Tag Archives: Christmas

The Magic of Christmas (Windows)

Back when I lived in New York City, I spent a couple seasons working at Spaeth Designs, building props for the holiday window displays at stores like Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. They’ve produced a few videos this year showing some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into these mini-productions. These windows are quite intense, with designers and department heads beginning work in February, and dozens of skilled craftspeople starting as early as July to get these ready by Thanksgiving.

First up is Saks Fifth Avenue, which went with a “Yeti” theme:

Next up is Lord and Taylor, who do variations on a Victorian Christmas every year:

Enjoy!

New York City 2011 Christmas Windows

New York City retail stores are known for the grand and highly imaginative window displays they unveil every Christmas season. I spent my first two autumns in New York City working on some of them. I did not work on them this year, though some colleagues of mine did. One of my former coworkers shot the following videos. You can find more videos searching on YouTube, but what makes these great is that they start off in the workshop showing the constructing phase, and moves to the inside of the windows showing the assembly before showing the final result.

First up is perhaps the lynchpin of NYC Christmas windows: Macy’s.

Macy’s is certainly the most well-known of the annual Christmas windows in New York City, but Saks Fifth Avenue does a good show as well.

Finally, we have the Lord & Taylor windows.

Snow

Every winter, many performing arts institutions put on some kind of winter or holiday show. From a traditional Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker Suite, to the more modern A Christmas Story and The Santaland Diaries, many of these shows involve snow to some extant. Now, depending on the context of the snow and the traditions of the theater you work at, snow can be the responsibility of one or more departments: props, scenery, sometimes even lighting. Still, it doesn’t hurt to know some of the many ways snow is recreated, whether or not it ends up being the prop department’s responsibility.

For the 1936 Broadway production of Ethan Frome, scenic designer Jo Mielziner was very specific about the properties of the snow which covered most of the stage. It fell to Joe Lynn, the property master, to come up with a recipe. After much trial and error, they arrived at a mixture of white cornmeal, ground quartz and powdered mica flakes. As Mielziner himelf explains:

The cornmeal provided the right consistency, the quartz gave the crunching sound and the mica simulated the sparkling surface of snow in moonlight.

(from Designing for the theatre: a memoir and a portfolio, by Jo Mielziner; Atheneum, 1965, pg. 90)

Joe Lynn also added some rat poison to the mix to keep vermin away, which is probably not the safest solution available to today’s theatres. Also, using particles and powders as a floor covering—this is true of sand as well—can trigger issues with your fire marshal and even Actor’s Equity; you want to make sure you involve them as soon as possible so that you don’t end up using something which is not allowed.

For snowballs, previous props people have used white bar soap shaved into bits with a cheese grater. The resulting bits can be packed into a snowball which explodes on impact. Others suggest instant mashed potato flakes. In either case, water can be mixed in or spritzed on to make the snowballs stick better. If the actors are throwing the snowballs at people, obviously you want the snowball to break apart on impact as easily as possible. A lot of variables come into play: how hard the actor throws it, what it is hitting against, the temperature and humidity in your theatre, how far in advance you need to make the snowballs, etc. As a result of all these variables, there is no “exact recipe”, and research and development is essential.

Another option is the interior of disposable diapers (new ones, not used ones). They contain a powder called sodium polyacrylate, a polymer which absorbs 800–1000 times its own weight, effectively turning a liquid into a solid gel. It is also sold in magic shops and novelty stores as “slush powder”.

If a show calls for falling snow, it is often the props departments duty to procure the snow, while scenery is in charge of making it fall from the air. I know, it’s bizarre. The preferred method for at least the past hundred and thirty years is using clipped paper. Unfortunately, regular paper will not pass today’s fire retardant standards. If the thought of fire-proofing every snowflake for every performance is too overwhelming, theatrical suppliers, like Rose Brand, sell flame-proofed paper snow flakes. Expect to pay a lot though, and be aware that everyone needs snow during the winter and they are often sold out by this time of the year.

A more modern alternative is plastic flakes. Rose Brand sells these as well, but you can make your own if you wish. You can find paper shredders (for offices) which not only cut in strips, but also crosscut those pieces to make confetti. You can run white grocery bags or garbage bags through one to make your own plastic snow flakes. Bear in mind that you need a lot of snowflakes to make even a short-duration snowfall over a small stage. You’ll need more for multiple performances. You may be tempted to sweep as much as you can from one performance to use in the next one. Be aware that when you are picking up the old snow, you are also picking up all the dirt and dust from the stage. You don’t want to rain crud down onto your performers during a show; the dust can get in their eyes, and larger particles may even injure them when dropped from the top of the stage.

