Santa's Elves At Work

December 09, 1990|By Jean Thompson

Santa's workshop has an annex in Hyattsville.

It's the home and studio of artisan Frank J. Bruno, whose personality, if not person, might be said to be elfin. Under a mustache sparkling with bits of stray glitter, his grin spreads to ample dimples as he describes his creations -- family gatherings, toyshops, Santa scenes and Victorian villages depicted in miniature under glass.

"My goal was to create moments in people's lives, to try to capture it in a way that they can look in and see themselves," he says. So captivated have been viewers that his constructions find their way to special homes; the Secret Service gave two of Mr. Bruno's "small worlds" to the Reagans at past Christmases. Today he'll be at Festival Hall, demonstrating his craft for the Festival of Trees show benefiting the Kennedy Institute, a children's health foundation.

Visitors will see some of his more intricate miniatures, which can take years to design and construct. Mr. Bruno needed 11 months to finish a Victorian diorama of handmade models of town houses in the traditional styles of Williamsburg, Yorktown and Deerfield. Each Lilliputian house lantern is handmade of brass, as is each doorknob. The white steps are marble. Window panes are etched and stained glass. The work sold recently for $6,000 to a Maryland family; prices for smaller scenes begin at $300.

The craftsmanship that makes them so enchanting becomes evident only after one has stared a long while. It seems a small issue, but Mr. Bruno takes great care to ensure that the fittings and glue holding pieces together are not visible. Composition is important too; he teases the eye from every angle and works to make no two views of the same scene alike. And he's left no teeny cobblestone unturned in his effort to infuse each scene with detail.

In an elves' kitchen hang perfect thumb-size copper pans. Garlands of holiday greenery (bits of plants, dried in the microwave, then painted) twist up the banisters. A 2-inch rubber welcome mat graces a doorway. In a Victorian sleigh, there's a real rabbit-fur blanket. His teddy store bears up to expectations: Every niche and nook is filled with the 150 bears, each different, most an inch tall, some felt, wood, pewter, blown glass.

Mr. Bruno serves as concept and research manager, designer and builder. He's a self-taught jack-of-many-trades, providing the carpentry (inlaid miniature floors and scroll-sawed railings), masterly gluing, painting, snow and icicle making, clay molding and lighting. He is also a contractor. Many elements in his dioramas -- porcelain dolls, metal lampposts, well-dressed bears -- are commissioned from other craftspeople. According to Mr. Bruno, there are few if any "lost" arts; only forgotten craftspeople, many of them elderly, in need of opportunities to work.

He lives by a teaching from his mother, whose homemade ornaments adorn the tree in his home/studio. "I can't afford to buy this, so I make it," he says. He involves his family in his projects: wife, Dottie, who is a nurse, and daughters Kyra and Tara help select items and offer suggestions. He credits them with boosting his career; they encouraged him 10 years ago when a car accident left him unable to work for nearly 18 months. He had been a consultant, and for about 25 years before that, a teacher with a specialty in psychology. To conquer frustration and pain during his convalescence, he began making ornaments and advanced to scenes under glass domes. His first sizable piece was a Santa's toyshop; when major department stores suggested they could sell them, his business was born.

He is aware of the scenes' ability to mesmerize viewers, who oftenplant themselves around his displays and peer lovingly in to the glass-enclosed worlds. "You can get lost in them," he says.


Many other craftspeople whose work evokes holiday spirit can be found at the Festival of Trees through Dec. 15 at Festival Hall. In the craft shop, just one of several venues at the show for Christmas displays, visitors will find Evelyn Sornicky's decorative eggs and wreaths; Diane Leslie's Victorian soft-sculpture dolls, cats and rabbits; and Sharon Macy's holiday sweat shirts and nightshirts, among others. Sisters Claire Jones and Amy Sparwasser, whose small business is called Twin Treasures, will sell garlands, centerpieces and dried-flower ornaments. "Gold is a big color for the holidays this year," says Ms. Jones, who uses gilded birch twigs in her arrangements.

Shoppers seeking decorating ideas for the holidays need only step inside Festival Hall during the show. A hundred trees sponsored by corporations and decorated by Maryland designers fill the hall, dividing it into a town square complete with lanes, park benches and street lamps. There's an aisle of wreaths featuring vignettes and information about holiday traditions in 15 countries, including Poland, Germany, China, Mexico and Denmark. A children's area and "Secret Santa" shop for kids only, a gift shop, a bake shop and entertainment are provided.

The show is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Dec. 15. Admission is $3 for adults, $1.50 for senior citizens and children under age 12. The show's major sponsor, Crown Central Petroleum Corporation, is offering discount admission coupons at its participating stations.

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