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Saving Santa

Helen Proffitt restores Golden Age department store Santa Santa’s Kitchen display featured at tree walk

SOLON– It was the year Helen Proffitt saved Santa.
Proffitt, of rural Solon, spent several months restoring a 5-foot 1961 Harold Gale Santa Company Santa for display at Solon’s annual tree walk Dec. 7.
The Santa figure, along with two elves, were featured in a three-walled Santa’s Kitchen in a corner of the Solon United Methodist Church Family Life Center, along with hundreds of other donated items.
Many of those, including Santa and the elves, came from the collection of Toni Russo of Solon.
The story started two years ago, when Helen’s husband Jay was working on a driveway project for Russo.
Russo had two department store display elves and didn’t want them anymore.
Jay suggested taking them home to Helen, thinking she might be interested.
“So, he brought them home,” Helen said. “I like a challenge. I like to sew, I like to paint.”
Although she didn’t take art classes until later in life, she’d always found herself drawn to painting figurines, even repairing and repainting a weathered Virgin Mary from her mother’s garden.
She’s painted numerous statues and has even touched up paintings for friends.
“I thought, well, I’ll just see if I can’t get them fixed up and re-clothed and see if she likes them and maybe hopefully get the motor running in these little mechanical elves,” she recalled. “They’re just ugly little things and I thought I’d just beautify them a little bit.”
She searched the Internet for tips on fixing the plaster from which they’re fingers and faces were made, remolded and repaired their fingers, and painted their faces and their hands.
Proffitt then slowly took apart the two elves’ outfits.
“It pretty much fell apart because they were so old.”
She took a pattern off the old jacket and pants and used fabric she purchased when her daughter Rachel was little to hand-sew the new garments onto the figures.
When the remodeling job was unveiled, Russo was flabbergasted.
“She couldn’t believe how beautiful they looked and how they didn’t look scary anymore,” Proffitt reported.
The two elves were displayed in Russo’s Christmas tableau for the Solon Hardware Store that year.
“They looked great,” Proffitt said.
After seeing the regenerated elves, Russo told Proffitt of a 5-foot Santa she also owned.
“Her dream was that she would be able to display them for the community,” Proffitt said. “Bring back the old window fronts that used to be in the Macy’s and the department stores.
“So I thought wouldn’t it be cool if I got that all fixed up?” she said.
The Santa sat for a while in the middle of Proffitt’s sewing room so she wouldn’t forget him, and in August she was determined to get to work.
She applied the same techniques that worked so successfully with the elves.
When she took off Santa’s belt, she discovered his heritage on the backside.
He was a Harold Gale Santa Company Santa dating back to 1961.
Gale began making department store display Santas around 1946 and the business grew significantly over the next 20 years to the point most major department stores were customers. The business ceased production around 1988.
“I was thrilled because now I knew where this guy came from,” Proffitt said.
The mechanics and construction were crude, with a chest like an upside-down flowerpot and arms made of newspaper-wrapped stuffing.
His mittens were wire wrapped in string and his legs were 2x4s.
Proffitt rewrapped the arms and legs and made a padded vest like football shoulder pads to give him more form.
She took a pattern for the coat and pants and remade them in crushed velvet.
“And then just went to town,” she said. “I was just loving working on it.”
After Santa had a fresh coat of paint, she bought him a new beard and wig.
The finishing touch was a pair of her mother’s glasses.
Santa was back together in November.
“It was fun to work on him and get him all fixed up,” she said.
There were no plans for Santa or the elves at that point.
“I knew she (Russo) wanted to display them in a setting so that the community could enjoy them,” Proffitt noted.
She suggested hardware store, but Russo already had a Grinch theme in mind.
Helen was on the committee for the community’s tree walk, and felt it might make an appropriate venue.
She contacted her brother Tom Willwerth, in Clinton, to figure out the logistics of a three-walled display.
Willwerth, a carpenter, came up with the 12x8-foot freestanding structure to house Santa, the elves, a wood stove and a Christmas tree. He and his wife Deb also donated some of their antiques for the display.
Proffitt notified Russo and they began brainstorming on what to include.
“That’s kind of how it all started,” she said.
Toys and a coat tree came from Helen’s brother, Russo provided the list Santa held and a cement tree stand with the face of Santa Claus on the front which Helen repainted.
Jay chopped down a tree.
The Thursday night before the tree walk, the Proffitts and members of the Solon Centennial Lions Club spent about four hours assembling the walls and placing the larger decorations.
From 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. Friday, members of the tree walk committee were working to put the entire event together.
By Saturday morning, just a few items had to be added to the display prior to opening.
Proffitt was there all day and reported a steady crowd with a constant flow
of happy people enjoying the Christmas spirit.
One little girl, tempted by the display, was ready to pass under the protective cordon when Proffitt asked her to help keep other little kids behind the rope. She dutifully complied, reporting back on possible offenders she had helped.
“It was so cute, they just loved the display,” Helen said. “It was fun to just present it to the community. I wished we could’ve kept it up longer than just the one day. It was so much work just to get it together.”
She would love to see the figures displayed annually.
Holiday traditions are ingrained with Proffitt.
A 35-year resident of rural Solon, she was raised in Fairbank, near Waterloo.
“I grew up in a big family, and we didn’t have a lot,” she said, recalling homemade clothes and gifts. “I knew the things that we did get at Christmas, were always special.”
Her mother started a tradition of playing a game before the children could open presents, something the family has continued.
She’s always loved Christmas and Santa Claus, from watching the faces of her own children to seeing kids today sitting on Santa’s lap.
While attending Kirkwood Community College in the fall of 1980, she lived at the Montrose Hotel, across the street from Armstrong’s Department Store, in Cedar Rapids.
“I remember going across the street to Armstrong’s and looking at their windows at Christmastime, and they were so beautiful with the mechanical little people in there,” she stated. “It was magical. This Santa Claus and the elves were probably used in a window somewhere.”