COLUMBUS, Ohio — They look terrific for a duo whose holiday act debuted 43 years ago.
Though one still carries around a spare tire of belly fat, it doesn't seem to have aged him, and the other is still a bright, shining guy despite some rough times.
Rediscovered and restored puppets of Santa Claus and Rudolph that were animated for TV's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" are making holiday appearances, delighting fans of the special that has been a perennial favorite since its first airing in 1964. CBS plans to show it again Tuesday.
In the animated feature, inspired by the Johnny Marks song, Rudolph is laughed at and excluded from reindeer games over his glowing red nose. He finds acceptance at the Island of Misfit Toys before reuniting with Santa one foggy Christmas Eve.
"It's like meeting a celebrity, like meeting Clint Eastwood, or ('Batman' stars) Adam West and Burt Ward. These are icons," said Rick Goldschmidt, historian of the Rankin/Bass animation studio, who accompanied the 8-inch-high red-suited Santa and 4-inch-high yearling Rudolph with antler nubs to a comic book convention over Thanksgiving weekend.
Two years ago, the figures were acquired by current owner Kevin Kriess. Santa's face was stained, there was mold under his beard and half his mustache was gone. Rudolph was missing the red light bulb from his nose, said Kriess, a longtime fan of the special whose Harmony, Pa.-based business TimeandSpaceToys.com sells action figures and other collectibles based on movies and TV shows.
Kriess, 44, said he bought his two treasures from a person whose family had received them years ago from a relative who worked for Rankin/Bass. For many years, the delicate wood, wire and fabric puppets had been treated casually: first as toys and later as holiday decorations.
"They had Rudolph in a candy dish with candy all around him, just on a coffee table, and people would just reach in around Rudolph's body and pull out a candy cane or something," Kriess said. In the family's holiday photos, you could spot Santa slumped under a tree in a corner, he said.
Arthur Rankin Jr., who with producing partner Jules Bass created the "Rudolph" special for original sponsor General Electric, said the figures were just going to be thrown out, so his secretary took them home and gave them to family. No effort was made to preserve them, because no one imagined the show would become a hallowed classic.
"You make a film and you don't know whether it's going to work or not, whether it will have an audience," said Rankin, 83, reached by phone in Bermuda, where he is now retired. "In the case of 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,' it went beyond any expectations."
The firm in Japan that animated the figures likely had a half-dozen replicas of each figure, Rankin said. But he believes any other red-suit Santas and yearling Rudolphs were probably discarded, because the puppets tended to get worn out by the animators.
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The firm used the "stop-motion" method — starting and stopping a camera while arms and other parts are moved in tiny increments that appear as fluid movement in the final film.
Kriess bought his pair after he shared photos of them and what he knew about their history with Rankin, who confirmed they had been used in the filming. The sale contract requires that the purchase price and the seller's identity not be revealed, Kriess said.
He took the figures to Los Angeles stop-motion animation studio Screen Novelties International, which restored them. Animal hair was found to match the surviving half of Santa's mustache, and Rudolph's red nose was rewired and now lights again. Kriess said the company did the work mostly as a labor of love and charged only $4,000 for expenses.
A few puppets of other characters are still in the possession of people who worked on the film, said historian Goldschmidt, whose books include "The Making of the Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
Kriess has scheduled more pre-Christmas appearances: in the Chicago area at the Brookfield Zoo and a Borders book store Dec. 8-9, and at Kriess' new brick-and-mortar store at the Monroeville Mall near Pittsburgh the following weekend.
He hopes to make a holiday tradition out of an annual tour, though he acknowledges receiving sometimes-tempting offers for his puppets ranging up to tens of thousands of dollars.
Even if he ever sold them, Kriess said, he would require the buyer to allow him to continue exhibiting the puppets occasionally.
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