It's one of the iconic scenes in the holiday classic film A Christmas Story. The Parker family struggles on Christmas Eve with decorating the tree. It wobbles in the stand and sheds both needles and tinsel at an alarming rate. Worse, one bulb sizzles into darkness with a disheartening pop, taking the rest of the strand with it.
Imagine that challenge increased exponentially, in which the tree in question isn't a mere five feet but is a whopping 45 feet!
Complicate the issue with animatronic figures, a computer-controlled musical accompaniment and 12,000 strings of LED lights and you've got some idea of the task involved in outfitting the King of Prussia Mall's Bloomingdale Courtyard with its enormous evergreen.
The magic begins with a caravan of 14 tractor trailer trucks that haul the decorations from their storage in a vacant department store in Oxford Valley. Once all the bubble wrap has been removed, 23 professionals kick into high holiday gear and over the next four nights (9 p.m. to 6 a.m.), transform both the Court and Plaza into Santa-land.
It is an exercise in organization and division of labor, say Jeremy Chesser and Matt Birmbaum, both with Exhibit Master Productions, the East Coast firm that has been decking the mall's halls since 2008. "The successful assembly of this tree," says Chesser, "actually begins with its disassembly the year prior. We carefully catalog every piece, wrap it appropriately and mark everything clearly in last-in/first-out order. It would be a huge waste of time if we had to dig through everything to first find the framework for the base of the tree."
Once the steel skeleton that forms the tree is in place, the branches are attached, each according to a color code. The animatronic figures are hung, and a nest of wires and cables begins to coil down the center of the tree. "The incline inside is 30°," Birnbaum says. "We use workers who have mountain climbing experience to get up there, especially at the top." Experience shows that women have better agility at navigating the interior than men, so they clamor up and down, clicking themselves in with carabiners for safety.
The decorations on the tree are held in place by heavy steel rods that also contain the wiring to power their dancing, spinning, drumming and marching. Each jack-in-the-box toward the top weighs approximately 30 pounds. The row of dolls below it are decked out in costumes that have been verified as accurate for the various countries they represent. "A seamstress came in and measured each one," Birmbaum says. "She did a ton of research on patterns, colors, fabrics and styles and made sure her work was true."
Before long, the interior of the tree becomes too crowded for easy access; detail work then shifts to a series of ladders and lifts that bring decorators to the heights they need to continue working.
The Bloomingdale's court tree is only one of a number of tasks this crew tackles each year. They also hang the 10-foot-in-diameter lit wreaths from the Court's ceiling and curtains of holly and lights. Over in the Plaza, they assemble a Santa display made up of a huge carousel beneath a spectacular tree.
Maintenance is also part of the work: Chesser describes the phased approach that eventually replaced every incandescent bulb with an LED counterpart. "The first year we were totally LED, the energy expense in lighting the tree was cut by about three-fourths. In 3-4 years, that conversion paid for itself in energy savings."
Once the tree is in place, the remainder of the set is constructed around it: Train, curio cabinets filled with toys, photo booth, entry, exit, carpeting, topiary hedges and finally, the seat for Santa himself.
Like their elfin counterparts who work overnight to leave toys and presents, the decorating crew prides itself on being invisible, walking away the final night with the mall in sparkling splendor and ready to welcome its first holiday guest. They even come equipped with a cover story to protect their anonymity.
"Sometimes, a child will see us checking out the tree in the weeks before Christmas and ask if we know how it got there," Birmbaum says with a smile. "We tell them: Santa opens the skylight in the roof of the mall and magically lowers it in."
A visit with Santa often results in visions of sugarplums dancing in heads. What better spot for Yuletide dreaming than one of our nearby hotels, nestled in a plush bed with a marshmallow pillow? For a list of recommendations, see our website.