Thanks to a handy Highland Park resident, beloved animated figures from the old Dayton’s annual eighth-floor Christmas displays have found a new home and a new life. By restoring 10 decrepit characters, John Pihaly has created Santa’s Workshop on the front porch of his family’s home at 1887 Saunders Ave. this holiday season. (For a short video, see https://youtu.be/2rsBs7f74Qo.)

The Dayton’s Christmas displays were first exhibited in 1963 and changed themes every year until 2008 when it was converted by Macy’s as “A Day in the Life of an Elf” through 2016.

Pihaly became interested in the figures when Macy’s, which had taken over Dayton’s successor, Marshall-Field’s, announced the closing of its department store in downtown Minneapolis in March 2017. He attended the store’s closing sale, but was unable to purchase any figures at that time.

Last summer, he noticed a few of the characters on a shelf in a warehouse in Minneapolis and learned that more than 20 of them were still in storage. Several months later, he was able to acquire them and began his pandemic project to restore them.

“I loved visiting the Dayton’s display as a child and got to relive that magic when I brought my own family to the display during its final years,” Pihaly said. “When I thought about setting this up at my home, I figured it made sense to do it in 2020. I knew I’d have the time to work on it, and figured the neighborhood would enjoy it, too.”

The most challenging part of the project was “explaining to my wife why I had 22 broken figures in the garage,” Pihaly said. “But once I shared my vision, she was 100 percent on board.”

The figures were in sad shape. All of them required reconstructing a combination of fingers, hands, heads, hair, paint and costumes. The biggest challenge was that only one still had a motor, so Pihaly had to craft all new mechanicals and add new motors. Seven of the restored 10 characters now move.

 

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“I wanted to ensure that the restoration preserved that same look and motions of the eighth-floor Christmas display,” Pihaly said. That required some research.

Viewing historical photos and videos on the internet and connecting with people who had worked on the earlier displays helped in replicating the original motions and costumes. Pihaly located the mold supplier used by the first artists and learned how to restore the old characters using resin and foam.

His wife helped with the design and layout and his 8-year-old son supervised in the shop, Pihaly said. His sister made all of the elf hats, scarves and shoes, matching the colors and styles of the originals. Two got completely new outfits.

santa's workshop
John Pihaly blends in with the figures he still plans to rehab from Dayton’s Christmas displays. At right are some of the finished characters that grace the front porch of his Highland Park home. Photos by Brad Stauffer

“We’ve really enjoyed bringing this history and wonder to the neighborhood and sharing the memories of the Dayton’s Christmas display with passersby,” Pihaly said. “It brings a little extra joy to the neighborhood in a dark year.”

The 10 characters in Santa’s Workshop come from “A Day in the Life of an Elf,” “Cinderella,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Pinocchio” and other displays. Pihaly said that the project was more work than he had anticipated, but he still intends to restore the dozen or so remaining figures.

Characters not in Pihaly’s collection have found other homes. He said he has compared notes with a private collector in Minnetrista and knows of another private collection in Plymouth. The Minnesota Historical Society has a collection in storage and the Bentleyville light display near Duluth also has many of the original characters.

Though restoring the Dayton’s figures required a good deal of work, creating a holiday tableau is not a totally new venture for the Pihaly family. They have lived in their house for five years, and each year they decorate for Halloween with pneumatic, motorized props.

“The neighborhood feedback has been really positive,” he said of Santa’s Workshop. “Grownups are full of nostalgia for the display and we enjoy hearing their memories. We’ve even had a visit from a past Dayton’s employee and that was really special for us.”

He said children also love the animation and some stop by every day. The display operates daily from 9 a.m.-9 p.m., but is best viewed under the floodlights after dark.

“We’ve really enjoyed bringing this history and wonder to the neighborhood and sharing the memories of the Dayton’s Christmas display with passersby,” Pihaly said. “It brings a little extra joy to the neighborhood in a dark year.”

— Janet Lunder Hanafin

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