The odd little orphans were fast asleep when Lesley Ernst came across them at the Minneapolis Macy’s going-out-of-business sale in 2017.
Two elf dolls, each roughly the size of a kindergartner, shared a wooden bunk bed. They were equal parts cute and homely: faces realistically detailed with eyebrows and freckles, frizzy hair tucked into red-and-white stocking caps.
Since the elves had retired from the store’s annual eighth-floor holiday displays, they’d fallen on hard times. The red-haired one had a broken left foot. The bunk bed was rather wobbly.
But Ernst felt pangs of nostalgia. She had visited every single Dayton’s (and later Macy’s) annual holiday display, starting in 1963, when she was a kid, to the final one in 2016. So she gave the sale clerk $30 and crammed the elves and their bed into her Camry.
She drove the whole kit and caboodle to her sister Jill Pederson’s house in Rush City, Minn., and after making a few repairs, the new foster mothers got the bed’s motor working. The yellow-haired elf once again tossed and turned in her sleep, perhaps from visions of sugar plums filling her head.
The sisters named the elves Candy and Jasper, bedecked their bunks with strings of colored lights, and hung personalized stockings for them. Pederson displayed the elves in the front window of her rural home for Christmas.
In the new year, Pederson moved the bunks into her bedroom, and Ernst spent the rest of the year redecorating the elfin duo with seasonal accessories, including plastic eggs for Easter and swim fins for summertime.
Last December, Pederson and Ernst traveled to Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park to see the Bentleyville Tour of Lights for the first time and decided the elves might enjoy the place as much as they did.
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“It was such a fun, magical experience that we looked at each other and we said, ‘You know, if the elves ever decide they want to move out, they should move here.’ ” Ernst said. “Then we could visit them every year and they could bring lots of people joy.”
Sharing the elves was more important than owning them, so the sisters drove to Duluth last fall and donated the elves to Bentleyville during one of the group’s setup sessions. Clad in silly Christmas sweaters, the sisters snapped photos with the display’s founder/director, Nathan Bentley, and gave the elves such a long, affectionate goodbye that you would have thought they were family members. (“We hammed it up some,” Pederson admitted.)
This year, Ernst visited Bentleyville with another of her siblings. Amid the LED-lit nutcrackers, candy canes and gingerbread men, she was thrilled to see her elves displayed in a free-standing case that looks like a vintage television set.
But Candy and Jasper weren’t alone: Elves nearby were tasked with wrapping gifts, playing in an “Elfis” rock band, and operating the attraction’s popcorn factory. They had come from Macy’s, too — an elf family reunion, of sorts.
When Bentleyville’s organizers heard that Macy’s was closing, someone had suggested they might be able to upgrade their Santa chair with one from the department store. Macy’s did them one better and donated six semitrailers of whatever remained from decades of producing and presenting the holiday displays, from animatronic figures and extension cords to dozens of wheelchairs and strollers.
Ernst said she hopes visiting Bentleyville can replace their family’s former Dayton’s/Macy’s eighth-floor tradition. “About half of us have been up there so far,” she said. “We have to convince the other half it’s worth their while.”
Pederson, who’s thinking about joining Bentleyville’s volunteer crew after she retires, said she’s glad more people will see the elves that she and Ernst rescued.
“They were going to go into the dumpster!” she lamented. “I don’t understand how Macy’s didn’t understand how important these elves were to the community.”
The elf creators
But one of the men largely responsible for bringing the animatronic elves into this world won’t likely be paying them a visit.
Jack Barkla was in his 20s when he started working on the Dayton’s eighth-floor holiday displays more than 50 years ago, as a painter making $1.10 an hour. Soon, he was designing the entire show (the Nutcracker was his first) from the general concept of each vignette down to its furnishings and figures.
From the early 1990s on, each display’s dozens of figures were custom-made by local artist Dan Mackerman, whose sculpting and painting talents brought them to life. (One year, Mackerman had created some horses that were so realistic, Barkla woke up in the middle of the night fearing he had forgotten to feed them.)
For most figures, Mackerman formed an original in clay, then created molds to cast the figure in foam, and, finally, painted its body. Mackerman estimates he made several thousand figures over the decades. When Macy’s closed, he kept a few of his favorite creations: a Toad and Badger from “The Wind in the Willows” (it had been such a challenge to mimic the creatures’ fur) and one Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol,” (he’d created five versions with different facial expressions).
Were Mackerman and Barkla happy to hear the elves had found a new home?
“Actually, I have no interest,” Barkla said, explaining that he preferred the memory of the figures in their original context. “In both theater sets and the visual display business, my joy and my relationship with those things are that I made them,” he said. “Then life goes on. I don’t have any desire to see them or own them.”
Recently, Mackerman was driving through the western suburbs and came across a few of his old figures in a display case on a home’s front lawn and was a little underwhelmed to see them without their original stagecraft.
The figures don’t really make sense outside of their elaborately propped, richly painted and dramatically lit scenes, he explained. “If your goal is to create an experience, there are a ton of things you think about beyond just an object,” he said.
Mackerman may make it up to see the lights at Bentleyville sometime, though he’s a little apprehensive about encountering his old elves.
“It would be kind of like Roy Rogers going out to see his stuffed horse Trigger,” he joked.
Still, Bentleyville was a far better fate than that of the elves who ended up in a secondhand office supply store near downtown Minneapolis, Mackerman admitted.
One day, he’d stopped by the store to buy a display case and came across a haphazard pile of his old Dayton’s elves and their various loose body parts. “Lying on the floor was a hand that I sculpted,” he recalled. “It was a little depressing.”
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569