Macy's for the Holidays: 'A very fast dance'

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 8, 2008 - 9:05 AM

A mirthful approach and some serious talent help pull together Macy's annual holiday extravaganza.

The elfish stars of Macy's holiday display hail from across the globe. And the artisans behind the display traveled almost as far afield to put the show together.

The hair atop the pint-sized characters' heads? It's wool from Mongolian sheep, via New York. The inspiration for the mannequins' togs? Scandinavia. And those vaguely familiar-looking snowshoes? "Probably from some garage sale," said producer Mike Gansmoe. "You might recognize that from your kitchen chair in the 1970s, when rattan was big."

This whatever-it-takes approach and a multitalented crew of local artisans are the prime forces behind a tradition that prompts seemingly endless queues outside the department store's eighth-floor auditorium. This year's show, "A Day in the Life of an Elf," is expected to draw the usual half-million or so.

Unlike most recent holiday shows, the source material is not a cultural icon such as Mary Poppins or Harry Potter, but rather an original story by Bill Schermerhorn, creative director for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York.

"I was really excited to be giving people a story they're not aware of, and especially this story," said Gansmoe, 48, who got unashamedly sentimental while showing off the work in progress. "And I like that it's all about the elves. There's really only one time you see Santa, and just briefly."

The big guy is indeed barely visible in the display, which starts with a pair of "Crankers" setting off sirens to rouse the elves. "They oversleep a lot because they work so hard," Gansmoe noted.

From there, the multi-culti little guys have breakfast and classroom time before getting down to some serious toy-making. They don't whistle while they work, but they are serenaded by three swaying, caroling evergreens (a "tree-o," in one of the show's many groan-inducing puns). Meanwhile, reindeer, suspended from balloons as they learn how to fly, haul in bags full of letters addressed to a certain Mr. Claus.

A bit too much spin

The last time this show had a "fresh" theme, it worked out pretty well: Dayton's Santabear became a national icon after debuting in 1986. By that point, two-plus decades after "Santa's Enchanted Forest" launched the event in 1963, the display had become a must-see for tens of thousands of families.

There have been surprisingly few hiccups along the way, Gansmoe said. "We had a tornado scene in 'The Wizard of Oz' [in 1994]," he said, "where we created this enveloping space, with surround sound and a spinning environment. We had to tame that one down a little because people were getting a bit of vertigo."

Production manager Todd Knaeble, 59, chuckled when recalling a scare in his rookie season, 1978. "The [main artist] brought in the stuff the night before we opened," he said, "and I said, 'Never again.'"

That's why the planning for this year's holiday show began 52 weeks ago, as soon as the 2007 "Nutcracker" show was up and going.

In the early stages, for costume designers Lyle Jackson and Ellen Roeder that meant poring over children's books -- "Jan Brett was a major influence," Roeder said -- and perusing design themes from the homeland of many a Minnesotan's forebears. "We felt the Scandinavian elements would be appealing to people from this area," Jackson said.

They found the Mongolian wool in New York and were on their merry way. "I loved that it was a brand new concept," Roeder said. "We weren't limited by someone else's ideas on these costumes."

For lead scenic painter Nance Derby, 50, experience on the movie sets of "Grumpy Old Men" and "Untamed Heart" proved invaluable.

"This one is unusual in that there are a lot of little vignettes in an open area," she said. "So instead of sequential sets, people can look around and really study a lot of the sets at one time. Nothing's 'off-camera' here, and as a designer you have to really think three-dimensionally. This is a group art project on a scale that rivals movies."

Never-ending cycles

Fortunately for Gansmoe, the talent to pull off such a project is readily available, thanks to the local theater and dance scene. "It's an amazing artistic community here," he said, "that provides a great group of artisans."

The work began in earnest in August, on the day the Glamorama set was broken down, part of the auditorium's annual cycle (floral display, Glamorama, holiday show, with the odd Prince concert thrown in).

"We replaced the sheetrock in here in the early '90s," said lighting guru Michael Murnane, 48, "and you could look across the old sheetrock and see about 100 layers of paint, like counting rings on a tree."

Somehow, by the time the first visitors arrive, it all comes together.

"Putting on the finishing touches is always a dance," said Derby. "A very fast dance."

Turns out the elves might not be the only ones needing a siren to awaken them today.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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