A Christmas classic almost 60 years in the making came to an unlikely, but happy, ending last week.

The puppets of Santa Claus and the title character from the 1964 "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" Rankin/Bass holiday special are going to become a semi-permanent exhibit at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Tuesday that an anonymous bidder paid $368,000 at auction to win the two iconic pieces of animation history. The bidder then made a more or less permanent loan of Santa and Rudolph to the center.

After 56 years as one of the most beloved specials on the Christmas TV landscape, that's a fitting conclusion to Rudolph's saga. But there was never any certainty that he would end up in a museum — initially because they were worthless, later for being too valuable.

And their circuitous path wound through Butler County, Pennsylvania.

When "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was made, television studios rarely considered the possibility that anyone would be interested in preserving artifacts from their shows, sometimes not even the shows themselves. Studios routinely recorded newer performances over older ones, destroying history in the process.

And if the shows themselves weren't seen as valuable to posterity, props, even the puppets from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," were even less so.

The pieces were made in 1963 by a Japanese company that used stop-action animation to film "Rudolph." Santa is about 10 inches tall, Rudolph comes up to about 4 inches.

After filming the holiday special, Rankin/Bass officials gave the puppets to a production staffer. The alternative would have been a trash receptacle. The pieces — including Rudolph, Santa, Hermey the-aspiring-dentist-elf, Sam the Snowman (voiced by Burl Ives), and Rudolph's love interest, Clarice — wound up as children's toys.

Imagine Sid from "Toy Story" or the kids of Sunnyside Daycare from "Toy Story 3" and you can understand how some of the "Rudolph" puppets met their demise. And how unlikely it is that Santa and Rudolph were still around in 2007, when they wound up in the hands of toy shop owner Kevin Kriess, of Zelienople, Butler County.

That's how I became a tiny part of the "Rudolph" story, by interviewing Kriess for an article that year in the Ellwood City Ledger newspaper.

The Rudolph still around today is the middle one — the one that is shunned from reindeer games — of three used in filming. The puppets depicting Rudolph as a baby and as a mature adult, sadly, did not survive.

 

Kriess, a licensed dealer of Rankin/Bass merchandise, verified the authenticity of Santa and Rudolph with Arthur Rankin Jr.

Arthur Rankin Jr., who died in 2014, was the "Rankin" in Rankin/Bass, the production company behind many iconic holiday specials, including "The Year Without a Santa Claus," "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" and the one Kriess called his favorite, "Here Comes Peter Cottontail."

Kriess displayed Santa and Rudolph for several years at his toy store, Toy Galaxy, before selling them to a collector, who put them up for auction this year.

The Journal-Constitution reported that the expected asking price for the two pieces was in the $150,000-$250,000 range. The actual price was more than $100,000 above that.

In the end, though, the price was right, and Santa and Rudolph are heading to a museum, right where they belong. 

In 2007, when I asked Kriess, Rudolph and Santa's then-owner, what he wanted to do with the pieces, he said, “I just plan to show them to people so they can enjoy them."

Thirteen years later, it sounds like the new owner has the same plan.

ERIC POOLE is The Herald's assistant editor for news.

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