From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, the Shillito’s department store served as a home for two different generations of holiday elves. In the beginning, Shillito’s visual merchandising department refurbished other department stores’ holiday displays each year, making the outsider elves and Christmastime tableaus their own. But in 1979, after two decades, the downtown department store breathed new life into its elaborate holiday exhibit with a fresh family of locally handcrafted elves.
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More than 130 animated figures with cloth faces and bodies filled Shillito’s, bringing Santa’s workshop to life through seven storefront scenes, more than 20 in-store merchandising widows and 10 interior vignettes. Moved by levers and gears, the elves spent the holidays building toys, sorting Santa’s mail and loading his sleigh for entertained customers and window shoppers.
But by 1983, the elves disappeared, marking the end of a nearly 30-year Cincinnati holiday tradition. Shillito’s became Lazarus and eventually moved. And the storefront windows on Seventh and Race streets, which still exist, became home to creative displays from businesses like the branding agency Landor instead of mechanized elves.
And as the lights of downtown Cincinnati’s golden age dimmed, so did the elves; they were forgotten and placed in storage for more than a decade until Lazarus moved and sold them to two Boy Scout troop from Dent in the late ’90s. But by this time, due to wear and disrepair, only a little more than half of the elves remained.
Once the elves disappeared from the public eye, their memory was kept alive in family stories and old newspaper clippings archived in Cincinnati libraries.
Cincinnati author Ellen Everman Deaton believes the memory of the display represents a desire for downtown’s revitalization.
She says there is a longing among Cincinnatians for the return of elaborate downtown holiday displays like the Shillito’s elves or Pogue’s talking reindeer — similar to the whimsically trimmed holiday windows still alive in New York City department stores today.
Everman Deaton came from a middle class family which, like much of her generation, took the bus into Downtown Cincinnati to catch a glimpse of Santa and his Shillito’s elves. The elves, she says, made the magic of childhood memories tangible for many generations of Cincinnatians.
“There was time where you could barely walk down streets without rubbing shoulders,” she says. “There was a richness in the stores; thousands of people packed Shillito’s. The elves are historic markers of that time.”
Everman Deaton is nostalgic for a time when Cincinnati’s city streets were full of the hustle and bustle of men and boys in suits and hats and women were fashion plates with their daughters in crinolines. The masses waded through Cincinnati’s holiday crowds just to get close to the extravagant department store displays as Salvation Army volunteers rang their bells at every store entrance; holiday lights twinkled along with the songs of Christmas carolers.
“We would press our noses up against the glass — close enough to see our breath,” she says. “Those native to Cincinnati — native to its suburbs and even those from across the river — have heard parents and grandparents talk about (the elves) and are anxious to follow in the magic of tradition.”
This holiday season, new generations are again able to see the elves for themselves, thanks to Bill Spinnenweber. Spinnenweber, whose family owns the Mariemont Inn, found the elves by chance during the 2004 holiday season and bought the display in 2005 from the Boy Scout troops.
“I was Googling to find out what happened to them and stumbled onto an old article that said they were in Dent,” he says. “I went to see them, and as I left I half-kiddingly told the owners to let me know if they ever wanted to sell them.”
When the display was put up for auction the next year, only 75 elves and 12 scenes remained. Spinnenweber was quick to purchase what was left of the original Shillito’s display to ensure the local treasure remained in Cincinnati. (There was rumor a buyer from Louisville, Ky., was looking to relocate them.)
Unable to find a space for the elves Downtown, Spinnenweber exhibited a few scenes around the Cincinnati area. Temporary scenes were set up in Mariemont storefronts; there was a display at Newport on the Levee; and two scenes opened to the public at Crossroads Community Church in Oakley. Unable to display all of the elves at once, the majority remained tucked away in storage.
When Spinnenweber set up the scenes at Crossroads in 2006, the frenzied response was overwhelming. Before the display even opened, more than 30,000 reserved times to see the elves.
But they needed a more permanent display; in their elderly state, constant set-up and tear-down left many elves injured.
They still haven’t found a home true to their downtown roots, but Spinnenweber keeps the tradition alive today by putting the elves to work in Santa’s Workshop across from his family’s inn. Finally, the elves are together again.
Spinnenweber asks visitors to make a $3 donation — a portion is used for display maintenance, while the rest of the proceeds benefit Cincinnati’s Ronald McDonald House.
Younger generations might wonder why the elves’ memory has remained such an important part of Cincinnati history, but for Everman Deaton the reason is simple.
“By holding onto traditions like the elves, we can preserve that richness and hope to see it come to fruition again,” she says. “We can share the richness of our memories with our children and grandchildren.”
For more information on how to see THE ELVES AT SANTA'S WORKSHOP in Mariemont, visit thesantaworkshop.com.