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Rudolph: Made in Portland, Oregon.

Rudolph's red nose.
Portland’s White Stag sign. Photo by Steve Morgan, Dec. 03, 2010.

As you walk, drive, or bike across the Burnside Bridge into downtown Portland, you might notice something different this time of year. The nose on the deer of the “Portland, Oregon” sign has been switched from white to red – to imitate Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. While most might pass this off as a bit of holiday cheer, there’s an amazing story behind this holiday tradition. 

The year was 1959. The White Stag Sportswear company had acquired the sign two years before, and thus added an outline of a stag to the former White Satin Sugar sign. Christmas was coming, and so was Santa! All the little boys and girls were anticipating the 25th – counting the days.

But lo – the farmers almanac called for a huge, foggy drift to come in from the Pacific. The city might not even be visible from the air. Of course – this was before too many tall buildings existed. The tallest building was the 15 story Public Services Building, a building not even tall enough to reach above the clouds. 

Airlines were frantically wondering if they should cancel flights. So many families wondered if they would see their loved ones for Christmas. Could the airplane instruments guide the pilots to a safe landing at the brand new Portland International Airport? Would little Johnny see Grandma? Would little Susie see Aunt Mable?

Of course – there was another problem. Would Santa find the city? A little known secret – in that time, the mayor’s office had a direct line to the North Pole. In fact, most mayors in major cities had a similar line. The purpose was to inform Santa of any problems for his Christmas Eve run. Usually, the line was left alone – Santa didn’t want distractions unless there’s a legitimate reason – especially during Christmas

One of Mayor Terry Schrunkinterns – however – knew this was indeed an emergency. So, the week of Thanksgiving, the intern pestered Schrunk about the issue. Finally, after an hour, Schrunk gave in and picked up the line to Santa. Schrunk shooed the intern from his office, as he reported the weather to Santa.

A replica of the “Red Santa Phone” found in major cities, circa 1959.

Santa chuckled….”I’ve got it covered,” and hung up.  Schrunk was confused until a few minutes later, when the intern walked back into the mayor’s office with a slim package. The label simply said “To: Mayor Terry Schrunk, C/O Portland City Hall. From: North Pole.”

“This was on my desk,” the intern reported.

Terry opened the package, both confused and excited. Maybe this was the answer! In the package, he found a copy of the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” published a year earlier by Little Golden Books. Terry flipped the cover open, he read the following inscription:

Terry, 

Rudolph isn’t real, but you can make him real. Find the biggest stag in the city, and put a red nose on him. Do this every single Christmas, and I’ll always be able to find the good little girls and boys of Portland, Oregon.

– SC

This – this seemed implausible. Terry realized within two seconds which Stag Santa was talking about – the stag on the newly renovated White Stag sign! Of course! Terry called the White Stag Outerwear company, and to his amazement – they were already planning on putting a red light on their enormous stag.

Christmas Eve came – and the red light burned fiercely, but the fog never did show up. Perhaps the farmer’s almanac was wrong, or perhaps Santa’s magic cleared away the fog – no one really knows for certain. However, an unwritten law was set into place that Christmas: the red nose must show up every single Christmas season – just in case.

Oh – but the red nose almost disappeared in 2009. The University of Oregon held the rights to the sign at that time, but did not want to renew their rights. With no one else interested in the rights, talks of dismantling the sign were thrown about by sign owners. No one remembered the unwritten law about the red nose, and no one remembered the Christmas panic of 1959 – save for one former city hall intern.

A 75 year old man appeared at Commissioner Randy Leonard’s office. He dropped the very same Golden Book delivered to Terry Schrunk 50 years before on Leonard’s desk. “You have to save Christmas,” the former intern said, and left. 

Leonard gave the man no thought, putting the book in a pile for his own interns to sort through. As one intern found the book, they read the inscription. Suddenly, the intern realized what was at stake! They ran to Leonard’s office and told him the fate of Christmas, both present and future, might hang in the balance of the giant White Stag sign. Leonard listened, and eventually pushed for the City of Portland to acquire the sign – thus ensuring Rudolph showed up every Christmas season for the foreseeable future. 

So when your kids open the bounty delivered by Santa, take a moment to remember the two interns who saved Christmas. Who knows, maybe in another 39 years, another 75 year old intern will drop the same Golden Book on another commissioner’s desk – demanding that Christmas be saved once more. Hopefully though, this story will keep the history of Portland’s own Rudolph alive. After all while Rudolph isn’t real, our city has made him real for over 60 years. 

Merry Christmas. And long live Rudolph!

Portland’s White Stag sign. Photo by Steve Morgan, Dec. 22, 1984.
Published inHoliday Fun!