Is the Mystery of “Screen-Used” Rankin/Bass Rudolph Puppets Solved?
Did you know the “screen-used” puppets from the Rankin/Bass holiday TV classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer never came to the United States? The puppets remained in Japan.
It is actually quite an interesting story, and I want to share the true history with you, so pull up an iceberg and lend an ear! First, let me introduce myself. I have been the official Rankin/Bass Productions historian/biographer for over 30 years now and my expertise is in their landmark TV special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
It all began with the work I did on my first book, The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass: A Portfolio, which was released in 1997 with the full participation of both Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. I followed up that book with The Making of the Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 2001. Through these books I was lucky to make friendships with all of the main people (who were in their 60s at the time) behind the special and obtain the materials they hung onto, along with all of the memories. Rudolph writer Romeo Muller and Rudolph designer Antony Peters created all of those wonderful characters around Rudolph. They were the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (think Marvel Comics) of the Rankin/Bass Productions Universe and their estates are the beneficiaries today.
Rick with Santa; Producer Arthur Rankin, Jr., Larry Roemer and Tadahito Mochinaga in Japan on the set of Rankin/Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at MOM 1964.
Since the release of my first two books I’ve learned even more about Rudolph, which I have added to my more recent books. For instance, Larry Roemer was given the director’s credit for the TV special because he was able to get it on NBC (detailed in my book The Arthur Rankin, Jr. Scrapbook: The Birth of Animagic). But Larry wasn’t the real director; Tad Mochinaga assisted by Arthur Rankin, Jr. directed on the sets. In fact, Bill Giles, who was the recording engineer, told me, “Larry called me to New York from Canada. When I got there, Larry was yelling that everything needed to be fixed. He was very angry! Arthur and Jules took him to lunch and Larry didn’t return to the office. Arthur told me nothing needs to be changed and I went back to Canada on a train.” Another credit was given incorrectly on Rudolph and that was for sound engineer. Ralph Friedman was not the sound engineer, as it states in the credits, instead it was Peter W. Page (Mad Monster Party, The Daydreamer). Ralph’s facilities, Magno Sound, were used, so he was given credit (detailed in my 20th Anniversary edition of The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass).
MOST SHOCKING RECENT DISCOVERY …
The only two figures that survived in the United States were used only for two functions: publicity photos and for the display at Rockefeller Center at NBC in the mid-60s until the early 70s, when Arthur gave them to his secretary Barbara Adams.
The most significant thing I learned in recent years is the fact that the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Animagic figures (puppets) that I appeared with from 2006-2008 that were later sold and then auctioned off were not the “screen-used” puppets. Everyone, including I, thought that they were. I did many interviews about them over the years but most recently got to the bottom of it.
It all started a few years after my book on Rudolph was released. I got an email from someone who said they had a few of the Animagic figures from Rudolph, and he wanted to know what I thought they were worth. I explained that in the United States, few are around, because the Animagic animation was done in Japan. I asked him how much would he like to get and I never heard back from him. The next thing I learned was that this same person took them on PBS’ Antique Roadshow, who really had no idea what they were looking at and appraised them very low (more on this later). A story began to take shape during all of this, but much of it was incorrect. The person was identified as the nephew of Rankin/Bass Productions’ secretary Barbara Adams. She took a group of the Rankin/Bass Productions’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer puppets home and gave them to her niece and nephew. They played with them like dolls and they were in very bad shape. By the time they reached the set of Antiques Roadshow, Santa could no longer stand and half of his moustache was missing. Rudolph had no nose and there was red Play-Doh stuck on his snout. They were also worn and dirty. The rest of the puppets that Barbara took home were stored in an attic, and supposedly the heat in the attic caused the puppets to melt and decay and eventually they were thrown out. The false story that grew out of this one was that these were the only two known to have survived. At the time, I could only go by what was being said.
Rankin/Bass Productions secretary Barbara Adams on the set of Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July 1979
The owner at this point decided to put them up on eBay. Several people messaged me to see what I thought, but I could not verify them. They looked legitimate. I showed them to Arthur Rankin Jr. and he said they were not legitimate initially. A friend of mine, Kevin Kriess (Time and Space Toys) called me up and said he was going after them. It was exciting, as this was near Thanksgiving 2005. He ended up buying them, but he had to pay much more than the amount they were listed at. Eventually, as a favor to me and to Kevin, Arthur verified them and wrote a certificate of authenticity.
