MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Finally this hour, we go deep into a gritty Brooklyn neighborhood where there's an unassuming brick building with a faded sign that says Mechanical Displays Incorporated. It's a factory that makes animatronic puppets, elves and polar bears for the holiday season. NPR's Neda Ulaby got a behind-the-scenes look at a company that brings holiday displays to life.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This real-life Santa's workshop was built 44 years ago by Lou Nasti. That's an Italian-by way-of Brooklyn last name: N-A-S-T-I.
LOU NASTI: But my nickname - everybody calls me Geppetto. I mean, look at me. The glasses, the grey hair, and I play with dolls. Come on.
ULABY: Just to complete the picture, Nasti's pet cat follows along as he shows off his workrooms. One holds hundreds of molds of elf heads, another's where their bodies are costumed and wired.
NASTI: This is where we actually set up many of the displays in this room.
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ULABY: Suddenly we're in a sparkling showroom dominated by a Christmas elf factory. Elves are busy hammering toys, checking lists. There's lots of repetitive motion and uncanny fixed stares. The elves wrap presents, like teddy bears, by tossing them on a conveyor belt.
NASTI: They go in as bears. They come out as boxes. Looks like one of the elves fell in the conveyor belt.
ULABY: The elf comes out bound in red ribbons. The details are amazing. Elf family portraits hang on the walls, and the toy studio's crammed with miniature paintbrushes, design books, elf-sized coffee cups - used - and a tiny bottle of vodka.
NASTI: Those elves get cold. A little vodka goes a long way.
ULABY: Lou Nasti cannot remember when he was not building toys and puppets. As a teenager, he put together a giant robot that landed him on the front page of The New York Times. The department store where he worked as a window dresser let him build Christmas-themed mechanical displays. Soon, he was making them for every major department store in New York, then across the country, then around the world.
NASTI: I have worked for the king of Morocco. I did the B. Altman's windows for 18 years prior to their going out of business. I did the Gimbels windows. I've worked for Macy's Santa Land.
ULABY: Oh, yes, Macy's.
NASTI: Many years ago, we did an animated nativity for Macy's. We put it in the window, and we had baby Jesus moving and Mary and Joseph, very discreet. Very, very discreet. They got calls. Macy's got calls that it was disrespectful to animate baby Jesus. Now, he wasn't crying or anything. It was just very well done.
ULABY: Not too long ago, you couldn't go shopping in December without seeing those elaborate, slightly spooky animatronic reindeers and Santas waving and nodding in every department store window and mall. Online ordering changed everything, and so have the hard, cold realities of real estates, especially in Manhattan.
NASTI: The department stores have cut back because they want to fill every square inch with retail.
ULABY: Nonetheless, Lou Nasti remains busy.
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ULABY: Right now, he's finishing up a super cute chorus line of dancing snowmen and mice in top hats. It's for the HBO headquarters holiday display. And he just wrapped up a huge job.
NASTI: The Peppermint Express is ready to depart.
ULABY: Nasti did the conductor's voice as well for a sprawling peppermint forest train ride he built for a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. He says it's one of his biggest projects ever.
NASTI: Thirty thousand lights, 150 Christmas trees, 30 rolls of Dacron, 250 pounds of loose poly snow and 90 animated figures making candy canes and gingerbreads and animals having a party in the forest. I mean, I got teddy bears warming their feet on fireplaces and squirrels toasting marshmallows. It's adorable.
ULABY: Lou Nasti has no idea how many animatronic displays he's designed and sold. Thousands, he says, many not yet retired. Now, if you ask him about retiring, he gets cranky.
NASTI: And what the hell would I do?
ULABY: Nasti says he's built everything he's ever dreamed of, except one thing, a full-size theme park where actual people go filled with his mechanical figures.
NASTI: I want to call it Nasti Land.
ULABY: Before Nasti Land, Lou Nasti has one more Christmas chore, the only one he dreads.
NASTI: The hardest Christmas tree there is to put up is in my own home. At that point, I've had it.
ULABY: Christmas ends for Lou Nasti in the middle of next month when he finishes taking down and repairing his displays. His Christmas season starts all over again, he says, in February. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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