Storm Lake volunteers set out to restore the charm of priceless antique 'residents' of the Santa's Castle tradition.
"It's kind of like a Christmas graveyard," sighs Gwen Bergendoff.
Two women dig through the dusty downtown attic that almost no one knows about - the place where old Santa's Castle characters are exiled. There are literally hundreds here, many not seen by the public in a generation.
There are reindeer missing heads and legs, dancers with their china-like faces shattered, elves with their hidden animation motors burned out, santas in pieces - scores of boxes and bags of childhood memories.
"Look at what we have here. Most of these are antiques, some of them are almost priceless. Something that is such a part of Storm Lake's history - it would be a shame to let it rot away," says Linda Kay.
Like surgeons in a triage, they size up their cases. An angel needs a seamstress. A fairy needs an artist to repaint her face. A penguin needs an artist to replace its feathers. And many, many silent characters await an expert in electric motors to make them live again.
Kay and Bergendoff, with the help of a few other dedicated volunteers and the Storm Lake Chamber of Commerce, are setting out to restore the Santa's Castle - believed to be the largest collection of antique holiday animation in the country - to its original charm.
"In talking to people who were part of the Castle's earlier history, we hear of how it was something very magical, and how it amazed the children who came. At one time, 20,000 people a year came to this place," Kay said.
There is plenty of opportunity to regain that status, they feel. In fact, word has it that Better Homes and Gardens magazine is interested in making Storm Lake Santa's Castle its top feature for the 2002 holiday issue, Kay says.
"There are so many talented people in Storm Lake. This is a very big job, but I think that if we get enough help, it can be done. This is such a part of Storm Lake's history. Our goal is to get back to the grand Christmases this was once such a part of."
Slowly, the volunteers are doing what they can, usually using their own materials, their own money. One at a time, a battered, worn and dirty piece goes home with someone, and soon comes back looking clean and like new. The hospital has provided a supply of the pliable material used to make children's casts, which is proving ideal to reshape broken pieces back to the original form.
"The sad thing right now is that so many of them don't work. It is disheartening to put many hours of work and money to get a character looking nice again, and not be able to see it move," Bergandoff said. "If we can find some volunteers who know about electric motors, it's going to make a big difference in this project."
There is much to do, starting with un-doing some of the "progress" of many previous years. Many characters have been improperly patched instead of repaired; in some cases, classical faces have been painted over or masked with garish make-up, period costumes have been replaced with polyester fashions of the 1970's. One character's hair was ripped off and stuck to her face to make an impromptu male for a scene.
"I understand and appreciate what all the previous volunteers did at the time, but it is just wrong to do what has been done to a lot of antiques. In one case, we have a scene with Steiff bears that are very old and valuable. Someone cut many of the metal buttons off the characters because they thought they were reflecting too much light - but the buttons are a big part of what makes those characters unique and valuable," Kay said. In fact, one bear from the same German maker she knows of recently brought $18,000 alone at auction - with the button intact.
Santa's Castle is a Storm Lake icon that will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, but its roots go back even farther.
During the years of the Great Depression, many in Storm Lake didn't have money to buy Christmas gifts for their children. The city fathers realized this, and decided to build a small shack downtown so that they could come to visit Santa Claus, and get a piece of candy or a piece of fruit to make their holiday brighter.
The tradition stuck. People began to bring decorations to stick to the shack, which got a little bigger and better each year. It eventually moved inside, and people started to come from a greater distance to "The Christmas City." Santa's Castle as a haven for antique animations got its start in 1962, when then chamber of commerce director Bob Laird stumbled across an old set of animated elves and decided to buy them for his town.
Laird and the chamber started to make a pastime of searching out the remaining pieces of Christmas animation - the kind that children years ago would press their noses against frosty panes of glass at city department stores to see. In various closed stores, attics and basements, they found scenes and repaired them for display.
Santa's Castle has moved from time to time, for a time known as Santa's Village, but when the county historical museum moved out of the Victorian former Carnegie Library in downtown Storm Lake, it returned to its best-known venue. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been visited by people from all 50 states many times over, as well as many foreign countries.
Kay points out one of the original elves that Laird discovered, now consigned to the "graveyard" and needing work after so many years of entertaining.
The animation pieces date to the '30s and '40s - some created in the 1920s by the Italian craftsman Silvestri, regarded as the grandfather of animation art and perhaps the finest at the craft. It is impossible to price such figures today.
"We really want to get things started - get the warehouse cleaned up and records created for all the pieces we do have. Unfortunately, some of the great pieces that we find in the old photos and that people tell us about have apparently disappeared over the years," Kay said.
The women want to repair all of the classic pieces, and get them moving back into the display rotation at Santa's Castle. "We want to be very careful to restore them to the way they originally were - we will be stressing that to all the volunteers this year," Bergandoff said.
In researching the Castle and its denizens, Laird continues to be a priceless resource. The women have also contacted Gordon Linge, who as a young man in the early era of the Castle, provided the imagination and labor to turn the Castle into an exhibit that captured attention and headlines statewide. Linge is now an internationally-known museum curator working out of New Orleans.
The Santa's Castle building itself is solid, but needs some attention inside and out. There is a lot of dirt, some new carpeting is needed, the traffic pattern needs to be reassessed.
"We had a group of children in during the RAGBRAI celebration, and one little girl came up with her eyes so wide. She said, 'Oh no, the lady lost her hand!' At was cute, but it is kind of sad that our characters should be falling apart in front of the children's eyes," Kay said.
As word spreads of the effort, help seems to materialize from unexpected places.
One of the volunteers' helpers makes a regular pilgrimage from Jefferson to pick up an exhibit at a time to restore. "It seems that her father had played Santa Claus in Storm Lake many years ago, and they have a very fond feeling for the Castle. They drive an hour and a half every time and don't ask for a thing except to be involved. An Albert City family came and took Santa's Throne home, and they are going to totally refinish and restore it." Kay said. "We hope we can find people in Storm Lake who feel the same."
Some have suggested closing Santa's Castle for a year to get it cleaned and restored, but the volunteers balks at the idea of not having a Castle for the children at Christmas time. "If you close it, you lose it," they said. They have even heard talk that the Carnegie Library landmark should be torn down to create needed downtown parking. "It would be tragic to ever lose this - look at the towering windows and the magnificent woodwork, this is part of Storm Lake," Bergandoff said.
They hope to begin turning Santa's Castle into a completely Victorian theme - stripping away disco balls, modernistic wallpaper and other trappings that have been added. They hope to develop scenes that lead visitors through the collection, culminating with the visit to Santa in the final scene, instead of the first as it has been.
Where to begin? Funds need to be collected, and possibly grants sought.
They would like to hold a clean-up day later and invite the whole community to help clean the Castle from top to bottom. They hope to draw on some of the talents of local theatrical set-builders and community college mechanical students.
On idea is to try to obtain a vacant storefront to display some of the pieces in need of repair, and also serving as a very visible "workshop" so that the public can see the progress of the volunteers in restoration.
Anyone interested in volunteering is invited to contact the Chamber of Commerce.