14 Dec 2023

The Christmas display elves of Queen St

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 14 December 2023

Thousands of hours of work goes into creating Smith and Caughey's Christmas window displays every year. 

'The 12 Elves of Christmas' plays out in the Queen St window of Smith and Caughey this year

Photo: The Detail/Tom Kitchin

When mesmerised Christmas crowds stare into the windows of Smith and Caughey's department store on Auckland's Queen Street they have no idea of the thousands of hours of toil and talent that have gone into the hand-made puppets, not to mention the mishaps that have threatened to derail them.

One year it was an infestation of giant Australian ants, another year the ship with the puppets on board took them to Taiwan instead of Auckland.

The creators of the display have worked on it for nearly two decades but every year the unveiling is nerve wracking.

Today, the store's special projects manager Kevin Broadfoot and puppet maker David Poulton share moments of delight and high anxiety with The Detail about the windows, and reveal that work on next year's display has already begun.

"It drives us nuts," jokes Poulton, a former pilot turned performing puppeteer. But the rewards are great. 

"You go to bed and you think, well I haven't hurt anyone today, I haven't done anything wrong and the end result is that you bring quite a lot of happiness to a lot of people.

"And the ego thing is you become part of someone's memory."

The work starts with Broadfoot's annual selection of the book on which the windows are based. This year's is The Twelve Elves Of Christmas written by Evie Day and illustrated by Liam Darcy, starring a sunglass-wearing, weight-lifting Santa.

Special projects manager Kevin Broadfoot outside Smith and Caughey's Christmas window in Queen St

Photo: The Detail/Sharon Brettkelly

David and his wife Sally, the chief animator, started creating this year's windows months ago in a shed on their farm near Noosa in Queensland. Each puppet takes 100 hours and in total they spend 2500 hours a year making them.

"Everything is bespoke, everything is handmade," he says. "The puppets are handmade, they're painted and they're wigged and they're dressed and then at that point we string them.

"That's the perspective that I like to look at in that late stage of its development."

Each year brings challenges, sometimes near-disasters. 

Broadfoot recalls the year of the ant infestation in one of the windows. The fumigators were quickly called and the matter dealt to without disruption to the display.

Covid-19 also played havoc with the shipments of the displays from Brisbane to Auckland and one year the opening was delayed because the shipping container was stuck in Tauranga.

Broadfoot says he still gets twitchy in the countdown to the big reveal just after Labour Weekend but he loves to stand outside and see the reaction of the crowds.

"It's like a magnet, as soon as people see the curtains are down, the lights are on, the puppets are moving, its phenomenal people coming up to the windows, huge smiles on their faces. The worries of life seem to have just disappeared the minute they've seen the windows."em and we animate them."

Poulton says they are creating miniature theatre, creations that are fully formed by the time they leave Noosa in bubble wrap inside a shipping container. But before they make the journey, Broadfoot makes a final visit and looks at the displays as a five-year-old would see them.

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