A brief history of gift wrap

With Christmas coming up, I am reminded that a variety of plays and musicals take place during this time. Let’s say you need a present as a prop. Is it wrapped? What kind of paper would you use? A lot of these answers depend on the specifics of the text: the time period, setting, class and ethnicity of the characters who are involved with the present. Still, it’s nice to have a rough timeline of the various technologies and customs involved with the wrapping of presents in Western culture.

I’ve organized this timeline in reverse order. Merry Christmas!

1970s-80s – Wrapping paper begins to have movie and television tie-ins, with characters printed on the paper (“A History of Gift Wrap” by Mac Carey).

1950s-60s – Wrapping paper patterns become more realistic (Carey).

1939-1945 – During World War II, gift wrap was not rationed to keep morale up (Carey).

1930s-40s – Wrapping paper patterns become more stylized due to influences from Art Deco. Some more popular patterns include ice skaters, snowflakes, Christmas trees, and candles (Carey).

1930 – “Scotch” tape is invented. Check out the Tape Innovation Timeline at the Scotch website for more milestones in transparent tape, as well as pictures of vintage tape dispensers and packaging. Before this, gifts were tied up with string and sealing wax (Carey).

1917 – According to the Hallmark site, Joyce Clyde Hall and his brother, Rollie, invented modern gift-wrap in their Kansas City, MO, store. When they ran out of their solid-colored gift dressing during the peak of the Christmas season, they began substituting the thicker French envelope liners for wrapping presents. It sold so well they began printing their own. Previous to this, they sold white, red and green tissue and one holly pattern for gift-wrapping.

1912 – Cellophane paper is used to wrap Whitman’s candy. Sales of cellophane triple between 1928-1930 following the introduction of moisture-proof cellophane. It is used as wrapping paper, either alone or in conjunction with regular paper.

Early 20th Century – According to the Hallmark press room, gifts are wrapped in tissue or plain brown paper during this time (an archived version of the page is available at the Internet Archive).

1890 – Flexography, a printing process using a flexible relief plate, is patented. It makes possible the mass production of a foldable, stiff paper which could be printed with colored inks (Carey).

1881 – Stockings hung either by the fireplace or bed and filled with presents were in common usage in England at this time (BBC, The Ten Ages of Christmas).

1874 – Louis Prang, the “father of the American Christmas card,” becomes the first printer to offer Christmas cards in America.

1857 – Joseph Gayetty introduces toilet tissue to the world (The Toilet Paper Encyclopedia). Tissue paper springs from this invention. In 1863, Ebenezer Butterick chooses tissue paper for his newly-invented graded sewing patterns, implying that it was somewhat widely available by that time. The use of tissue paper for gift-wrapping soon follows.

1843 – A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, is published. He describes presents which are wrapped in brown-paper parcels in the past (circa 1836).

1843 – Sir Henry Cole of London commissions the first commercial Christmas cards from John Callcott Horsley (Inverloch Historical Society, January 2004 newsletter).

Victorian Period (1837-1901) – Wrapping paper is decorated similar to the Christmas cards of this era. Flowers, cherubs, and birds are among the more popular patterns (Carey). “Christmas papers were intricately printed and ornamented with lace and ribbon. Decorated boxes, loose bags, and coronets bore cutout illustrations of Father Christmas, robins, angels, holly boughs and other seasonal decorations” (“How is wrapping paper made?” by Gillian S. Holmes)

1823 – First publication of “A Visit from St. Nicholas“, aka “‘Twas the Night before Christmas”. St. Nicholas fills stockings hung by the chimney with toys. There is no mention of presents under the tree, or whether anything is wrapped.

1804 – First advertising for Christmas gifts in America (South Main Preservation Society).

19th Century – Gifts were sometimes presented in decorated cornucopias or paper baskets (Carey).

1745 – We have a mention of “brown or wrapping paper” used “to wrap up Goods, therefore called Shop-Paper” (The Harleian miscellany, by William Oldys, pg 339).

1509 – Earliest-known sample of wallpaper. It was used only briefly as gift-wrap because it cracked and tore too easily when it was folded (Hallmark’s History of Gift Wrap).