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Elaborate Holiday Windows Spice Up NY Holiday Shopping Season

Extravagant holiday window dressings are as much a part of the holiday season in New York City as Christmas trees, Santa Clauses, menorahs, and bell-ringers from the Salvation Army. This year, James Donahower made the rounds to see what big city retailers are doing to capture the business and the imaginations of holiday shoppers.

Department store Lord & Taylor always attracts large holiday crowds with its lavishly decorated windows based on traditional themes. This year's subject is The Nutcracker Suite, and the windows are filled with fantasy from Sugarplum Fairies and animated mice to hot air balloons and ballerinas.

Simon Doonan is the director of windows at Barney's, a fashionable Madison Avenue store known for its innovative and often outrageous windows. He says that even in an era when more and more holiday shoppers are getting the job done online, people come from near and far to admire the windows, many with no intention of setting foot in the store.

"Store windows used to be a primary form of communication to customers. At the turn of the century, when stores had big glass windows for the first time, they were huge attractions. There's no equivalent today," he explains. "People didn't have movies, they didn't have TVs. Store windows occupied a very significant place in people's consciousness. In New York, we still have that legacy."

This year, in keeping with the Barney's non-traditional and agnostic approach to its holiday windows, Mr. Doonan and his colleagues feature singer and actress Cher as the centerpiece of their 2002 holiday windows. Cher is best known for her 70s hit song, I Got You Babe and her Academy Award-winning role in the 1987 film, Moonstruck. The windows document different eras in her life and career.

"The thing about windows is, they're not art," he says. " They're a very democratic form of communication to the customer. Everybody gets to see store windows. So you can't really do elitist, obscure things in store windows. Cher is perfect fodder for this kind of display, because there are so many facets to her and she appeals to so many people. Everybody loves Cher. "

Pop culture references are similarly abundant in the windows of retailing giant Macy's. Three of the massive windows feature scenes from the popular Christmas film, Miracle on 34th Street. Animatronic, or robotic, human figures decorate a Christmas tree. In another scene, a little girl pulls on Santa's beard. Around the corner, on Macy's Broadway side, more animatronic figures captivate passersby. They are characters from the Muppets, the popular puppet characters spawned by the revolutionary children's television program, Sesame Street.

Gil Croy designed the Macy's windows. He says that, in part, they reflect the light-heartedness people are feeling this season as compared to last, when the holidays came just 10 weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Everybody wasn't sure if what we were doing was the right thing. It was the city in general," says Mr. Croy. "It's kind of hard to celebrate something when you're not sure where your heart is. You know, it was a great thing to be celebrating our freedom and who we are as Americans. But at Christmas time, we also think about the people we lost during the year."

Mr. Croy says store windows are like three-dimensional paintings, and that his object, in addition to bringing in customers, is to humor people. He and his staff occasionally blend into the crowds outside the windows, listening for pedestrian critiques.

But, he says, window dressing is not all fun and games. It can be perilous, at least for onlookers.

"When we work in the windows, we have what we call a scrim dropped down to block out [the words] Pardon Our Appearance. There was one time when we had actually not put the scrim down, and we put up a chrome wall in the window, making it extremely reflective. But we had not put the vinyl, the verbiage, on the exterior of the glass. And a lady was walking toward the window and ran flat into the window," he says.

Outside of Sak's Fifth Avenue, the luxury department store, a special area is cordoned off for window-viewers. This year, the windows commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg, Russia, and feature a lush depiction of the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. Again, animatronic figures are the stars. Music by Tchaikovsky, and narration by Valery Gergiev, General Director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, is piped in.

People lined up to view the window, children and adults alike, are enchanted.

Oh they're just marvelous. My children love them! Yes, they're doing a show!