Santa’s human helpers make magic

Bill Greene ’72 MFA ’78

Once upon a time, giant department stores graced our downtowns. Filled with sumptuous wonders throughout the year, they offered an extra special treat at Christmas.

That’s when, if you were very, very good, your parents would take you to see the stores’ holiday displays, their front windows transformed into idyllic snow-covered villages or, better yet, the North Pole.

Of course, you were led to believe that Santa created all of these, and he would have, too, but it was such a busy time, so he delegated.

For Shillito’s in downtown Cincinnati, the job went to some 15 eager employees, including several Miamians, anxious to prove they could bring Santa’s workshop to life.

One of those Miamians producing elfin magic was Bill Greene ’72 MFA ’78 of Oxford, who opened up his scrapbook recently to share his photos of the 1979 production. From mail room and cookie kitchen to the weather station tracking Santa’s worldwide sleigh ride, the end result was so large it filled the store’s seventh floor. No mere window could contain its magic. This was a walk-through of epic elf-sized proportions.

Behind the scenes

“We made everything, the bodies, faces, clothing, props,” Bill said. “The elves were around 2 feet tall, and we made all the props to scale. The hardest thing was probably trying to keep it magic so you didn’t see how things moved.” Fake snow can hide a lot.

“The floor was raised 12 inches because all the mechanical parts, the motors and stuff, were usually down below. These guys (elves) were on round bases, for the most part. We’d crawl through those round bases and under.

“Once in a while, if something was pretty pressing, we had to crawl under the floor while the workshop was open. So people were walking by, and we’d hear them laughing and talking. Then suddenly, they’re standing there looking at a scene, and one of our heads would pop out of one of those holes and scare them to death.”

“This guy was on this ladder and the ladder would tip and he’d spin around and swing. I liked the challenge of actually making them move a prop, or they would turn something on. Or if something would move, they were riding on it.”

“A couple of us that last week at Thanksgiving never left the store. We maybe got to take a short nap for an hour and then back to work. I knew I was tired when I went to bend down to do a little trim and fell asleep on the way bending over.

“When they opened the front of the walk-through display and people and kids were starting to come in, we were still at the last section doing the final work. It took probably 10 minutes to walk through it, and we cleared out just as they were getting to us.”

“The conveyor belt in the cookie kitchen actually moved, and we attached the cookies (real chocolate chip), but to make the cookies last, we shellacked them. Some kids jumped over the barrier, peeled them off and ate them. We didn’t find crumbs. They must have enjoyed them.”

“I built this machine that supposedly took straight pieces of candy, bent them and then put stripes on them to be candy canes.

“Every elf looked different. They got named after real people, but I don’t think any were modeled after real people except one looked like Barry Manilow.” (Popular singer. Google him.)

“In the wood shop, we had elves working on table saws and drill presses. With the table saw, the blade was turning, but we had to make it to scale, elf scale.

“Most of us learned to weld by doing it. We used oxyacetylene welding equipment. (Shillito’s didn’t know.) They would have shut us down real quick. Management in our department knew. Upper management didn’t. Just so we didn’t catch the building on fire we were OK.”

“So this is the painting scene. What’s fun with this is it would look like he was spraying paint. A red light was in there so it looked like it was the spray coming out. As soon as the light went out, the airplane flew out the window. And then another one would appear.” (Spoiler alert: It’s the same plane.)

“My oldest son, Andrew, was around 2, so we put him in this scene, and he was walking around, talking to the elves and having a good time because they were just his height.”

“For the rec room, we made him a little guitar, and he was strumming it. We’re playing Willie Nelson Christmas music, and it was like that guy was singing it.

(Also in the rec room, elves are watching a slide show on a projector.)

“For fun (and the slide show), one guy and a girl went out with a camera, and they took pictures of elves all over Cincinnati. They took an elf to the zoo. Some zoo keeper had a small tiger on a leash. They had the elf sitting there, and she came up and they asked if they could get a picture of the tiger with the elf. She said yes, and immediately the tiger looked at the elf and went ffffshshsh with a paw and just ripped the head off the elf.”

“And of course the elves needed to sleep so we had a little dormitory room. This guy is reaching over with a feather, and the guy underneath is wiggling his feet. Little things like that we had fun with.”

“And they had a big dining room. This was a real challenge for me. The elf is walking around the table like he is serving. The challenge there was to make an animation that would move like that and try to hide all the supports. Because normally they’re pretty stationary. The farther we had them move the more challenge there was. The animation on the table had to be separate, and the guy had to go around the electric cord and stuff like that.”

“Then they’re loading the sleigh.”

“This is the weather station. This was my favorite because the things involved in it. I love maps so I made this big world map. It lit up and showed different tracks and different time zones and clocks. It was all color coordinated. A panel to the side of the map would light up and say “on track” or “late” or “snow.” Then there’s the globe, and it had individual lights that followed Santa. It was before you could buy track lights. It took Dave Cook (another Miamian) a couple of weeks just to wire that up.

“When you’re a kid, you see that stuff and it’s magical.”

It’s pretty magical when you’re an adult, too.

Miamians who helped create Santa’s workshop: Bill Greene ’72 MFA ’78, Dave Cook ’74 MFA ’76, Stan Larsgaard ’72, Bob Fieler ’72, Jim Ross ’78, Mick Kennedy ’78, Marshall Hyde ’78, Alex Fuhr ’79, Barb Woltering ’79

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