Animagic The Surprising History of Rudolph
You’ve probably never heard of Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment, but you’ve certainly seen their abundant and classic Christmas movies. The most popular stop-motion Christmas movies they produced were Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), The First Christmas (1975), Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976), and Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979). While far from being new, these heartwarming movies continue to charm new generations every holiday season.
First known as Videocraft International, Ltd., the company was founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass in New York City in 1960. Most of the Rankin / Bass animations, including their “Animagic” stop-motion movies, were produced in Tokyo, Japan. In fact, most of the studio’s animation was outsourced to Japanese companies like MOM Production, Eiken, Toei Animation, Mushi Productions, and Topcraft. Rankin / Bass was one of the first American film studios to outsource low-budget animated television and movies to foreign animation studios. Throughout the 1960s, the Animagic movies were spearheaded by stop-motion animator Tadahito Mochinaga at MOM Production.
Rankin / Bass remained successful for many years thanks to their animated holiday specials which aired for American television. In 1964, the company produced a special for NBC and sponsored by General Electric: a stop-motion animated adaptation of Robert L. May’s 1939 story “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which featured the 1949 song it inspired, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” written by May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks. With American actor Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman and narrator, with an original score by Marks himself, Rudolph became one of the most popular and longest-running Christmas specials in television history, airing with NBC until 1972 when it moved to CBS. After its last series output, Rankin / Bass shut down its production company on March 4, 1987. The look and style of the films has heavily influenced more modern holiday classics such as Elf (2003), as well as being parodied by Saturday Night Live and South Park.
The figurines featured in Rudolph were created by Japanese puppet-maker Ichiro Komuro for the fan favorite stop-motion movie. “These were hand-made. They weren’t toys,” pop culture memorabilia appraiser Simeon Lipman told PBS in 2006. “They had mechanisms to make them move, to make them come almost alive. No mass manufacturer of toys, especially in the 1960s, made things like that. It was made to be on film.” The 6-inch-tall Rudolph and 11-inch-tall Santa were made of wood, wire, cloth, and leather, with Rudolph’s nose lighting up and Santa’s beard made from yak hair. Sometime in the 70s, the puppets came to Barbara Adams, a secretary at Rankin / Bass. She used the figurines to decorate her Christmas tree, and let her nieces and nephews play with them like toys.
Later, most of the figurines ended up tragically melting in a hot attic, presumably Barbara’s. Her nephew brought the survivors, Santa and Rudolph, to the Antiques Roadshow, where they were valued at $8,000 to $10,000. A toy collector, Keith Kriess, purchased the puppets for an undisclosed amount, but much more than that appraisal. He then spent $4,000 to have them meticulously restored. Before that, Rudolph had lost his nose, and Santa was missing half his yak-hair mustache. Santa and Rudolph were successfully restored, according to Peter Lutrario, who purchased them from Keith for an undisclosed amount. In late 2020, Peter sold them to an anonymous auction bidder, who won them for a whopping $368,000!
Although the current whereabouts of the figurines are unknown, we can be sure that Rudolph and Santa are alive and well in their Rankin/Bass stop-motion movies, emblazoning television screens each December all across the world. Magical and heartwarming to this day, these Christmas films pioneered holiday television specials, forever changed the world of animation, and continue to capture our imagination and hearts.