You know Dasher and DancerAnd Prancer and VixenComet and CupidAnd Donner and Blitzen,But do you recallthe most famous reindeer of all?
Of course you do. Burl Ives sang that question decades ago in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the 1964 TV special. Now that very Rudolph — and Santa — are up for grabs.
Two of the puppetlike figures from the children’s musical holiday feature, created by the team of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, will be on the auction block Friday at Profiles in History in Calabasas, California.
Constructed of wood, felted wool, leather and lead armature, Santa Claus and Rudolph cost about $5,000 apiece to make in 1964. Now, sold as a lot, they are expected to realize between $150,000 and $250,000.
“I’m very sentimental about them,” said their owner, Peter Lutrario, 64, of Staten Island. “I was watching when ‘Rudolph’ premiered on Dec. 6, 1964. I bought a VCR in 1977 for $1500 to tape that show. I thought I would die with them. But I’m putting my family’s needs ahead of the dolls.”
The song preceded the production and was written by Johnny Marks based on a story by his brother-in-law Robert May. The Rankin-Bass stop-motion animation “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is part of the established holiday TV canon, including, notably, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.”
But perhaps more elements from “Rudolph” have entered the public realm than from any comparable source. They include Hermey, the aspiring elf dentist voiced by Paul Soles; the blustery prospector Yukon Cornelius (who always licks his pick to see if he’s struck silver and gold), voiced by Larry Mann; the song “Holly Jolly Christmas”; and, yes, the Island of Misfit Toys, complete with a rag doll whose main problem seems to be that she’s normal.
“It’s the jewel in the Rankin-Bass canon because it opened the doors for everything that came afterward,” Rick Goldschmidt, the Rankin-Bass historian, said, referring to such subsequent company productions as ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” “The Year Without a Santa Claus” and more.
Other “Rudolph” figures and set pieces are thought to have survived. And the present examples were not the only Santa (who stands 11 inches tall) and Rudolph (6 inches) that were seen on the air. Different scenes, with different tooling needs and dimensions for scale, called for variations in the figures: There was a young Rudolph and a slender Santa, for example.
The collectible history of these particular pieces began in the early 1970s, when Rankin-Bass Productions was clearing out its offices. Among the figures known by collectors are the Santa and Rudolph that Rankin gave to his secretary, Barbara Adams. Her family trotted them out as Christmas heirlooms and periodic playthings. The results were predictable: As The New York Times reported in 2006, the Adams family “fed Rudolph crayons and red Play-Doh.”
“Over time,” the article noted, “his glowing red nose was lost and his felt fur deteriorated. Santa’s fluffy white eyebrows and half his mustache vanished.”
The characters were ultimately given to a nephew; they ended up in an attic. In 2005, the nephew (who prefers anonymity) brought them to the television program “Antiques Roadshow” in Providence, Rhode Island. The appraiser, Simeon Lipman, gave a preauction estimate of $8,000-$10,000. The nephew then offered them on eBay, where they attracted the attention of Kevin Kriess of Time and Space Toys of Zelienople, Pennsylvania.
“I was born the same year the puppets were made,” Kriess said. “So my childhood was this weird fantasy about needing to have these little figures and wondering how they were built and how they moved.” He and the Adams nephew struck a deal for an unnamed price and Kriess had them restored by Screen Novelties of Los Angeles. “They got the same light bulb that was used for Rudolph’s nose and the same yak hair for Santa’s beard,” Goldschmidt said.
“Once the news was announced that I’d bought them,” said Kriess, “Peter was making me offers.” He sold them singly to Lutrario in 2008 — first Santa, then Rudolph, for “very significantly more than $30,000.”
Kriess is looking forward to seeing where the pieces end up. “I feel like I’ve let the world down,” he said. “I’d rather have sold them to a museum. I just want to get them back to the public.”