Polishing the Big Apple in Time for Christmas

When I was growing up in New Jersey it was a treat to come to New York with my family during the holidays.

Like other tourists we would watch the Rockettes do their high kicks, visit the magnificent Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and wander past the department store windows. New York, with its lights and festive mood, always seemed like the capital of Christmas. Those wreaths, ribbons, and lights have now become an international tourist attraction. For weeks the city's hotels have been sold out for December.

A lot of polish goes into making New York glitter. Here's how it happens at some of the Big Apple's famous landmarks:

The windows

Last January, Michael Fisher and Rachel Arnold left a frigid New York for California.

Mr. Fisher, a senior designer at Bloomingdale's and Ms. Arnold, the vice president of visual merchandising, were planning the 1996 Christmas theme for the store. Although it may seem strange to plan Christmas windows 11 months in advance, they want to do it while the season is still fresh in their memories.

They know the best windows offer pedestrians a detail, something that a passerby can concentrate on. They decided the vehicle to bring the details to life was a Lionel train. "Everyone is fascinated by a train," says Fisher.

At the same time, they wanted to combine the train with something almost everyone could associate with - candy.

"We wanted to reach people in their stomachs and their hearts," says Ms. Ward. To do this they would ultimately spend close to $1 million - roughly what other retailers such as Lord & Taylor spend on their automated windows.

The trains, called the Bloomingdale's Express (yes, it's for sale at the store) could be used for subtle marketing purposes. Fisher and Ward decided to have the trains zip around candy sculptures from each of the five cities that have Bloomingdale's stores.

New York, for example, would be represented by a Statue of Liberty coated with spearmint leaves; Chicago would have a Sears Tower made of licorice bears; Los Angeles would feature a rock candy Capitol Records Building; and Miami would have gummy bear palm trees.

Once Fisher and Ward came up with the concept, they started production in May. First there were working drawings; then, scale models and computer generated layouts. Finally, in July sculptors started on the Styrofoam backing for the candy.

The sculptures were ultimately shipped to Washington where Fisher's candy consultant began to attach the sweets to the backing with five layers of varnish and sugar.

At that point, Fisher realized he needed to install a special air conditioning system in the windows to keep the candy from melting. One night in November, the completed candy sculptures were trucked to the store, the glass was popped out of the windows, and the gummy bears and rock candy installed.

A week before Thanksgiving, Fisher and Ward watched as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani started up the trains. The process begins again next month.

Radio City Music Hall

Broadway shows usually hold opening night parties. But, the biggest show in New York, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, waits until January for a huge "wrap party." By then, the 70 Rockettes, and 90 others involved in the show "are ready to vacation in places where they don't play Christmas tunes," jokes Howard Kolins, the show's producer.

For Mr. Kolins, planning for this year's show started last December during the rehearsals for the 1995 Spectacular. Two new improvements involve the lighting and sound.

The new lighting is a success: The show appears sharper and clearer than real life. The sound is more intimate than an expensive stereo system.

By April 1, Kolins and his crew are starting to develop the new show. He holds an open audition for the Rockettes. He must figure out a budget (considered a secret) and a marketing plan. Every other year, Kolins does a complete makeover of a portion of the show. This year, 15 minutes out of the 90-minute performance are new. "Each time there is a reevaluation we seem to knit a better picture," says Kolins. Every year, however, the message is basically the same: "It is the good you should carry in your heart all year round," says Kolins.

In June, Kolins and his production staff begin a four-week workshop to flesh out the show. Through the summer, the carpenters and set designers work on the new scenery. By the second week of September, Kolins is conducting auditions, including a couple of hundred Gene Kelly wanna-bees who "gotta dance." In October, the show goes into a 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. rehearsal schedule.

Organizing the backstage is a daunting task. Each Rockette has seven pairs of shoes for this year's show. This means someone has to keep track of 500 pairs of shoes. If a dancer goes on leave to have a child, her shoes go into storage until she returns.

The wardrobe crew needs nimble fingers. There are only two minutes for 36 Rockettes to change from toy soldiers to dancing Santas.

"The wardrobe crew is really the unsung heroes," says Kolins. "You need a first-rate crew taking care; otherwise it's pandemonium."

Instead of chaos, the show my wife and I saw was seamless. The Rockettes clicked and clacked as one. The religious message was done in taste. One sign Kolins's ideas worked: My wife was on the edge of her seat, captured from the first sleigh sighting.

See Bloomingdale's windows on Lexington Avenue between 59th and 60th Streets. Radio City Christmas Spectacular tickets ($24 to $54 per seat) are available by calling (212) 307-1000. Check out seat selection on Radio City's web site at:

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