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Zelienople man saves Santa, Rudolph

| Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007

A puppet autopsy resurrected Santa and Rudolph.

The plot of a traditional Rankin/Bass Christmas production• Hardly.

Rather, it's the true story of how a Zelienople man stumbled upon -- and then saved -- what are believed to be two of only six surviving puppets from the classic 1964 stop-motion animation film "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"I grew up watching that show. It was a very important part of the holiday time for me," said Kevin Kriess, 49, co-owner of Toy Galaxy in the Monroeville Mall, where he will display the restored puppets Saturday and Sunday. "As a family, we'd all gather around the TV and watch it. I always thought it'd be cool to see them and play with them."

Now he can.

Two years ago, Kriess bought the Santa and Rudolph puppets, which the creators call "Animagis figures," used in the original Rankin/Bass production from the nephew of Arthur Rankin Jr.'s former secretary.

He had them restored through a process Kriess likened to a "puppet autopsy," in which every piece was removed, cleaned, repaired and put back together.

"It was kind of like a CSI thing," he said. "This was done by stop-motion puppet experts."

He would not identify the seller, citing a confidentiality agreement he signed.

But according to Kriess and Rankin, the puppets have had quite a journey since filming wrapped up more than 40 years ago.

The puppets originally were stored at Rankin/Bass headquarters in New York City, Rankin said last week from his home in Bermuda.

One day, he decided to throw them away. Instead, his secretary took the puppets home -- nine in all -- and gave them to family.

For decades, children played with them as if they were toys rather than fragile and famous movie props, Kriess said.

"The heads aren't even affixed to the body; it's just a wire sticking up out of the neck and the head rests on it so (film technicians) could freely turn them during production," Kriess said. "If you held it upside-down, the head would fall off."

Over the years, seven of the puppets were damaged and thrown away. Santa and Rudolph were stashed in a box of Christmas decorations that sat for years in the family attic, Kriess said.

The nephew rediscovered the puppets a few years ago.

They were in bad shape. Rudolph's red nose had fallen out and someone had jammed a ball of Play-Doh into the hole.

Despite the puppets' tattered condition, the nephew placed them on eBay to gauge buyer interest.

The response was muted, Kriess said, because no one could tell whether they were real. Even Rankin thought they were impostors.

Kriess investigated. He learned the name of the secretary, called Rankin and explained the link.

"And then it all made sense," Rankin said. "These are legitimate."

Certain of the puppets' authenticity, Kriess bought them. He would not say how much he paid, again citing the confidentiality agreement, but he acknowledged insuring the puppets for $100,000.

"To me, they were priceless," Kriess said.

And they're great for business, he said. "I'm running a business that sells toys. It's the greatest publicity promotion you could ever stumble upon."

The puppets have toured the nation, with stops in Columbus, Miami, Atlanta and San Diego. Last week, Kriess showed them in Chicago. After Monroeville, they will not tour again until next year, Kriess said.

The only other puppets remaining from the production are believed to be with the creators.

"I have an original Rudolph in very good shape," Rankin said. "I put it out at Christmas every year. My cat goes crazy."

Additional Information:

Meet Rudolph

When: Dec. 15, 16

Where: Toy Galaxy, Monroeville Mall

What: Rudolph & Santa will be on exhibit all day

Details: TimeSpaceToys

Click here to watch a video about the restored Rudolph and Santa going on tour.

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