Department 56 display tips #1

So you’ve got your polystyrene base constructed and carved.  Your Department 56 village buildings and accessories are set in place.  The place looks like a ghost town.  It’s dead.

Both novices and experts often forget that animation must be a critical part of village construction.  Visit any town or small city at 2:00 a.m. and you’ll get that same eerie feeling; with no hustle, bustle, or activity on the streets, the place will feel abandoned.  A Department 56 village is no different.  Just having people on the city sidewalks won’t bring the city to life; only light and animation can do that.

Recently, we renovated our Snow Village display to reflect this idea.  In addition to some of the other changes we made, we added a working O-gauge train to the mix.  In addition to the animation and movement the train brings to the table, it also has several sound features which add life to the display.  And, of course, incorporating the train and track adds other elements of interest to the display.

Check out the bridge carved right out of polystyrene over the ravine in photo #1.  You can buy a bridge directly from companies like Mike’s Train House (MTH) to add an extra level of realism, but in a pinch you can easily do something simple with the foam and still get a neat effect.

In photo #2, you can see the train passing into the tunnel under the middle part of the display.  For this part of the layout, we built a wooden platform for the tallest portion of the display, which has two effects: first, it saves on polystyrene foam.  Second, we included ball-bearing drawer slides, which means that we can slide the entire top shelf of the display out for maintenance. In this particular shot, you can see that we purchased the tunnel fascia from MTH.  Like the bridge before it, however, you could easily carve the tunnel openings out of foam yourself.

Photo 3 is a face-on of the train coming round the bend near our highway.  In this shot you can see the scale of the train in comparison to the Department 56 porcelain accessories.  For this village, we chose to incorporate the O-gauge train, which scales slightly small to the Snow Village, but it very appropriate for other villages like North Pole or Alpine–we even have plans to incorporate an electric trolley into our Christmas in the City display.  For Snow Village you could certainly use a gauge like the Lionel Tinplate (also offered by MTH), but such a train has a much larger turning radius.  We recommend our customers buy the MTH ready-to-run sets because of the O-31 turning radius, which makes the train easier to incorporate into a smaller display in your home.

Chapter 3: The Gruffness of Old Men

<for chapter two, click here>

On Rudy’s walk back to his champagne-colored sedan, which he had just decided to name Jill (after the waitress at the bakery) he pondered over that brief moment.  Upon mention of his new employer, the waitress’ demeanor had shifted, and her friendly, pretty face betrayed the nervousness beneath.  What had made her so nervous?

You, dear reader, may think it odd that a young bachelor like Rudy would name his automobile for a girl he’d just met in a bakery.  You are right; it is odd!  But our Rudy is quite a bit odd.  Having grown up a quiet, lonely boy who invested his allowance in books instead of baseball cards and dime candy, Rudy never learned the knack for talking to girls, even when he had occasion to do so.  She had seemed so nice and sweet and pretty, and he’d been feeling so very brave in this new place, and maybe he’d gotten carried away but he would swear he felt an affinity for her.  So his car is named Jill now, and I have a feeling, reader, that we’ll have to remember that later.

The man who hired Rudy, a Mister Johnson, had recommended temporary residency at a hotel just two blocks from the 56 Department. Upon this advice, Rudy had prepaid a two-week stay at the hotel over the phone and sight unseen. Seeing the hotel, he regretted that decision.  It looked older than the city surrounding it, older perhaps than the statehood of Minnesota itself.  Five stories of degrading brick and windows, each dirtier than the last, punctuated by a mid-century off-broadway-style incandescent “Hotel” sign, which was unlit save for three letters: H, E, and L.  Great, really excellent, thought Rudy, and he hoped that any present demons or imps would at least frighten off the cockroaches. He drove the car up the ramp to the on-roof parking lot, slung his “essentials” bag over a shoulder, and started down the stairs to the front entrance.  Being sure to take two deep, melodramatic sighs, he braced himself, pulled the brass handled door open, and stepped through.

Inside, a gruff-looking but well dressed desk attendant sat behind a worn-but-warm cherry cabinet with a marble desk top.  Both the man and desk looked original to the building.  Rudy also had a faint impression that both may have been very fine fifty years ago, and that they remained sturdily built.

The man wet his lips with his tongue as though he had not spoken in a very, very long time, and when he opened his mouth to say hello all that came out was “Rudolph Augustus Lund.”  It was not a question.

“Yessir,” Rudy said instinctively, compliantly.  The man behind the desk sounded like he’d taken gravel with his evening tea, and each word had its own thick, warm weight.

“Room six.  Fifth floor.” The man pushed an old, bronze key across the counter.  The attached wooden key-fob displayed the number fifty-six in a circle; the edges of the numbers touched the inner rim of the circle.  It look hand-engraved.  Rudy could feel an anxious headache beginning at the back of his neck.

“How did you know I was me?” Realizing the question was both odd and rude, he added a quick “Sir.”

“You’re the only reservation,” he said.  “Besides that, Mr. Johnson said you’d be by.”

