No visit to New York during the holiday season is complete without a trip to Macy's department store to see its fancifully themed windows. Strollers can enjoy an old favorite, a miniature version of the 1947 film classic Miracle on 34th Street with mechanized performers, on (naturally) the 34th Street side of the building. The main event, however, unfolds across the six windows looking onto Herald Square on Broadway, where new themes are introduced. This year's pageant is entitled “It's Christmas Time in the City…” but it could also be dubbed “Motorization on 34th Street,” given its high-tech spin.
Production designer Michael Allen, of Michael Allen Designs Ltd. in New York, is well-versed in providing scenic window dressing for Macy's, including a Muppets holiday show in 2003. But this year, the dolls and puppets stayed in the toy box. “Macy's wanted to do a pop-up books theme, based on six iconic New York holiday scenes,” like its Thanksgiving Day parade, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes, and the New Year's Eve ball drop in Times Square, Allen says. He and Macy's window director Paul Olsweszki leafed through pop-up books for inspiration as they decided what to pop into the windows, which are 16"×8.5"×8". By July, Allen and his team (including his “fantastic” associate designer, Lisa Merik, and illustrator Derek Stenborg) had designed a half-dozen storybooks, which open to reveal vibrantly colored characters that interact with scenic elements that unfold from side panels and the back walls in the displays and drop down from the ceilings. At the end of two-and-a-half minute cycles, which are accompanied by plenty of festive lights provided by LD Brant Murray and a spirited holiday soundtrack composed by Glen Tarachow, the books close, and the scenery retracts, ready for another viewing between the hours of 7am and midnight, running until right after New Year's Day.
Scenic Technologies brought the designs out of the computer from Allen's AutoCAD outlines, a time-consuming process given the intricate printed graphics on each individual profile, then automated them. This was the first time the company had worked on window displays. “These are quarter-scale Broadway shows, more complex than puppet animation or traditional, scale-model miniatures, and there was no way to mask anything wrong or hide the seams with a convenient tree or other element,” Allen explains. “Each book has to open and close 30,000 times in eight weeks. Scenic senior engineer Jim Kempf decided that each pop-up piece would be cut on a water-jet cutter from eighth-inch aluminum and would be hinged so that they could unfold to very specific tolerances. The books open 180°, which was the hardest thing to get right, and the rest of the pieces make mostly 90° moves on motorized travel tracks.”
Scenic Technologies project manager Troy Atkinson laughs that thinking small on a project like this “was more difficult than we hoped it would be. It's mechanical scenery with pieces that have to act in very close tolerances to each other, not just the book, but all the elements. We used a variation on our StageCommand system and a smaller AC servomotor than we have in the past. These windows didn't need some of the custom features Broadway shows need, and the winch effects are standard. What was most complicated was the way the winches were incorporated with the scenery and the hinges and all the linkages between elements.”
Macy's puppet presentations are brought in through the back door, then installed piece-by-piece in the windows. Scenic Technologies (which is responsible for ensuring that the displays are in good working order) went the other way, removing the plate glass windows so that the fully motorized sets could be removed in their entirety from a flatbed truck and more easily situated. “It was very rigorously planned. We got done in two days what might have taken two weeks,” Allen says.
Besides the moving scenery, these windows raise the bar higher for the form by using theatrical lighting and an original soundtrack. “Michael knew that they would have a motor control system in there so given some budgeting for illumination, he decided to add lighting and sound that would work in sync with it,” Murray says. “Macy's bought all these PAR16 birdies and 12-channel MIDI control power strips from MediaMation, and I came in as a consultant to light the windows and integrate the show control system for the lighting and the sound. I had never done MIDI show control, and MediaMation was very helpful to us as I learned the system on the fly. Regarding the design, there are twinkle and chase lights integrated into each scene, with the birdies on lighting bars atop the windows or along their sides, with a little color to highlight certain aspects of each show, like the ball drop or the Christmas tree that's part of the Rockefeller Center display.”
The pop-up approach to the holidays immediately won fans. “Kids are just plastered to the windows,” Murray reports. Allen adds that Macy's, which innovated animated windows over a century ago, has a fresh chance to enhance the market. “What we're doing here is telling a story with moving scenery, synchronized lighting, and an original score, which takes them to another level of theatricality. It's a lot more than just putting a mannequin in a window.