sister, who lives in Naples. “I have grandchildren. They all have their books that their great grandpa illustrated. It’s very tender and sweet. It’s nice that people love his book and his illustrations.’’’
With Jenifer leading the way, the Gillen children over the years have done their best to remind friends about their father’s legacy as one of America’s top illustrators.
“That has really been Jenifer’s thing. She has really championed our father,’’ Michael said. “Jen was the one who pushed it to the point where the articles were written and the exhibits were made locally down there (in Lake Worth Beach).’’
Jenifer has lived in Lake Worth Beach at least since the early 1980s. Among her early friends was Bruce Webber, who owned an art gallery on Lucerne Avenue not far from a restaurant she owned called Spicy Jenny’s.
Years went by before Gillen invited Webber and his wife, Maryanne, to her home to see her collection of her father’s artwork, including some Rudolph originals.
“We knew Jenifer for years before that happened. We really didn't know she had all that artwork hidden away,’’ Webber said. “It turned out to be a really big deal.’’
In December 2007, Jenifer offered selections of her father’s artwork for sale at Webber’s gallery, which closed in 2017. The exhibition included 17 paintings created for the covers of Outdoor Life magazine, but the stars of the show were five original Rudolph pictures.
To promote the show, Webber made a wooden Santa with reindeers and attached it to the back of his red Corvette, which he drove in the city's holiday parade.
“Jenifer rode in the passenger seat, I rode in the driver’s seat. We each wore a Rudolph red nose,’’ Webber recalled.
At the gallery, Denver Gillen originals were offered for $1,500. Prints were sold for $75 each. Jenifer also produced copies of an outline of Rudolph and passed them out for children to color.
"We created the prints to make them affordable for people who might want them for their children's rooms and such," Jenifer said in a 2007 interview with The Palm Beach Post.
"They're part of the history of our popular culture. If we don't celebrate these kinds of works of illustration, they will be lost forever."
Neither Webber nor Jenifer recall how many sales were made at the 2007 show. Webber said he thought a Palm Beach philanthropist purchased some of Denver Gillen’s magazine illustrations and donated them to a museum in Boston.
Jenifer’s siblings said she kept some Rudolph originals at the home she lived in on South N Street from 1990 until March 2022 when she moved to the assisted living care facility.
But when her brother and sister came to Lake Worth Beach early this year to prepare her house for sale, they said they couldn’t find any of their father's Rudolph originals. Dina said she never had any.
They think Jenifer might have sold them or donated them to a museum without telling them. But because of her health issues, they said they may never know for certain what happened to the artwork.
“The only thing I can tell you as far as originals are three that I have,’’ Michael said.
Jenifer’s former home on South N Street still has a public reminder about her connection to the most famous reindeer of all: A Little Free Library, erected in the front yard in 2018, features a Rudolph holiday theme painted by Lake Worth Beach artist Carl Stoveland.
Stoveland is just one of many artists around the world who have interpreted Rudolph over the years, but the Gillen children have always had a bias for their father’s originals.
"His reindeer are the prettiest," Jenifer said in 2007. "They are slender, nice, and have real reindeer bodies and cute faces."
Sitting in the lobby at the assisted living care facility one day last month, Jenifer offered a broad smile when a visitor handed her a copy of May’s Rudolph book with her father’s illustrations.
“They are really different from your average illustrations,’’ Jenifer said as she thumbed through the pages.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.