Center for Puppetry Arts gets original figures from ‘Rudolph’ cartoon

Two surviving puppets from classic Christmas show on semi-permanent loan

The most famous reindeer of all has flown to Atlanta.

The puppet hero of the 1964 animated children’s feature, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and his boss Santa have piloted their sleigh to Midtown’s Center for Puppetry Arts.

An anonymous donor bought them for $368,000 at auction Nov. 13 and gave them to the center on semi-permanent loan.

Rudolph’s stop-motion Christmas special is perhaps the most successful Rankin/Bass production ever, and one of the most durable traditions of holiday television-watching.

In 2014, on the film’s 50th anniversary, the U.S. Postal Service issued stamps in its honor.

But while the film has lasted, the puppets that starred in it haven’t. After the production wrapped, the filmmakers handed out the poseable figures as souvenirs. Rudolph, Santa, Hermey the elf, Sam the Snowman, Bumble, Clarice (Rudolph’s crush) and others, were scattered. One crew member gave about a half dozen to the children in her family, who played with them harshly.

No one imagined then that the figures would become treasures. In 2006 a nephew of a Rankin/Bass employee brought two battered but surviving stars — Rudolph and Santa — to the experts at the PBS production “Antiques Road Show,” and they were judged to be genuine, and worth $8,000 to $10,000.

Kevin Kriess of Time and Space Toys in Zelienople, Pa., acquired the figures, had them restored, and sold them to a collector who put them up for auction this year on Nov. 13. The selling price was expected to be $150,000 to $250,000.

Beth Schiavo, executive director of the Center for Puppetry Arts, got updates from the auction as the bids went up. She knew that a certain Atlanta individual had an eye on the puppets, with the goal of lending them to the center.

Bids rose above $300,000, and Schiavo thought, “There’s no way our donor will go that far. Come on!” But the donor stayed with the bidding, buying the pair for $368,000.

Schiavo was flabbergasted. “It was incredibly generous,” she said.

The Center for Puppetry Arts in Mitown developed its own retelling of the story of the misfit reindeer, and executive director Beth Schiavo said it has become the center's most popular show every year. Shown are the center's versions of the "Rudolph" figures. They are almost twice the size of the originals. Photo: courtesy Center for Puppetry Arts

Credit: Center for Puppetry Arts

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Credit: Center for Puppetry Arts

In a statement, the donor said “These were beloved characters of my childhood and I can think of no better place for them to ‘retire’ than in the trusted care of the Center for Puppetry Arts, the first and largest nonprofit organization in the U.S. solely dedicated to the art of puppetry.”

The Center for Puppetry Arts production of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is a faithful live-action version of the 1964 television special. CONTRIBUTED BY CLAY WALKER

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Schiavo said Rudolph and Santa need a little more conservation work, and that the center hasn’t determined when the figures will go on display.