At A Real-Life Santa's Workshop, Christmas Comes Early

Dec 18, 2012
Originally published on December 20, 2012 12:16 pm

"Everyone calls me Geppetto," announces Lou Nasti. "I mean, look at me: The glasses, the gray hair — and I play with dolls. Come on."

Being with Nasti at his Brooklyn company, Mechanical Displays Inc., is like hanging out in Santa's workshop. The walls are lined with tools and dozens of molds for elf heads, all in different sizes. Dancing mice and snowmen are being prepped in a chorus line for HBO's headquarters in Manhattan. For another display, a plush mother polar bear is being wired to cuddle her baby. Life-size toy soldiers stand by a life-size talking tree, a current work in progress.

For almost 44 years, Nasti has created holiday-themed displays for department store windows and shopping malls, the kind featuring animatronic elves wrapping presents, sweet-faced reindeer bowing their heads and Santa snoring, perhaps with a tail-wagging puppy at his feet.

"I have worked for the king of Morocco," says Nasti. "I did the B. Altman's window for 18 years prior to their going out of business. I did Gimbels. I've worked for Macy's Santa Land."

Nasti's displays have been seen in most of New York City's major department store windows. He started as a window dresser as a teenager and landed on the front page of The New York Times when he built a giant robot that could walk and talk. A few years later, he started his company.

Mechanical Displays has sold thousands of holiday displays across the United States. One Christmas, Nasti remembers installing a display at a department store in Ohio and peeking into the window of a Hudson's across the street ... where workmen were putting in another of his displays, one he'd sold years earlier to a store in Minneapolis. Some circulated from store to store. Others stood out for other reasons.

"Many years ago we did an animated Nativity for Macy's," Nasti recalls. "We put it in the window, and we had baby Jesus moving, and Mary and Joseph. Very discreet. Very, very discreet. They got calls! Macy's got calls that it was disrespectful to animate baby Jesus. He wasn't crying or anything; it was very well done!"

Over the past few decades, the market for these figures with their repetitive motions and uncanny fixed stares has changed. Online shopping put a dent in department store budgets and changed their priorities.

"The department stores have cut back," Nasti grumbles, "because they want to fill every square inch with retail."

Nonetheless, Nasti remains busy. He just finished building a children's train ride through a sprawling peppermint forest for the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Ky. The project, he says, was huge.

"Thirty thousand lights, 150 Christmas trees, 30 rolls of Dacron, 250 pounds of poly loose snow, and 90 animated figures making candy canes and gingerbread and having a party in the forest," he says proudly. "I mean, I got teddy bears warming their feet on fireplaces and squirrels toasting marshmallows. It's adorable."

Nasti says he's built just about everything he's ever dreamed of — except one thing: a full-size theme park, where actual people would visit, filled with his mechanical figures.

"I want to call it Nasti Land," he grins.

But before Nasti Land, Nasti has one more Christmas chore to perform — the only one he dreads.

"The hardest Christmas tree there is to put up is in my own home," he says. "At that point, I've had it."

Christmas starts for Nasti in February, when he starts gearing up for the year's work. And his holiday season is not over until the middle of January, when he finishes taking down and repairing his displays.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Finally this hour, we go deep into a gritty Brooklyn neighborhood where there's an unassuming brick building with a faded sign that says Mechanical Displays Incorporated. It's a factory that makes animatronic puppets, elves and polar bears for the holiday season. NPR's Neda Ulaby got a behind-the-scenes look at a company that brings holiday displays to life.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This real-life Santa's workshop was built 44 years ago by Lou Nasti. That's an Italian-by way-of Brooklyn last name: N-A-S-T-I.

LOU NASTI: But my nickname - everybody calls me Geppetto. I mean, look at me. The glasses, the grey hair, and I play with dolls. Come on.

ULABY: Just to complete the picture, Nasti's pet cat follows along as he shows off his workrooms. One holds hundreds of molds of elf heads, another's where their bodies are costumed and wired.

NASTI: This is where we actually set up many of the displays in this room.

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ULABY: Suddenly we're in a sparkling showroom dominated by a Christmas elf factory. Elves are busy hammering toys, checking lists. There's lots of repetitive motion and uncanny fixed stares. The elves wrap presents, like teddy bears, by tossing them on a conveyor belt.

NASTI: They go in as bears. They come out as boxes. Looks like one of the elves fell in the conveyor belt.

ULABY: The elf comes out bound in red ribbons. The details are amazing. Elf family portraits hang on the walls, and the toy studio's crammed with miniature paintbrushes, design books, elf-sized coffee cups - used - and a tiny bottle of vodka.

NASTI: Those elves get cold. A little vodka goes a long way.

ULABY: Lou Nasti cannot remember when he was not building toys and puppets. As a teenager, he put together a giant robot that landed him on the front page of The New York Times. The department store where he worked as a window dresser let him build Christmas-themed mechanical displays. Soon, he was making them for every major department store in New York, then across the country, then around the world.

NASTI: I have worked for the king of Morocco. I did the B. Altman's windows for 18 years prior to their going out of business. I did the Gimbels windows. I've worked for Macy's Santa Land.

ULABY: Oh, yes, Macy's.

NASTI: Many years ago, we did an animated nativity for Macy's. We put it in the window, and we had baby Jesus moving and Mary and Joseph, very discreet. Very, very discreet. They got calls. Macy's got calls that it was disrespectful to animate baby Jesus. Now, he wasn't crying or anything. It was just very well done.

ULABY: Not too long ago, you couldn't go shopping in December without seeing those elaborate, slightly spooky animatronic reindeers and Santas waving and nodding in every department store window and mall. Online ordering changed everything, and so have the hard, cold realities of real estates, especially in Manhattan.

NASTI: The department stores have cut back because they want to fill every square inch with retail.

ULABY: Nonetheless, Lou Nasti remains busy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE)

ULABY: Right now, he's finishing up a super cute chorus line of dancing snowmen and mice in top hats. It's for the HBO headquarters holiday display. And he just wrapped up a huge job.

NASTI: The Peppermint Express is ready to depart.

ULABY: Nasti did the conductor's voice as well for a sprawling peppermint forest train ride he built for a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. He says it's one of his biggest projects ever.

NASTI: Thirty thousand lights, 150 Christmas trees, 30 rolls of Dacron, 250 pounds of loose poly snow and 90 animated figures making candy canes and gingerbreads and animals having a party in the forest. I mean, I got teddy bears warming their feet on fireplaces and squirrels toasting marshmallows. It's adorable.

ULABY: Lou Nasti has no idea how many animatronic displays he's designed and sold. Thousands, he says, many not yet retired. Now, if you ask him about retiring, he gets cranky.

NASTI: And what the hell would I do?

ULABY: Nasti says he's built everything he's ever dreamed of, except one thing, a full-size theme park where actual people go filled with his mechanical figures.

NASTI: I want to call it Nasti Land.

ULABY: Before Nasti Land, Lou Nasti has one more Christmas chore, the only one he dreads.

NASTI: The hardest Christmas tree there is to put up is in my own home. At that point, I've had it.

ULABY: Christmas ends for Lou Nasti in the middle of next month when he finishes taking down and repairing his displays. His Christmas season starts all over again, he says, in February. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.