MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Two of America's most beloved holiday figures - Santa Claus and Rudolph - have embarked on a public tour. That is the puppets from the 1964 CBS classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." You know the story. The outcast reindeer who teams up with a misfit elf.
(Soundbite of movie, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer")
Mr. PAUL SOLES (Actor): (As Hermey) Hey, what do you say we both be independent together, huh?
Mr. BILLIE MAE RICHARDS (Actor): (As Rudolph) You wouldn't mind my…
(Soundbite of whistle)
Mr. RICHARDS: (As Rudolph) …red nose?
Mr. SOLES: (As Hermey) Not if you don't mind me being a dentist.
Mr. RICHARDS: (As Rudolph) It's a deal.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: Well, over the decades, the Rudolph and Santa puppets wound their way from an animation studio in Japan to a family attic in the U.S. until they were sold to a collector and toy store owner in 2005. And they were very much the worse for wear when they landed in the hands of puppet builder Robin Walsh, whose job it was to restore them.
Ms. ROBIN WALSH (Puppet Builder): Santa had two broken legs, missing half of a moustache, both eyebrows, dirty, dirty costume. And Rudolph was missing his nose. It had been replaced with candle wax and play dough. He had broken neck, tipped antlers, tipped hooves and some Christmas candy on him from years gone by. And just also very, very dirty.
BLOCK: Yeah. I gather that these puppets, they hadn't just been stuck in a box somewhere, that they had been sort of stuck in among Christmas candy as a centerpiece.
Ms. WALSH: Yes, they had been. They were slated for the trash because they were considered nothing more than souvenirs back in the day. And a secretary had taken them home to her nieces and nephews who then played with them for many, many years before they finally did end up in attic in a tin stored away.
BLOCK: So it was your job to take these two puppets and try to restore them to their glory. How did you do that?
Ms. WALSH: Well, first, I took them apart very, very gently to clean out all dried foam - had dried and turned to dust. And clean the costumes and then put it back. So I just followed this road map of telltale signs of abuse or use and pick and choose what seemed the most authentic and go with that.
BLOCK: I've read from an article you wrote about this that you, in order to save Rudolph, basically, you had to destroy Rudolph in order to save him.
Ms. WALSH: Yes. It was one of the hardest things, I believe, I have ever done -was decapitating Rudolph. The little 5-year-old inside of me shed many a tear. But I had to just dismantle them to get to the broken neck and replace - or not replace but add a new wire so that he can hold his head up high and then put them back together again.
BLOCK: It must have been a scary moment.
Ms. WALSH: It really was because I also realized that everyone knows these guys, including me. I'd grown up with them. And I was holding my childhood in my hands when I was working on these.
BLOCK: You said Rudolph's nose was what - play dough and…
Ms. WALSH: Candle wax.
BLOCK: Candle wax. What's his nose now?
Ms. WALSH: Well, originally, it had been a custom-made 12-volt light bulb. So what we did was custom-sculpt an LED because it burns cooler. So now, he can glow for many years to come.
BLOCK: You know, I haven't thought about this before, but this was a show done for General Electric. So, of course, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer has a light bulb for a nose.
Ms. WALSH: Of course.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: And now, he has an LED.
Ms. WALSH: To fit today's modern world.
BLOCK: Well, Robin Walsh, it's great to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Ms. WALSH: Thank you very much.
BLOCK: Robin Walsh is a puppet builder and puppeteer based in Los Angeles. The restored Rudolph and Santa puppets will be on display in Chicago this weekend before they head to Pittsburgh.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.