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  • File These days, Santa and his reindeer adorn the north side of the PNC Bank building along Main Street.

  • File LEFT: The display first appeared on the Wolf & Dessauer department store in 1940 with only three sets of reindeer. The fourth joined in 1941.

  • Courtesy Tom Keefer Once new hardware was installed on a section of the display during the late 1970s restoration, napkins were stuffed into all the sockets before each piece was spray-painted.

  • Courtesy Tom Keefer Tom Keefer spent many hours in 1979 and 1980 helping with the restoration.

  • Courtesy Tom Keefer The unpainted sockets on this section of Santa's sleigh were replacements in 1979.

  • Courtesy Tom Keefer Tom Morningstar paints a section of the Santa display during restoration efforts.

  • Courtesy Tom Keefer In September 1979, the Santa display was laid out for media to report on its condition in hopes of boosting interest in restoration efforts.

  • Courtesy Steve Hamrick In 1979, the long-dormant display was moved from a General Telephone lot, where it had been lying outside, and restoration began.

Thursday, November 23, 2017 1:00 am

Fond memories of Santa display include path to restoration

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Santa Display Trivia

How well do you know the downtown Santa display? Here are some questions so you can test your knowledge.

1. How many bulbs are in the full display?

A. 24,000

B. 24,525

C. 24,717

D. 24,898

2. About how many man hours did it take to replace the display's lights with LED bulbs in 2008?

A. 100

B. 200

C. 300

D. 400

3. How much does the display weigh, in tons?

A. 2

B. 51/2

C. 61/2

D. 7

4. How many feet long is the display?

A. 125

B. 155

C. 205

D. 235

5. Which downtown light display made its first appearance before the Santa display?

A. Aunt Millie's “Northern Lights”

B. The “Merry Christmas” wreath

C. Community Center's Santa's workshop

D. None of the above

Source: Journal Gazette archives

Answers: 1. C; 2. D; 3. B; 4. B; 5. B

I'm not sure how old I was, but I know it was cold and raining. That didn't stop us from driving around downtown Fort Wayne looking at the holiday lights. I craned my neck to look at the Merry Christmas wreath my mother pointed at, glanced idly at lights twinkling in trees along the road and probably whined about wanting to go home as we pulled into a nondescript parking lot along Main Street.

Then, looking out the rain-soaked back window of our car, I got my first glimpse of the downtown Santa light display. It was magical, and that's a feeling many people still get when they see Santa and his reindeer on the side of what is now the PNC Bank building.

Ask other people from Fort Wayne to share their memories about the display, and you will find that everyone seems to have one. For some people, it might be drinking cocoa and watching Santa light up on the night before Thanksgiving, or maybe you'll hear about that time in the early 1980s when the display was still hanging on the side of the bank building when spring arrived or how Santa once flew the wrong way down a one-way street.

You might even get a call from a lady who remembers when Santa was on the side of Wolf & Dessauer, helping give holiday cheer to the community in the early 1940s as a world war began to rage.

“Oh, yes – it's magic,” the octogenarian will tell you before asking you not to publish her name. She just wants to share how much the display meant to her as she walked past it every day on her way to Central High School. “I hope they don't ever take it away,” she'll say.

But the display did get taken away – twice, actually.

A brief history

Many stories have been written about the history of the Santa light display in Fort Wayne. The information Steven Hamrick has collected over the years could fill a book – or at least a book-sized binder.

His three-ring binder is stuffed full of news clippings, photos and documents, including a seven-page history of the sign written by the late Peter Cruze, who, along with Hamrick, was among the men involved in reviving the Santa display tradition in the late 1970s. Hamrick is quick to give all the credit to Cruze.

But before we get to their involvement, we have to rewind a few decades. We don't have room for every detail spilling out of Hamrick's binder, so we'll cover the basics of the display's history.

Requested by Wolf & Dessauer's G. Irving Latz, the display was designed by Isabel Parker of local firm Brinkman Corp. Santa first took flight in 1940 with three pairs of reindeer (each of the lit reindeer has a barely visible partner “behind” it). According to Cruze's account, the fourth pair of reindeer was added ahead of the 1941 holiday season for a total of eight, matching the traditional lore.

At this point, you might be asking, “Why no Rudolph?” Well, as ingrained as the red-nosed reindeer is in today's Christmas traditions, he had only just been invented in 1939 and had not yet risen to national popularity.

The display took a brief hiatus after the United States entered World War II. Santa returned to the side of Wolf & Dessauer in 1945 and spent every holiday season there until the late 1950s, when the display was put into storage. It would remain there for two decades.

