We celebrate all the things that made the 1960s and 70s a great time to be a kid. With Halloween wrapped, our attention turned to that next great day on the calendar. Monster Kids love Christmas and the holidays. After all, that’s when we often got some of our most cherished things! From Thanksgiving weekend through December, those of us growing up in 1960s and 70s took to the TV Guide to look for more than monster movies – we were equally excited for those once-a-year Christmas specials. The stop motion animation was familiar ground for us Monster Kids who loved the work of Harryhausen and O’Brien.
This is the story of what happened to the stop-motion puppets used to make the classic Rankin/Bass Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Turns out that, in the early 1960s, stop-motion puppets weren’t considered that important. The 9-inch tall Claus and 5-inch tall reindeer puppet that were used in the making of this 1964 Rankin/Bass production wound up spending the next 40 years under less than ideal conditions.
First NBC (which initially aired this holiday special on December 6, 1964 on its General Electric Fantasy Hour program) had these puppets shipped from Japan to New York City so that they could then be used as part of the publicity campaign for this program. Once that work was done, Santa and Rudolph were returned to Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass (i.e. the two executives who ran Videocraft International, Ltd., the production company that actually made Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). And eventually Arthur and Jules gifted these two puppets to one of Rankin/Bass’s longtime secretaries.
Rudolph puppet spent 40 years as Christmas decoration
“And she then made Santa and Rudolph part of her family’s holiday decorations,” explained Seamus Walsh, one of the modern stop-motion masters who now works at Screen Novelties, a Los Angeles-based animation studio which later played a key role in these puppets’ restoration. “And that secretary’s children and grandchildren then spent the next 40 years or so playing really roughly with Rudolph and Santa. Throwing that little reindeer puppet through the air pretending that he could fly and force-feeding Santa candy and chocolate.”
In the end, the Rudolph puppet wound up with a snapped neck. Not to mention a missing glowing red nose. And poor Santa lost his fluffy white eyebrows as well as half his mustache. And since that they no longer looked like the characters who had appeared in that now-classic holiday special, Santa and Rudolph were retired to the attic.
And they probably would have stayed there — alone and forgotten like those forlorn playthings on the Island of Misfit Toys — if it hadn’t been for the secretary’s nephew, who stumbled upon Rudolph and Santa up in the family’s attic in 2005. He decided to bring this stop-motion puppets on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow and find out what they might now possibly be worth.
At that time, Santa and Rudolph were appraised for $8,000 – $10,000 for the pair. The secretary’s nephew then decided to sell these holiday icons to Kevin A. Kriess, a lifelong fan of the Rankin/Bass TV specials. And Kriess’ first goal was to restore these stop-motion puppets to pristine condition.
“Which is why Kevin then reached out to us. Or — rather — my wife Robin, who handles restoration for the Center of Puppetry Arts in Atlanta,” Walsh continued. “And she was the one who then handled all of the restoration work that needed to be done on the Santa and Rudolph puppets.”
Robin took an almost Hippocratic approach to this restoration project. Gently peeling back Rudolph’s tattered fur to reveal the wood & lead wire armature that the talented Japanese artists who was originally built this stop-motion puppet back in the early 1960s had created.
“While my wife was working on Rudolph, I got the opportunity to look at this puppet up-close several times. I mean, how could I not? This was the character that actually inspired me to get into stop-motion animation,” Seamus said. “But to be able to hold a huge piece of your childhood in your hand like that and then get a close enough look at Rudolph’s hooves to see the tiny little holes where they’d used entomology pins to secure this puppet’s feet to the set. Or to realize that Rudolph’s eyes were just these tiny pieces of leather that the Japanese animators had to then move around by hand in each shot, that was just mind-blowing.”
Kriess eventually sold Santa and Rudolph to noted pop culture collector Peter Lutrario. And the last time these stop-motion puppets were seen publicly was during a December 2010 broadcast of Syfy’s Hollywood Treasures show. And at that time, Lutrario told Joe Maddalena — the owner of Profiles in History auction house — that he just wasn’t ready to part with these holiday icons.
“Which is unfortunate. I mean, I’m glad that Santa and Rudolph are now in good hands and aren’t being left to rot in some attic,” Seamus explained. “But that said, I’d still love to see those stop-motion puppets to someday wind up in a place like the Smithsonian. So that thousands of people — rather than just one man — would then get to regularly see Santa and Rudolph and appreciate these puppets for the pieces of pop culture history that they are.”
We’re glad they are being well-tended to and hope that, like all private collections, they occasionally get a public viewing for the rest of us to enjoy.