“Oh.” Rudy did not feel less nervous. “Well, thank you very much, Sir.”  Rudy could not help but feel like a small, quivering child in this man’s presence, and he thought he’d better mind his manners.  In response, the attendant grunted.

Up, up the elevator, which doubled as the freight lift.  Rudy had never actually seen an elevator such as this, save for in films or on television.  An iron, scissoring fence served as the door, and the buttons were mechanical, not electronic.  It rattled up the shaft and shuddered every inch it climbed. Rudy felt stomach butterflies regarding the impending state of his room, and then thought no; in this place they could only be stomach moths.

The key slid smoothly, soundlessly into the tumbler above the doorknob and turned to a slick, clean click as the bolt slid back into the door. Slightly surprised, Rudy closed his eyes, pushed open the door, stepped in, and took a deep whiff.  When his nose was unoffended, he opened his eyes, one at a time.  What he saw gave him quite a start, indeed.

(to be continued)

Chapter 2: In which Rudy feels longing, reaches his destination, and meets a waitress named Jill

<for part one, click here>

He had read a few brief excerpts on Minnesota while standing in the Travel section of the Mall bookstore.  There were several books on the Midwest United States, but few had more than a paragraph or a half-dozen footnotes on Minnesota; most of the books spent most of their pages on Chicago or Springfield or St. Louis or a place called Branson, Missouri, of which Rudy had never heard.  Branson sounded like an awfully small town for so many dedicated chapters, and Rudy worried that if St. Paul, Minnesota rated fewer words than such a place, he might literally be bored to death there.  But a job is a job is a job, his mother used to say, and St. Paul had come calling, boring though it might be.  And so Rudy drove.

If you have ever driven across Middle America–up, down, or otherwise–you can imagine what such roads might do to a young college-educated man like Rudy.  Being particularly weak stomached, the “roadside attractions” that greeted him often left him feeling quite ill.  Two shudders ran up his back every time he passed a flattened animal: one just before he passed it, and one just afterwards while he thought of the sad little end each interstate-crossing creature had met.  Still, through toll-booths and seas of traffic cones he made his way to the North.

I won’t bore you with thick details of the scenery, but know, dear reader, that it was very, very flat through Texas and Oklahoma.  The hills through Missouri seemed steep and exotic after that flatness, but by the time he’d reached Southern Illinois, it had flattened back out again.  The green hills and dales of Wisconsin were warm and welcoming and seemed like a home about which he had never known.  The farmland called to him even as he neared the northwest border, and he felt like he would miss this place through which he’d passed.  He was growing anxious to reach his new home, however, and farming probably didn’t pay as well as accounting.

He crossed the border, reached Minneapolis/St. Paul, and was a little struck by the understated grandeur.  It seemed like a simultaneously small and large place.  The people smiled as he passed them on the street, and he felt a bizarre comfort and confidence; against character, he felt compelled to roll down the sedan’s window and feel whatever cool breeze came his way.  The city smelled like a city, of course, like diesel exhaust from the busses and coffee shops and wet cement from a mid-day rain. But it also smelled to Rudy like opportunity and a fresh start and a foot-in-the-door (and it might have been the Bravo Bakery on Grand Avenue but it also smelled a little like cinnamon).  At that moment, Rudy felt as though his intrepid decision to follow this job couldn’t possibly go wrong.  He also felt quite hungry for a cinnamon roll now, of course, so he followed his nose and ordered two for himself; one for now, one for the following morning, which was Monday, which was also the day he would start work.

Feeling it too early to check into his hotel, Rudy sat down at a table in the bakery with a hot cuppa and his roll, and stared out the window at passersby while he picked at his roll with a fork.  As she poured him a fresh cup, the waitress, a pretty thirty-something named Jill, brushed a stray lock of auburn hair from her face and looked at her watch.  “We’re closing the shop in about twenty minutes,” she said.  “Can I get you anything else?”

Rudy noted her obvious hint about how it would be a lot easier to close the shop if he wasn’t sitting at the table nibbling on a roll.  “No, thanks very much,” he said, “I’ll just take the check.”

“You visiting?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “No.  I mean, I’m new here.  I start work on Monday.”  He added that last part because he’d hardly spoken to anyone in two thousand miles, and he thought she might ask him about his new job, which he was eager to talk about.

“Oh is that so?” she asked, making her o’s sound as round as any you’ve ever heard.  “Whereabouts?”

“The Fifty-Sixth Department?”  He wasn’t sure why he’d made it a question.

“The Fifty-Sixth Department of what?”

“Well, I’m not exactly sure, but I think that’s just what the company calls themselves.”

“Oh.  I see,” she said. “What do you do?”

“I’m an accountant, you see, but as I understand it, they make little miniature buildings.”  As he said this, he thought he saw a hint of dawning realization on her face; her eyes widened in an expression he would characterize somewhere between shock and fear.  “Is there something wrong with accounting?”

(to be continued)