In the late 1970s, a General Telephone installer named Jim Green came upon the display in storage at L.S. Ayres, which had taken over the former Wolf & Dessauer. In his letter, Cruze gives Green credit for keeping restoration efforts alive until he moved out of town around the 1978 holidays.

By that time, the display had moved from Ayres' storage to a General Telephone lot near Southtown Mall, where the pieces lay out in the elements for a year until the telephone company needed the storage space back. General Telephone's interest in restoring the display had waned, Cruze writes, so he got into contact with the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, which helped support the efforts.

In June 1979, General Telephone lent a truck to a group of volunteers including Hamrick, who prepared to move the display to yet another storage space. The pieces were stacked up and seemed sturdy enough, so the truck took off. Not long after, it hit a dip in the road.

“That thing sounded like a bomb exploded,” Hamrick says. “All them light bulbs came crashing down onto each other. (There were) bulbs flying all over the place.”

The display made it to its new home and Hamrick's role ended, but he humbly says he's satisfied to have done “my little part” to help save Santa.

Other volunteers and local trade unions continued work on the display, but broken bulbs weren't the only obstacle to restoring it. Years of being virtually forgotten in storage and then lying out in the elements had not done Santa or his reindeer any favors. The painted plywood behind the lights had seen better days, and many of the sockets needed replacing.

It was going to be a big job, and more help was needed. To boost interest in the restoration project, the group of volunteers invited members of the media to come out and see the display. On a Sunday in late September 1979, all 35 pieces were laid out on a gravel lot.

The stories in print and television news increased involvement in the project, and in the holiday season of 1979, the first two sets of reindeer had been restored and hung on the side of the Fort Wayne National Bank building. Santa and his other two sets of reindeer joined them the following year.

Dedicated to task

Tom Keefer spent countless hours working on the display in 1979 and 1980, checking wiring and replacing sockets.

“I was single, I had time,” he says of the days in his early 20s that he spent in the painters' hall off Wells Street with pieces of the Santa display sitting on work stations so he and others could get at the more than 24,000 sockets that needed to be checked.

When work was done on a piece of the display, paper napkins were stuffed in each socket, and another man would spray-paint over the section. Keefer says the painters were able to find and use the same sign paint used originally on the display.

Keefer's involvement with the display ended after those two years of helping get it ready to hang, but he still makes it out to the Night of Lights every year to watch it be lit.

The detailed written history Hamrick received from Peter Cruze is a typed copy. Keefer has a handwritten version. Like Hamrick, Keefer keeps a stack of records from his work on the project. He also has dozens of slides showing restoration work progressing on the display.

“To say the least, I was proud to think what we accomplished,” he says.

He calls the display a jewel for the city and says he feels “almost privileged to have been a part of it.”

Holiday memories

The display has meant a lot to many people over the years. Here are some more memories that people shared:

• Doug Haupt was the carpenters apprenticeship coordinator in the late '70s and a member of the Local Building Trades Council, which was asked to help restore the display.

“This restoration work was extremely gratifying and seemed to bring a small sense of community to those involved,” he says in an email. “I will be forever grateful that I had the opportunity to be part of this historic project.”

• Kathleen Kearns says the display has been a highlight of her holidays since the early '50s.

“Every year, my parents and we six children would set aside one December evening to go downtown to do our Christmas shopping,” she says via email. “Each of us with a few dollars in our pockets and the drawn name of a sibling for whom we would shop, set off to find the perfect gift and then stand mesmerized by the activity in the W&D's Christmas windows, while Santa watched over us from his perch on the side of the building.”

Later, her husband worked at Fort Wayne National Bank, and she sent her children with him to help replace light bulbs on the display.

“My son, John, who was probably about 8 or 9, was charged with retrieving a new box of blue bulbs and bringing them to the display,” she says. “On his return, he tripped over electrical wires (and) fell face first, crushing the entire box! He was devastated!”

Kearns says she still attends the lighting of “my old friend, Santa” every year with her grandchildren.

• For Adrian Chapman Saylor and her family, the Santa display has been an annual tradition for 17 years, even after moving away from the area.

“We moved to Iowa 2 years ago and make sure that when we come home for the holidays we continue our family tradition,” she says in a Facebook post.

“It's the only real family tradition we have and we were not going to let the move stop us from continuing it.”

The Saylors start off the night by going skating at Headwaters Park, then head to Coney Island for dinner. After enjoying a look at Santa and driving through downtown to see the other displays, they finish the night with the Fantasy of Lights in Franke Park.

cmcmaken@jg.net