- 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' figurines were brought to life by a Japanese animator
- After production, they were given to a secretary of the animated classic's producers
- The figures lived in an attic for years and only a couple survived
(CNN)"It was like seeing old friends!"
That's how an independent appraiser with PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" described two of the most iconic pieces of holiday movie memorabilia ever created: Santa and young Rudolph from the 1964 stop-motion animation television special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
Sadly, the two are the only known original figures to have survived from the holiday classic, which has gone on to become the highest-rated and most-watched television special in history. At Christmastime, generations of viewers look forward to seeing Hermey, the elf who wanted to become a dentist, and Sam the snowman, voiced by Burl Ives. But they, and the rest of the cast, were likely thrown in the trash years ago.
However, young Rudolph, the one with mere nubs for antlers, and Santa, who appeared in the final scenes of the "Animagic" special, made it out -- not necessarily unscathed -- and today spend most of their time locked away in a bank vault in Staten Island, New York.
The man with the key to that vault has been a fan of "Rudolph" since the special first aired 51 years ago. By day he works in finance and owns a manufacturing company. He bought the figures in 2008.
"I was watching 'Antiques Roadshow,' and I was totally shocked," Peter Lutrario said, adding he had no idea they even existed.
"I couldn't think about work anymore. I had to give my best effort to owning these dolls."
A collector of Hollywood memorabilia, including Superman's costume from the 1950s TV show starring George Reeves, Lutrario said he "was willing to trade much of [the memorabilia] just to acquire these dolls."
From Japan to Staten Island
The actors who voiced the characters of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" never even saw the real life figures whom their voices would help bring to life. The videography was done in Japan to take advantage of stop-motion animation techniques pioneered by Tadahito Mochinaga, while the actors recorded the script in Toronto, a city known at the time for its pool of talented yet affordable radio actors.
When production wrapped, many of the figures were shipped back to New York and for the next several years were kept in the offices of producers Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass and, during the holidays, on display in the lobby of NBC to promote the annual airing of the special.
When Rankin and Bass relocated in the 1970s, the cast of "Rudolph" was given to their secretary to take home, according to Rankin/Bass historian Rick Goldschmidt.
"Arthur and Jules never thought of the figures as iconic pieces of art that were going to be worth thousands and thousands of dollars. To them they were just puppets that got the job done," said Goldschmidt, who has written a book on the making of "Rudolph."
"They didn't know how big 'Rudolph' would be."
According to Goldschmidt, their secretary passed the figures to her nephew, where they were simply a part of their annual Christmas decorations. The rest of the year they were stored in the family's attic, where, according to Goldschmidt, the heat and poor conditions took a toll on the figures.
"It caused them to deteriorate even faster than they would normally, and they ended up discarding the ones that got ruined," Goldschmidt said. Eventually only Santa and young Rudolph were left.
"They got played with quite a bit," Goldschmidt said. "They were really dirty and in bad, bad shape."
After a few decades in the family's possession, Santa couldn't stand up, and he was missing his eyebrows and one half of his mustache. Rudolph's signature nose was gone; in it's place, a chunk of dried Play-Doh.
In 2005, the secretary's nephew took the figures for appraisal at a taping of "Antiques Roadshow." They were estimated to sell for a minimum of $8,000 to $10,000 at auction.
Goldschmidt won't disclose exactly how much the owner sold them for in 2006, but said the TV show appraisal "missed the boat by thousands and thousands of dollars."
A friend of Goldschmidt's quickly bought the duo after seeing the show — beating current owner Lutrario, who had seen that same episode — and partnered with Goldschmidt to reach out to Screen Novelties, a production company that specializes in modern stop-motion animation specials. They jumped at the task of restoring the figures, in part because, as they write on their website, Rankin and Bass were "heroes" and "Rudolph," being one of the very first stop-motion holiday specials, was "the grand poobah ... that started it all."
"They brought them back to life," as Goldschmidt puts it. They got Rudolph a new nose bulb and re-wired his abdomen so he could shine again, and they rid the pair of years of candy stains.
"They even found and matched the exact yak hair that was used for Santa's beard and mustache to restore the other half of the mustache."
From one attic to another
Two years later, current owner Lutrario finally succeeded in his lifelong goal of purchasing pieces from one of his favorite childhood memories.
"Owning something from the show," Lutrario said, "took me back to a very happy time in my life. And that's what that show represented to me. It brought back wonderful Christmases when I had all my relatives when they were still alive."
"It made me feel like a child again."
He won't discuss what he paid for the pair, saying that if he did, the finance aspect would be "all people were interested in."
"Antiques Roadshow" offered an updated appraisal two years ago, post-restoration, raising the value to anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000.
The dolls stay primarily in the bank vault in Staten Island, but Lutrario agreed to take them out and show CNN. He propped them up on a little display in an attic that is now mostly empty since he sold much of his movie memorabilia so he could afford Rudolph and Santa.
He described the wire armature inside and showed us how just about every part of the figures — Rudolph's legs, tail, head, even his mouth — are moveable for the purposes of stop-motion.
Why store them in a bank vault and not a museum or his home? Lutrario says first and foremost he wants to keep them safe and "away from my children and particularly my dogs."
"The last thing I'd want to find is Rudolph in my dog's mouth."
He said he is open to showing them in a museum in New York and wants generations to be able to enjoy seeing them. But he told us that so far he's reached out to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and not gotten a response.
He hasn't made a go at another venue. A place like the Smithsonian in Washington, might seem like a more natural fit given it houses other similar pop culture artifacts, but it may be too far from home for Lutrario.
"I'd be very interested in doing it in New York City where I know they'd get the exposure they deserve."
In short, he's protective of his investment, which remains near and dear to his heart.
"I never thought I would get the opportunity to own these dolls," he said. "[They] represent what Christmas is to me."