A lot of Christmas traditions start up north. This year’s Macy’s holiday window displays — a New York Christmas tradition — are no exception.
OK, they didn’t start all the way north, not as far as the North Pole, but 62 miles north of Herald Square: at PRG Scenic Technologies in an industrial park in New Windsor, N.Y., which is sort of a Santa’s workshop for Broadway scenery.
This year’s window displays were created largely by alumni of Purchase College’s theater conservatory, now set-shop artisans.
At 5 o’clock tomorrow night, the fruit of nearly a year’s planning and labor — a mix of old-school craftsmanship and cutting-edge technology — will be unveiled at the store’s Herald Square flagship.
In six Broadway-facing windows unfolds the classic story of Virginia O’Hanlon, the 8-year-old girl who wrote to the editor of the New York Sun in 1897 asking if Santa was real.
The paper’s response, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” soon took its place alongside “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in the holiday’s literary canon.
(For those who lament that Christmas starts earlier and earlier each year, “Yes, Virginia” was published in The Sun on Sept. 21, 1897. Yes, September.)
Paul Olszewski, Macy’s director of windows, (pictured above) was tasked with tying the window display to the animated film of “Yes, Virginia” that the department store produced last year. (The film airs on CBS at 8 p.m., Dec. 14.)
“The challenge was to make it look like the windows happened first and we made the television special because of the windows,” he says.
To fill that tall order, Olszewski hired PRG and project manager Troy Atkinson, a 2004 Purchase graduate who recommended Mohegan Lake-based Spark?Group, founded by 2005 Purchase grad Jessica Malone, who is also his wife. (Atkinson and Malone, pictured below.)
Malone then hired Nyack native Josh Zangen (Purchase ‘04) to be lead designer for the Herald Square windows.
Before they even had the job, Malone, Spark’s creative director and owner, sat down with Atkinson and Zangen — who were roommates at Purchase — to watch the 20-minute movie.
Early in the film, Virginia opens a pop-up book that becomes a recurring theme.
“I said, ‘I think these windows should be paper,’” Malone recalls.
“Troy looked at us like we were crazy when we first talked about paper,” he says. “It was an interesting challenge, evolving as we go. When we pitched it to Macy’s, they loved it.”
When the curtains are drawn tomorrow night, viewers — who start at 34th Street and walk north on Broadway — will see that cut paper fills the windows: The shingles are paper, the quilts are paper, the buildings are paper. Even the photos that have been printed on the curtains started out as cut-paper creations.
“We were looking to put a really creative, crafty, chic kind of spin on this animated short,” Malone says.
The medium gives it a paper-doll simplicity but an elegance, too. The paper isn’t painted: the paper you see is the paper Spark’s team of seven designers and 15 artists started with.
“We didn’t it want to seem like Virginia herself had built it,” Malone says. “It had to be impeccable craftsmanship.”
When Zangen was looking for someone to serve as “paper charge artist” and execute his intricate designs he called his former Nyack High School mentor, Joe Egan. (That’s them, above.)
Zangen went to Purchase, in part, on the advice of Egan, a 1994 graduate of the program who started directing shows and overseeing stage crews at Nyack when Zangen was a junior.
“We met working on ‘Into the Woods’ at Nyack in 1999,” Zangen says, adding that enlisting Egan was “a no-brainer.”
They’ve been working together for a decade, whenever Egan, a set designer by trade, had work for his former student.
This time, though, the student hired the teacher, who beams when the role reversal is pointed out.
While the work is painstaking, the payoff is worth it, says Egan, who handcrafted the intricate wallpaper in Virginia’s bedroom in the first window. Each of the myriad tiny dots that comprise the wallpaper is actually four separate pieces glued together.
“You look at it and it’s so charming,” Egan says. “And then you remember: It’s all paper, layers of paper, crafted.”
“Dimension has been the main focus,” Zangen says. “Making things stand out.”
Olszewski wanted the look of cut paper, but also cutting-edge technology to make the windows unique.
“We wanted a more cinematic feel this year,” Olszewski says. “The detail is just amazing.”
PRG and Spark added fiber-optic lighting and automated LED displays that add dimension to the story. These, too, began as cut-paper works that were filmed to live again in LED.
Some of the details are so small that they might be missed the first time through.
In window-designer parlance — even in Christmas-window-designer parlance — these bits of magic are called “Easter eggs,” details that reward sharp-eyed viewers.
“We wanted to make sure that every viewer stopped. So we took a completely different approach with these windows, integrating this technology with craftsmanship so that it’s pretty to the eye, but if you look a little closer, you see integrated animation,” Malone says.
