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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Santa's Castle

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As Santa's Castle prepares to open for its 45th season, technology will for the first time play a major role in the fun, right alongside the tradition.

A computer screen will sit right next to Santa Claus, allowing St. Nick to read a child's name and wishes while a printer exports a photo of the boy or girl on Santa's lap. In a back room, carefully-callibrated computer programs and software will run a new outdoors light show, about 10,000 bulbs twinkling in time to music passers-by can tune in on a special FM frequency on their car audio systems.

And the Castle's appeal isn't even limited to the "Castle" - the stately stone 1905 former Carnegie Library - any more. Children can visit it through a new online website, or via a new DVD that sets a photo slideshow of Castle sights to a soundtrack.

A corner once reserved for reading storybooks now boats a pair of video monitors for favorite Christmas cartoons.

Plans are also in place to add an elevator to the classic building for the first time - a technological advance that could cost a quarter of a million dollars.

"For those of us who see Santa's Castle with nostalgia, this might seem like a big change, but for children today, this is part of their lives," Chamber of Commerce Director Marilyn Monson said. "Santa Claus with a computer screen is going to seem quite natural for them."

If you think that all the electronic wizardry being added to Santa's domain will detract from the old-time charm that has made this attraction a must-see for generations - not so. Head elf Candy Clough sees to that.

The stars of this show, without question, are the nearly-priceless pieces of antique holiday animation and Christmas characters, some dating to as far back as the 1920s.

Once featured in big city department store windows, Storm Lake leaders found them, forgotten and dusty, and brought them here to be repaired, repainted and brought back to life.

Clough, headed into her fourth season as curator of a Castle she fondly remembers visiting as a small girl in its library days, knows each character like a friend. As she walked through this week, putting final touches in place for the opening on Thanksgiving Day, she said that she thinks this year's Castle will appeal to children - and the young at heart.

"The challenge gets to be coming up with some new ideas every year," she says.

The building itself is slowly becoming better than new. New wall and floor treatments, electrical wiring, paint, landscaping and other renovations have made the National Register of Historic Places site into a showplace.

"We still have things to do - every year I discover something. This year we uncovered some windows that had been blocked shut for years and years," Clough said.

Restoration of the historic animation is also a never-ending process.

"There are about 100 characters in all, and each year we try to incorporate about half of them, so that there will always be something that people haven't seen - or at least haven't seen in a very long time. Some of the pieces in storage have been in very bad condition, and we try to restore about five more of them every year."

This year, a scene out of a classic three pigs fairy tale has been brought to life, with newly restored animation - complete with a big, bad wolf. A room that was one outfitted as a pioneer parlor when the Castle served as a historical musem years ago has been opened up and made over into a 1950's-style kicthen, with a family of animated poodles whipping up Christmas cookies.

Sometimes, it's smooth. "The first year I was here, by the end of the season, 75 percent of the pieces had stopped working. Last year, we finished up with every single piece working," Clough said.

"And then there was the day we were testing a scene with some naughty goat children that is a favorite of the children. They were jumping up and down in their bed and all of a sudden one of the goat's head pops right off. Well, we can't have that when children come, so I had to call in one of our magicians real quick."

Leading the magic patrol is Brian Nelson, of Automotive Specialists. "He's a genious with motors. He's fixed so many of these animation pieces, he's been just a blessing," Clough said.

Santa's Castle also benefits from some special collections shared by the community. This year, there are special groups of unusual teddy bears, expressive dolls, antique toys, miniature village buildings, and tree ornaments honoring deployed soldiers from the area. "And I'm excited that we will be having a new display of special dollhouses, provided by Bethany Larson, which will be placed on rotating display tables," Clough said.

Over the next three years, the Castle will put revenue towards an elevator that would make the facility disability accessible. "Once we get the seed money put aside, we will go to the city and look into grants to finish the project," Clough said.

It is also hoped that new disability accessible restrooms and a new storage room can be added. These, along with the elevator shaft, would be added onto the rear of the building to avoid compromising its historical lines.

Genesist Development has given over its can collection box to help out. The box is locate off the alley, and the public may drop off cans any time.

The small shop in the lower level of the Castle has been stocked with a variety of items, from Ty Christmas characters to "Naughty or Nice" logo shirts. There is art, ornaments, snowglobes books, hats, wrist bands and more to choose from.

The Castle miniature railroad, engineered by tireless hobbyist Burt Bonebrake of Lakeside and his assistants, has grown by leaps and bounds since last year.

Santa's Castle draws them all - from babies fascinated by the whirring delights and twinkling lights, to senior citizens with eyes aglow in memories of Christmases long ago.

Last year's guest list is 8,000 people long,and notes visitors from all over the United States. From Honk Kong to London, Paris to Vincenta, Italy and Dietmannsried, Germany (not to mention the perhaps appropriate Dickens, Iowa) it has captivated all who come to see the Castle.

This year's goal is 10,000 visitors.

In the future, Clough said, it would be great to research to see if there are additional pieces of restorable animation available - although she suspects such items are becoming rare and very pricey.

Even as this season is about to get underway, she's already looking ahead.

"I've got some great ideas for next year," she grins, "But for now, they will have to stay secrets."

And what would Christmas season be without a few surprises still wrapped up under the tree?

* Santa's Castle is open daily starting

Thanksgiving Day through December 30, at 200 East 5th Street.

Special Thanksgiving Weekend Hours: Thursday: 2-5 pm, Friday - Sunday: 1-4 pm & 6-8 pm

Regular Hours: Monday - Friday: 6-8 pm

Saturday & Sunday: 1-4 pm & 6-8 pm

Admission: $4 adults, $2.50 for kids.

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