116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Reindeer games bring past prancing throughout The History Center in Cedar Rapids
More than 200 people attend Saturday’s unveiling of ‘Rudolph’s Retreat’ holiday display
CEDAR RAPIDS — After a 30-year hiatus, Rudolph again has a retreat in Cedar Rapids.
Only this time, the spa with a scrubbing tub, feed bag and straw has moved about six and a half blocks northeast, from Armstrong’s Department Store to The History Center.
More than 200 people were dashing and dancing Saturday morning for the unveiling of “Rudolph’s Retreat,” in an event hailed as “Rudolph’s Return.”
It was hard to tell who was more excited — the little ones queuing up to sit on Santa’s lap or the adults prancing into the next room, ready to relive their memories of the holiday displays that lit up the downtown anchor store at the corner of Third Street and Third Avenue SE until the lights went out in January 1991.
If you go
What: “Rudolph’s Retreat,” recreating an Armstrong’s Department Store holiday display
Where: The History Center, 800 Second Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: Through Dec. 30, 2021
Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday and Friday; 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Admission: $7 adults; $5 students; free ages 4 and under and History Center members; masks required
Upcoming event: Holiday Bazaar, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 27, free admission and kids’ activities
“I remember just feeling the magic, and I looked forward to it every year,” Michelle Collier of Cedar Rapids said. She was there with her husband, Jeff Collier, Orchestra Iowa’s CEO. And like so many kids, their daughter, Piper, 3, and nearly 10-month-old son, Harrison, were decked out in holiday style for pictures with Santa.
“When (Michelle) saw this posted, she jumped right on it,” Jeff said of the event.
Seeing the mechanical elves busy in the reindeer spa — where one fleet-footed sleigh-puller was getting a bath — made Michelle feel “nostalgic,” and happy that her daughter “gets to see something that’s part of my traditional history.”
Like Mom, Piper carried forth the tradition of being leery of Santa, which in Piper’s case, may have more to do with the times in which we live than in genetics.
“Most of her life has been in the pandemic,” Michelle said. “This is her first Santa and Christmas experience.”
Soon, Piper would join other children in the crafts room, making reindeer eye masks and munching on cookies with cocoa chasers.
The exhibit opening also featured live music, tours throughout the center, and at 11:30 a.m., a chance to head outdoors and pose for photos and pet a llama and alpaca dressed in their holiday best.
Making the magic
Ron King, 74, of Cedar Rapids, was Santa’s helper for 24 years, creating the holiday displays at Armstrong’s. He was thrilled to relive a piece of the past by recreating “Rudolph’s Retreat” in the front foyer of the Douglas Mansion, 800 Second Ave. SE, now home to The History Center.
“I was pretty excited to do it,” he said, standing tall in his red reindeer suit coat, ready to reminisce with folks who stopped.
He started out as “a stock boy” at Armstrong’s in 1968.
“At one point, my manager said, ‘Ron, it’s time for you to go into the windows.’ I remember the first display that I did. I stood outside and I said, ‘This is my career. This is what I’m gonna do.’ ”
And he did, eventually moving from assistant manager to manager of the visual merchandising department the final four years before the store closed.
“It was just so much fun to do,” he said of the holiday displays. “Everybody was so excited” to see them, especially when the magic moved indoors in the mid-’80s. “They really liked the idea of being able to come into the store and doing a walk-through” after years of just peering at the time-honored tradition of holiday window displays in department stores like Macy’s.
“I’ve always considered Armstrong’s the Macy’s of Cedar Rapids,” he said.
The move indoors was based on a survey to see how many people actually looked at the store’s 38 windows and how long they would stand there, so spreading cheer throughout the store made good business sense.
“They had to go all the way up to fifth floor,” he noted, which “brought in a lot of people for shopping.”
However, the store’s iconic gleaming gold and white Nativity scene remained in the corner window.
The bustle of Saturday’s event helped put King in the Christmas spirit, with a nod to the past.
“I remember how fast Christmas came,” he said of his career years. “We started in July. Every two years or so, we changed our mechanicals. We’d buy them from other stores. When they came in, we refurbished everything from motors to clothes.
“This is the only one we did not change clothes on, because the characters already had the clothes,” he added, pointing to The History Center display.
“I was so glad to come to work,” he said. “There was even a lot of times where you didn’t want to go home, you were having too much fun. And the people — everybody in the store was like a big family.”
Several former Armstrong’s employees were among the first to arrive, noted Tara Templeman, The History Center’s curator and collections manager. She also was stationed nearby, decked out in holiday attire and holding photos of the department store’s original winter wonderland.
The holiday display, on view through Dec. 30, coincides with a larger exhibit upstairs, looking at “The Armstrong Family: Fashion & Philanthropy,” on view through February.
However, Christmas almost didn’t happen in the front hall, Templeman said.
“We had been told that all of the exhibits and the mechanicals from Armstrong’s had been sold all over the country when the store closed, and that nothing would be available locally anymore,” she said.
But through a couple of inquiries, they found out that three of the elves were in storage at the Armstrong building. Those are on loan for the display, and History Center staff found two more for sale on Facebook Marketplace. They’ve been purchased and are now part of The History Center’s collection.
“So we have five of the original seven elves on display,” Templeman said, adding that the reindeer and other features are replicas, made to look like the original exhibit.
“We knew we wanted to do some sort of holiday display from Armstrong’s, because that’s the first thing that people ask.”
With King at the helm, the process took about two months. The big push of putting everything together just took about three days.
All these visions of sugarplums are proving to be one of the center’s most popular draws since the COVID shutdown and reopening.
“It’s so festive,” Templeman said. “I went home (Friday) and had to buy some eggnog, and we had Christmas music playing the last couple of days. It feels very festive in here, which feels a little bit weird before Thanksgiving, but I’m happy about it.”
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