“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” Original Puppets To Be Sold Before the Holidays
Fans of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the 1964 television special about a misfit reindeer and his friends, have an unusual opportunity this November. Two of the most iconic stage-used puppets that starred in the stop motion film will come to auction with Profiles in History. Santa Claus and a teenaged Rudolph carry a presale estimate of USD 150,000 and $250,000. The sale will begin at 2:00 PM EST on November 13th, 2020.
These puppets are now more than 50 years old and are the only survivors from the original film. Inspired by Johnny Marks’ hit holiday song from 1949, the Rudolph special was planned during a wave of post-war optimism. Producers Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass combined forces to bring an underdog reindeer to the movie screen. General Electric heard about the project and agreed to fund its production while promoting the newly-invented red LED lightbulb. The 55-minute special cost around $500,000 to produce, or more than $4.5 million today.
Much of the budget supported the work of groundbreaking Japanese animator Tadahito Mochinaga. His team was responsible for much of the styling and technical aspects of the film. The puppet makers created more than 200 figures, each measuring no more than a few inches high. “I don’t even think of them as puppets,” says Rick Goldschmidt, the official historian for Rankin/Bass Productions. “I think of them as personalities. And that’s what [the designers] brought to the art form.”
The film was an instant classic. Rankin and Bass went on to produce many other television specials together, and the original puppets were lost from the public eye. Several lead characters— including Rudolph, Santa Claus, and Yukon Cornelius— were taken home by a company secretary after landing in the trash can. They remained in her family for years, reportedly finding a home under the Christmas tree. The puppets were never intended to survive more than a few months, and many fell apart after years of storage.
In 2005, however, several puppets resurfaced. A nephew of the secretary took the last salvageable figures to PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, where they were valued between $8,000 and $10,000. Collector and toy store owner Kevin Kriess heard about the puppets before the show was aired in 2006 and bought them for an undisclosed sum. Kriess grew up with the film and recognized their cultural and commercial significance: “I’m running a business that sells toys. It’s the greatest publicity promotion you could ever stumble upon,” he told a Pennsylvania newspaper.
The surviving puppets were restored to their original glory after years spent in storage. Experts at Screen Novelties carefully replaced the bent limbs, missing pieces of Santa Claus’ beard, and other cosmetic details. Antiques Roadshow gave an updated appraisal of $30,000 to $50,000, figures that would hold for the next 12 years.
Eventually, the puppets passed from Kriess to fellow collector Peter Lutrario. For many years, the puppets stayed in Lutrario’s Staten Island bank vault for protection. “The last thing I’d want is to find Rudolph in my dog’s mouth,” Lutrario told CNN. They were a point of pride in his holdings, and the memorabilia collector had no intention to sell. Thinking of the future of his family inspired Lutrario to finally bring them to auction in 2020.
Bids are expected to start at $150,000, more than three times the previous high estimates. Interest in the puppets has come from private collectors and museums alike.