As I said, they were in very bad shape and Kevin wanted to restore them to their original glory. I helped facilitate that with my friends at Screen-Novelties in Hollywood, Calif. I knew they worked on Ray Harryhausen’s the Tortoise and the Hare and could replicate most anything. We discussed the restoral of Santa and Rudolph on a conference call and it was a go. Seamus and Robin Walsh at Screen-Novelties were inspired to do the work that they do by Rankin/Bass Productions. My good friend Mark Cabellero at Screen-Novelties was also involved.
Screen-Novelties delivered the pristine Rudolph and Santa Animagic figures to Kevin at the San Diego Comic Con and everyone was happy. We appeared with them at Wizard World in Chicago and that was a hit. In 2006 we took them on WGN Morning News and CBS2 CHICAGO. There was a newspaper writeup on me in the Daily Southtown newspaper that came out on the same day as the news appearances, which culminated at a book signing with the puppets on display at AF BOOKS in Tinley Park, Illinois. The line to see the puppets and buy a book went all around the store. After the signing, Kevin and I brought the puppets downtown to the Drake Hotel and met up with Rankin/Bass musical composer Maury Laws. He saw the news segments and was very excited to see the puppets and hang out with us.
Rick with Kevin Kriess at Tinley Park AF Book signing; Maury Laws and Rick in 2006.
In 2007, things got even bigger for appearances with the puppets. We took them to the Mid-Ohio Con and did a panel about the puppets along with showing the Rankin/Bass documentary We Are Santa’s Elves. The Associated Press came to this con to interview us, as well, and the next thing I knew the article appeared on countless TV news segments and newspapers across the country. During the holidays, we appeared at Brookfield Zoo’s Holiday Magic for an entire weekend and in between we appeared at Borders Books. Both places were mobbed, as people came from other states to see the famous duo. This was very good for both my business and Kevin’s Time and Space Toys. Kevin brought the figures to many other conventions that I didn’t appear at and he sold a lot of Rankin/Bass toys. He ended up selling the original Santa and Rudolph puppets to Peter Lutrario, who kept them in his private collection for several years. I asked Peter to bring them to a convention or two that I appeared at, but we could never quite put it together. I did act as the middleman for a TV news appearance and he took them on a cable show called Hollywood Treasures. Since I hadn’t seen them for several years, I didn’t give them much thought. During this time I wrote four more books on Rankin/Bass Productions. I had been contacted by the family of Tad Mochinaga a few times and was aware of an exhibit that showcased his work in Japan, which I included photos from in my last two books, The Making of Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town and The Daydreamer, and The 50th Anniversary Frosty the Snowman Scrapbook. Arthur Rankin Jr., my closest friend at Rankin/Bass Productions, passed away in 2014 and I went to his memorial in Bermuda. This is where I met Barbara Adams (Rankin/Bass secretary) and became great friends with her. I also got to know Masaki Iizuka better. Masaki was the associate producer at Rankin/Bass and worked with all the animators post 1973.
Hiroshima Tabata animating Charlie in the box 1964; Kyoto Kita making Rudolph 1964; Hiroshima with truck.
In the Fall of 2020, Peter Lutrario decided to part with the Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Animagic figures. He was auctioning them off through Profiles In History (the same outfit behind the TV Show he appeared on called Hollywood Treasures). They contacted me and I agreed to help with their catalog for the auction. The figures ended up selling for $368,000 and that was that, or so I thought. That particular Christmas, I decided to sit down and really watch the Rankin/Bass TV special of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and I discovered that the Santa I had appeared with all of those times resembled the Santa in all of the publicity photographs I own, but the one in the actual special has a different appearance that resembles the Santa Claus in the Japanese exhibit of Tad Mochinaga exactly. I studied the photos in my last two books and Santa’s beard is shorter and there are lines in the beard on the sides of his mouth that are actually decaying. When he talks in the TV special, the beard moves up and down via those lines. The beard on the one in the U.S. is much rounder and bigger and matches the publicity photographs exactly.
Restored publicity Santa left, screen-used right.
I contacted Masaki Iizuka and he said, “Ichiro Komuro (known as Pinchan to Arthur) and Kyoto Kita created a separate puppet set at the request of Arthur Rankin Jr., that had to be flown to New York quickly for publicity photographs for the network. These photographs were used for regional TV Guide covers, articles, Burl Ives and Johnny Marks publicity shots, the Decca album cover, GE Ads, etc. They were never used for any of the actual animation, which was still in full production all the way up to shortly before the December 6, 1964 airing. These same puppets were leant to NBC and they put them on display in a case, at their Rockefeller Plaza studio, in New York. Eventually they were given back to Rankin/Bass Productions and Barbara eventually was gifted them.”