And yes, Virginia, the sculpted figures — the only elements of the window that are not rendered in paper — move in a more fluid way than their animatronic forebears.
To heighten the cinematic feel Olszewski sought, the scene in each window has curtains synchronized to move the viewer along through the story. And a soundtrack will leave no doubt as to the story that is unfolding behind the huge plate-glass panes.
Paper isn’t exactly durable. Is Olszewski concerned that the sets will wear thin, as the windows are in operation till Jan. 3?
“It’s a huge concern of mine,” he says with a laugh, “but they guarantee me nothing’s going to fall, burn, fade or anything.”
“There’s some wear and tear,” Malone says, “but we’re going to resecure everything.”
To get the pre-built window designs into place, project manager Atkinson removed the glass from the windows and eased the surprisingly heavy paper creations in on a forklift.
“It was a big experiment for us, but a good one,” Zangen says. “It took a little while to get the detailing right. We’ve all worked in paper for models, but never as a presentational final product. For us, it’s a great opportunity.”
If you go
What: The unveiling of the 2010 Macy’s window display.
When: The 45-minute unveiling show begins at 5 p.m. tomorrow night. The windows will be open for viewing from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, till Jan. 3.
Where: Macy’s Herald Square, Broadway at 34th St., Manhattan.
Meet the designer
Nyack’s Josh Zangen talks about the window-designing process.
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Pane by pane
Here’s a look at what to expect in the windows at Macy’s.
Window 1: The story starts outside the O’Hanlon’s house. A stained-glass window opens to reveal Virginia’s bedroom, in which Virginia and her friend, Ollie, talk about Santa. It then shifts to the O’Hanlon’s kitchen table, where Virginia’s father says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
Window 2: An apartment-building courtyard and Charlotte, a sort of 9-year-old know-it-all, tells the kids that Santa’s impossible.
Window 3: Virginia and Ollie go to the New York Public Library to research Santa. A librarian combs the stacks for Santa books. LED books come into view, showing the different Santa names: Father Christmas, Cinter Klas, Bellsnickle, Kris Kringle or Chimney John.
Window 4: Virginia talks to her father about Santa and she gets the idea to write the letter. The scene shifts to her room, where she writes the letter. Then it shifts to a scene with Virginia’s mother, who explains that Santa isn’t something you prove, it’s something you do. When you do nice things for other people, that’s the proof of Santa.
Window 5: Starts with an elevated train overhead and then focuses on the street outside The Sun offices, where Virginia meets a scraggly street Santa who has just given his coat to a homeless woman. We then hear Virginia’s mom talking about doing kind things for others. The scene shifts to inside The Sun, where the editor reads the letter. Virginia gives a coat to the shivering Santa, who tells her, “Today, you’re Santa Claus.”
Window 6: The town turns into Christmas, it decorates itself as the editorial is being heard.
Proof of Purchase
According to Spark Group’s Jessica Malone, here’s a list of Purchase grads who have contributed to this year’s Christmas-window displays at Macy’s:
For Spark Group: Jessica Malone ’06 – Creative Director and Owner of Spark Group; Ben Travis ’05 – Lighting Designer for Spark Group; Josh Zangen ’04 – Lead Designer for Herald Square; Brian Howard ’06 – Lead Designer for “branch city” windows in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; Melissa Shakun ’08 – Associate Designer for Herald Square; Chris Thompson ’10 – Associate Designer for branch cities; Stephanie Fallone ’10 – Associate Designer for branch cities; Sean Ryan Jennings ’10 – Assistant Designer Herald Square, Chicago; Adrienne Kapalko ’10 – Assistant Designer San Francisco
At PRG Scenic Technologies: Troy Atkinson ’04 – Project Manager; Sam Pierce ’87- Operations Manager; Nick Freely ’09 – Automation Technician; Josh Starr ’07 – Head Electrician; Joseph Egan ’94 – Paper Charge Artist; Kyle Bridwell ’10 – Paper Artisan; Sean Ryan Jennings ’10 – Paper Artisan; Stephanie Fallone ’10 – Paper Artisan; Alison Mantilla ’11 – Paper Artisan; Jen Salt ’11 – Paper Artisan; Holly Kirk ’03 – Lighting Account Executive (PRG Lighting); Ray Harold ’03 – Installer of Chicago Windows
Here’s a photo of the Purchase connection on hand last month at PRG Scenic studios in New Windsor, N.Y.
(All photos by Peter Carr/The Journal News. Top photo: Lead designer Josh Zangen works in front of Window # 2 at PRG Scenic studios.)