Rudolph alight again in Easton

Holiday herald resumes rooftop perch decades after disappearance

December 11, 2013|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

EASTON — — The giant reindeer perched on the shopping center roof, a phone clutched in his hoof, his red nose glowing against the smudgy December sky.

Beneath him, a line of children waited for their turn to step into the red telephone booth marked "North Pole" and list their wishes.

It was a new experience for the children — most of whom had never seen a phone booth before — and for many of their parents.

But for the grandparents who crowded the Talbottown Shopping Center on a rainy Friday evening, it was a re-creation of some of their most cherished childhood memories.

"I remember coming here when I was 8 years old," said Kim Dyott, 58, who waited in line with her daughter and two grandchildren. "It's exactly the same."

From the late 1950s to the late '70s, the Christmas season began in this Eastern Shore town when Rudolph appeared on the roof of the shopping center, an early project of James Rouse, long before he built Harborplace and planned Columbia.

Then — no one is quite sure exactly when or why — Rudolph disappeared.

For three decades, the reindeer remained in the town's collective memory, his name evoking a time when holiday celebrations were simpler and more magical.

"As soon as he went up on the roof, you knew the magic was starting," said Amy Steward, 53.

Steward recalled the thrill of walking into the phone booth when she was growing up in the '60s. She would press a button, listen to a recorded greeting from Rudolph and stare into the eyes of the creature on the roof as she ticked off her wish list — Barbie dolls, a playhouse, a bike.

The town celebrated the arrival of Rudolph each year with fireworks, choirs and appearances by the Orioles legends of the day, such as Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson, said Steward, who wrote an article last year about the reindeer for the local magazine "Attractions."

The original Rudolph was dreamed up by George Taylor, an Easton Utilities employee, who arranged a holiday celebration at the shopping center, complete with a house for Santa and a giant decorated tree.

Taylor would start the display soon after Halloween and would be a "nervous wreck until that Friday night when they pushed the button" to turn on the lights, his daughter, Debby Schultz, recalled.

The first Rudolph was created by Adler Display Studios of Baltimore, the company that created other fantasy lands that loom large in the region's dream life — Ellicott City's Enchanted Forest and Ocean City's Frontier Town.

While no one is certain what befell the original Rudolph (some speculate that he retired to the North Pole) Taylor's descendants believe the reindeer perished in a fire in the late '70s.

Since then, Christmas hasn't been the same in Easton.

So when Hugh Grunden, the president and chief executive of Easton Utilities, was considering how to mark his company's centennial in 2014, he decided it was time to bring Rudolph back.

"I remember vividly and fondly visiting Rudolph," said Grunden, who recalled being fascinated — as seems appropriate for a utility executive — by the wire that connected the reindeer to the phone booth below.

Grunden keeps the company's Rudolph plans in the type of white binder marked with page tabs that he uses for other engineering projects.

The workers used old photos to determine Rudolph's size, about 14 feet tall, and designed schematics that they sent off to an Atlanta company that makes figures for amusement parks.

Engineers for the utility company designed a platform that would keep the reindeer stable in 50 mph winds.

They scoured Craigslist for an old phone booth. Warehouse and plant workers refurbished the booth, outfitting it with a vintage rotary dial phone. Electricians outfitted it with new lights. And the folks in the auto shop painted the phone booth a shimmery red.

This week, they set up the phone booth on the sidewalk and used a crane to hoist Rudolph to his perch on the roof between Talbot's and the Bountiful home store.

Patti Willis, 61, an executive with a nearby hospital, was among those who stopped to take cellphone photos as Rudolph arrived.

As a girl, Willis, wasn't sure whether to believe the shopping center Rudolph had a direct line to Santa. But she still relayed her Christmas wish to him each year (always a horse) as a "security measure."

On Friday evening, the power company workers heralded Rudolph's return with cupcakes and cocoa, speeches and sparkling costumes. Workers dressed as snowmen, elves and Christmas trees filtered through the crowd. Despite a light rain, about 400 people crowded into the shopping center parking lot as the crowd counted down to the lighting of the reindeer.

Karen Wolcott, 48, her mother, daughter and two grandsons were among those who attended the celebration. Wolcott said talking by phone to Rudolph was less intimidating than sitting on Santa's lap.

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