To clarify, the reason that only a handful of Animagic figures (puppets) exist in the United States is not because they fell apart and decayed (as some have wrongly said on the internet), but it is due to the fact that Producer Arthur Rankin, Jr. only brought a handful to the US for publicity purposes or gifts to various stars. Arthur oversaw the animation in Japan, Jules Bass never went there. My friend Bob Camp (Ren and Stimpy) recalled, “When I worked on Thundercats and Silverhawks for Rankin/Bass Productions, there was a small display case of the puppets in their New York office. I wanted to take them home with me. One day I went out to lunch and when I returned, they were gone. They were disposed of.” This case is where the two puppets that I owned, from The First Christmas, came from. It is also where Father Time came from, which I appeared at Chiller Theatre in New Jersey with. These figures were brought into a New York gallery around 2002 in a cardboard box. They may have been garbage picked. Most of the Rankin/Bass Productions Animagic figures remained in Japan with their animators. So it is likely that the entire production puppet cast for Rankin/Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer still exists! Tad Mochinaga even used IT (King Kong from Rankin/Bass’ Feature film Mad Monster Party) in a Japanese TV Show called Princess Comet. He makes a fully animated appearance, which you can see on our new Umbrella Productions blu ray release of Rankin/Bass’ Mad Monster Party out June 2, 2023.
Burl Ives and Johnny Marks
Now things were beginning to make sense. Arthur did not remember all of this, but he had a very long career and worked on many productions, so it did not surprise me. Strangely enough, I heard from PBS’ Antiques Roadshow and did a half dozen interviews with them. They were doing an update after that big auction sale that was wrong. Their original assessment was in the $6,000 range for the pair. I explained to them the new revelations, that the two that were on their show were never “screen-used” and that they were the publicity-only puppets.
Around this time, I heard from a museum that was getting the two publicity puppets on loan from the anonymous auction buyer. I licensed them photographs for their exhibit and explained the story to them as well. I haven’t seen the exhibit, so I am unsure if they are giving the impression that they are “screen-used” or not.
Decaying beard “Screen Used” Santa in Tad Mochinaga exhibit; Drawer in Japan with Mrs. Claus’ head in center, Willy McBean and his magic machine heads surrounding.
In photographs from the Tad Mochinaga exhibit in my books, you can see Mrs. Claus’ head in a group of Animagic heads kept on pegs in a drawer. Her head looks to be in excellent shape. The Animagic animators would often re-use male and female puppet bodies that they could position the heads on and design a new set of clothes for the figure. All of the heads from Rankin/Bass’ feature film, Willy McBean and His Magic Machine are in the same drawer. Rudolph and Willy McBean were filmed simultaneously with the same voice actors too, but Willy wasn’t released until 1965. Tad also hung onto a Reindeer from Rudolph, as well. Both Romeo Muller and Maury Laws were gifted a reindeer from the special, which are documented in my books.
Hermey and Rudolph publicity still
When I went to Bermuda for Arthur Rankin’s memorial in 2014, we also opened a museum exhibit at Masterworks museum called “Arthur’s Galaxy,” which included several Animagic figures. Masaki Iizuka was very adamant about how the Animagic figures should be displayed. The museum originally put the puppets on small doll stands, but Masaki said they should be pegged underneath the floor of the display boxes. Pegging the feet into the floor is exactly what the Animators did in the actual animation. Arthur Rankin always said, “Our Animagic stop-motion animation was a very laborious process. The Animators would often sleep by the figures to get the most continuous animation they could get. The animators loved what they were doing and they didn’t have computer assistance, as they do today. I think our Animagic had a warmer feel then today’s animation.”
Arthur working on Pinocchio.
Well, there you have it! The truth about the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus puppets, U.S. editions. I learn new things everyday as the Rankin/Bass historian and that is what keeps me going. I have appeared with several “Screen Used” Animagic figures over the years that I am sure were screen used. I actually owned two from Rankin/Bass’ The First Christmas that came with all of their eyes, mouths and eyelids. Screen-Novelties has them now and can restore them. They have been kind enough to loan them to me when I have an important event. This year I will be appearing at the Wheaton All-Night Flea Market on Saturday, August 19; The Southside Comic Book Show in Palos Heights, Illinois, on Saturday, September 16; and returning to the Chiller Theatre convention in New Jersey October 27-29. I hope to be bringing holly, jolly holidays to you!