Press-Republican

December 5, 2011

Museum room added to Santa's Workshop

JULIE ROBINSON ROBARDS, Collection Reflections
Press-Republican

---- — Something is happening at Santa's Workshop on Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington, and it has all the elves and gnomes buzzing.

It's the new museum room, and it's filled with nostalgic memorabilia that spans the six decades the theme park has been open.

"I've really wanted to do this for years," said park manager Matt Stanley. "It has been a dream of Mr. Reiss (the former owner whose father built the park in 1949) for a very long time — he's going to love it."

The wheels of progress began turning after a flood from tropical storm Irene ripped through the park, washing out foot bridges, wreaking havoc and depositing water and silt in what used to be the candle shop. The candles were moved to a different location, and the room was cleaned and prepared for something new.

Display cases were brought in from the flooded Red Barn antique shop in Upper Jay, and the elves set to work spiffing them up with fresh coats of bright red paint. Then an anonymous donor lent a sizable collection of Santa's Workshop souvenirs to the project, which combined with things from the theme park to make an impressive collection.

Exhibit curator "Julie Jingles" has been working hard to match old black and white photographs with artifacts that have been stuffed in attics, closets, nooks and crannies.

"It has been like a treasure hunt," she said.

"There were things squirreled away in the most unlikely places. For instance, just yesterday Johnny Jingle came in with some old wooden toys he found in a dusty attic and, once cleaned up, they will be perfect for display."

The wooden toys are charming and nostalgic — a reflection of Arto Monaco of Upper Jay, the artist who designed the Alpine village where Santa and Mrs. Claus now make their home. They will go into an exhibit case along with other objects — such as pottery, dolls, candles, clocks and blown glass — all made in the demonstration shops during the 1950s through 1970s.

Some of the most wonderful things were found in the attic over the executive office. These include a wooden Santa riding a bright yellow rocket ship with the numbers 35 MI. " I painted those," exclaimed Dan Christoffel of Long Island and Upper Jay. "When I was the elf artist there in the late 1950s, it was around the time of Sputnik. Harold Fortune (one of the park founders) had this idea of having Santa riding on a rocket ship. We put them up all along the highways so people could see how many more miles it would be until they got to the North Pole."

Christoffel, who was affectionately known as "Chris," apprenticed under Monaco. In 1958 when Santa's Operation Toylift airplanes needed to be repainted, Christoffel worked side by side with Monaco. A section of the exhibit is dedicated to Operation Toylift, through which thousands of underprivileged and orphaned children across America and Canada received toys.

Another exhibits focuses on the North Pole, N.Y., post office, which was instituted on Dec. 16, 1953, and the many letters that Santa receives from good little boys and girls. The tradition of sending and receiving letters from Santa's post office on Whiteface Mountain remains strong today.

Walking through the exhibit room is like a trip down memory lane. One case is filled with souvenirs featuring the famous 1950s image of Santa at the North Pole with Donder, his favorite reindeer. Ranging from china and drinking glasses to cigarette lighters, candles, postcards, puzzles and more, this image is the most famous and is still being used today.

Another case features the pages of the 1956-1957 gift catalog and the items that were offered for sale that season. It includes a 45 rpm record of "North Pole Town" by the Lake Placid Orchestra that originally sold for 98 cents. The 78 rpm sold for $1.39 and sheet music was also available. An interactive display features several Sawyer's View Master viewers with Santa's Workshop reels from 1951 and 1956.

Santa's Workshop is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends through Dec. 18. During the Village of Lights, the workshop is open 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 and 18. For more information on admission price and special events visit www.northpoleny.com or call 946-2211.

Julie Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her websites www.redbarnantiques.org or www.celluloidforever.co.