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Iconic ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ Puppets Are Up for Auction

You could own the Santa and Rudolph figurines featured in the classic 1964 holiday special

The Santa Claus and Rudolph puppets are expected to sell for between $150,000 and $250,000. (Profiles in History)
smithsonianmag.com

This year, Santa Claus is coming to town a month early—and he’s relying on Rudolph’s cherry-red nose to help guide him.

As Hollywood memorabilia dealer Profiles in History announced earlier this month, two central puppets from the 1964 holiday special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are set to go on auction on November 13.

Per a statement, the festive figures—crafted by Japanese designer Ichiro Komuro out of wood, wire, cloth, leather and yak hair—will be sold together for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. The Santa puppet stands around 11 inches tall, while the Rudolph one measures closer to 6 inches.

“You can tell by the way they were constructed,” Simeon Lipman, an indepedent appraiser of pop culture memorabilia, told Dennis Gaffney of PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow” in 2006. “These were hand-made. They weren’t toys. They had mechanisms to make them move, to make them come alive almost. No mass manufacturer of toys, especially in the 1960s, made things like that. It was made to be on film.”

The puppets’ current owner, collector Peter Lutrario of Staten Island, purchased them around 15 years ago. According to the Associated Press’ Andrew Dalton, Lutrario never intended to sell the figurines but changed his mind after turning 65 and thinking about leaving behind money for his family.

At least one museum has expressed interest in acquiring the iconic puppets: Castle Noel, a Christmas-centric tourist attraction in Medina, Ohio. As owner Mark Klaus wrote in a Facebook post quoted by local news station WKYC, “This is the holy grail of Christmas movie props.”

To help fund the purchase, Klaus has launched a GoFundMe campaign. So far, supporters have contributed more than $13,000.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer aired on NBC on December 6, 1964. A stop-motion animation production filmed in Tokyo, where the technique was pioneered during the 1950s, the General Electric–sponsored special tells the tale of a misfit reindeer, an elf who yearns to be a dentist and a jolly Santa tasked with saving Christmas. An instant classic, Rudolph is now the longest-running Christmas special in history.

Reflecting on the film in a 2019 interview with Smithsonian magazine’s Michelle Delgado, historian Rick Goldschmidt cited screenwriter Romeo Muller’s script as key to Rudolph’s success: “Romeo wrote these characters to be underdogs that don’t quite fit in the world,” he said. “By the end of the show, they triumph, and the villains get reformed most of the time. They’re such satisfying stories.”

After filming was finished, NBC shipped the puppets from Japan to New York City, where they came into the possession of production company executives Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, per the Huffington Post’s Jim Hill. Eventually, reports Sarah Cascone for artnet News, Rankin’s secretary, Barbara Adams, ended up with the figurines. Sadly, the majority—including Sam the Snowman—later melted in Adams’ hot attic.

“Now, when companies make movie props, they’re heavily guarded,” Lipman told “Antiques Roadshow” in 2006. “Back then, they were considered souvenirs, something to decorate around the Christmas tree. No one was thinking they’d become iconic items worth thousands of dollars.”

Adams’ nephew sold the surviving puppet duo to collector Keith Kreiss, who spent around $4,000 to restore the pair to “pristine condition,” wrote Hill for the Huffington Post in 2012. Prior to the restoration, Rudolph was missing his characteristic nose, while Santa had lost his “fluffy white eyebrows” and half of his mustache.

Today, the puppets can move freely.

“They’re still malleable,” says Lutrario, “and it’s very detailed. Not only can you move the arms, the legs, the head, you can move the fingers, the thumbs.”

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