A Christmas Carol gets a revamp as Strawbridge's prepares to join the ghosts of Christmas past.
On a warm afternoon early last week, in a dark corner of Strawbridge's fourth floor, a headless, handless animatronic Scrooge creaked outside a diminutive version of the character's snowy Victorian office. Nearby a decapitated butcher hocked a goose, and an equally impaired Jacob Marley rose from the dead.
But in a cramped workshop set up literally behind the scenes, sculptor Ray Daub was exactingly painting faces on the 100 heads that would soon take their places atop characters for the 20th anniversary of the store's A Christmas Carol exhibit.
The work is part of the exhibit's first comprehensive overhaul, and is a return for Daub and former partner Mary Wimberley to the show they created two decades ago.
In the early '80s Daub and Wimberley created another animatronic walk-through for the department store-"Bear-A-Mount Studios." The film company angle drew few crowds, and in 1984 the Strawbridge family asked the duo to create a larger, more impressive exhibit.
Daub says the family had a tradition of reading A Christmas Carol every Christmas Eve, so he and Wimberley went about creating an animated version of the Dickens tale.
"Research was extremely important," Daub says. "We wanted to tell the story but also create a strong sense of time and place."
That year Daub and Wimberley traveled twice to England to get a feel for London circa 1843. The two visited areas where characters would've lived, and found that many looked as they did in Dickens' time. They took pictures of buildings, architectural details, colors and cobblestones, and shopped antique markets for child-size versions of period furniture.
In that way Daub is a lot like Dickens, who fiercely controlled every aspect of the book's presentation. Gloria Pe�alosa, who spent several days last week painting nails and hair-thin cuticles on the fingers of 200 hands, says the sculptor has an almost obsessive attention to detail.
"He's meticulous about everything in the show," she says. "He comes up with little details that wouldn't seem to matter but end up making a huge difference."
As Daub says, "the money's on the screen." The path through the exhibit is paved with individually molded cobblestones, and doorways and buildings are framed with accurate dental moldings and columns. The characters' costumes, all designed by Wimberley, have realistic but artificial wear.
That detail extends to "in" jokes the pair created especially for Dickens fanatics. Maria Beadnell, the dress shop, is named for the writer's first love; a grave in the cemetery reads, "Here lies Edwin Drood, his work unfinished"-a nod to Dickens' incomplete last book.
"We were guided by the greats, by Disney and Henson," Daub says. "We wanted to present that same level of quality."
Inspiration for the characters was varied. Daub says Scrooge is an amalgam of Alistair Sim, George C. Scott and Albert Finney. Disney's Haunted Mansion lent itself to the spirits above his bed, and personal demons inspired still others, Wimberley jokes.
The characters were a hit when the 6,000-square-foot exhibit opened in 1985, far more popular than their bear predecessors. The show now attracts some 100,000 visitors, 10,000 on Black Friday alone. But the years have been hard on the latex figures. During a cosmetic cleanup last year Daub saw that most of the faces and hands had begun to disintegrate.
But now he's back with new heads and hands. This time around they're cast in a waxlike polyvinyl acetate, a more durable alternative to latex. Daub and his assistants give each a painstaking makeup job. The sculptor uses a fine brush to highlight wrinkles and add color to lips and teeth. Others attach doll eyes and hair.
At times it feels like a logistical nightmare. Several characters reappear in multiple scenes, making consistency key. And keeping track of them all isn't easy in a tight workspace littered with broken heads and piles of hands.
But it's more pleasure than work for Daub, who each year grows closer to the spiritual nature of the story.
"Dickens was a great spiritualist," he says. "And as I age and become involved in metaphysical matters, I find myself drawn more and more to this story of transforming a life, of redemption."
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