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Miracle on 34th Street Comes to Life in Red Hook

By Megan Cerullo | November 20, 2015 2:51pm | Updated on November 22, 2015 8:01pm
 A Red Hook workshop creates holiday window displays for Macy's.
Artists Create a Miracle on 34th Street
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RED HOOK — Brooklyn has been the home of New York City's own Santa's workshop.

This month giant, glossed peppermints dried near stray Charlie Brown heads, perfectly round and bald except for a couple line-drawn squiggles of hair — the last preparations for Macy’s famous holiday window displays that were unveiled Friday at the retail giant's Herald Square store.

Manu Sawkar and his crew of 20 artists, sculptors, painters, computer engineers and carpenters built the displays at a Red Hook warehouse on Ferris St. They commemorate the 50th anniversary of the TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” based on Charles Schulz’s comic strips.

In one part of the studio, some of the crew at Sawker's company, Standard Transmission, worked on animatronic Snoopy figures meant to dance daintily with reindeer antlers.

On the other side of the room, artist Ryan Paxton etched snowflake patterns into the acrylic sheets to produce edge-lit acrylic ice sculptures that would end up in window number five.

“I worked ’til 4 a.m. last night. I was up on the marquee at Macy’s installing the display,” said Paxton a week before the unveiling. “Once the windows are up I am going to take the next month off."

Sawkar himself had worn the same pair of dusty jeans, hooded sweatshirt and flat cap for days in a row. He wouldn't have his picture taken because he claimed he looked too haggard.

“Actually it’s just going to get worse," he said as his team neared the deadline on his most innovative and comprehensive project to date.

Before founding his production company, Sawkar worked in film production as a cinematographer and also took on the odd tech job, integrating video screens and computer technology into commercial window displays.

“I created content and would do the screen and programming portions of whatever project,” he said.

That’s how his three-year professional relationship with Macy’s began.

“Manu’s ideas are contemporary and really tap into who our customer is — a kid who is 2 or 90 years old and who is still a kid inside and believes in Christmas,” said Roya Sullivan, Macy’s national windows director.

“He didn’t just use contemporary aesthetics that are really tech-savvy, but he added them to the traditional sense of the story and what Christmas is about.”

Months ago Macy’s visual team extracted six scenes from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” collaborating closely with Sawkar and his creative team on the design of each window.

“We wanted each window to tell the actual narrative of the TV special,” said Sawkar.

One of the displays shows a giant piano with oversized keys built on stilts that wind around Charlie Brown as he conducts an orchestra made up of his friends. An animatronic Shroeder plays the piano, while other characters dance on keys that light up and move.

Window shoppers can take control and play classic Charlie Brown tunes too, by pressing the keys on an on-glass keyboard. As keys on the touch screen light up, the corresponding keys in the display also illuminate.

“The cool thing is you can just bang on the keys and generate piano songs,” said Sawkar.

The cool part was also the tricky part.

“Because people can play whatever they want, we have to figure out how to make it fun. It will require some tweaking,” said Sawkar.

Standard Transmission also created a Peanuts-themed game that allows users to turn themselves into Peanuts characters, which then show up in the window displays.

“You create a cartoon version of yourself that will appear on one of the houses in the window, and from there you can take a selfie with it and use social media to spread it out,” said Sawkar.

Sawkar and his crew didn't just develop and buid the displays in their Red Hook warehouse, but also installed the displays at the Herald Square store. It was a change for a Brooklynite who called Midtown “not cool, especially among people my age because it’s tourist and office central.”

But Christmastime is an exception because “it’s the only place in the city where there is no irony at all. These people are experiencing complete joy looking at this thing we have made," he said.

According to Macy’s executives, during the holiday season 15,000 people walk past the store’s windows every hour.

At times, Sawkar feels like a celebrity. “They take pictures of me and say we came to New York to see this. I doubt there will ever be very much else in my life that so many people see. It’s kind of insane.”