Wonderland Windows from Rike’s on display at Schuster

The Toyland window display at the Schuster. Photo: Diane-Schoeffler-Warren.

By Tim Smith

If you lived in Dayton prior to 1999, it was a family tradition to venture downtown every December to ooh and aah over the animated window displays at Rike’s Department Store on the corner of Second and Main Streets. These scenes depicted Santa’s workshop, cozy home fire settings with kids nestled in their bunks, and outdoor winter scenes complete with snow and cute furry animals. The corner is now the site of the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, where the resurrected window displays have been featured since 2003.

The Victoria Theatre Association and the Downtown Dayton Partnership spearheaded the campaign to bring this bit of Dayton history back where it belongs. Sue Stevens, the VTA’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, points out that it was a natural decision.

“The Schuster Center was built on the site of the old Rike’s department store and the annual animated holiday windows had become a tradition for countless families across the Miami Valley,” Stevens says. “Because of that beloved history, when access to some of the original figures was made available, as well as funding to maintain them, Victoria Theatre Association was eager to reunite the community with the displays. It was only fitting that we would breathe new life into some of the Rike’s elves and other creatures to create the new Wonderland Windows as they were called. With the big Wintergarden in the Schuster Center, we had the space and decided to have the windows face inward so Daytonians could enjoy the new displays from the inside where it would always be warm and comfortable.”

According to the VTA’s records, the Downtown Dayton Partnership acquired the figures in 2000, and found that many of them were badly damaged. To raise money to restore the figurines, DDP collected 1,000 bricks from the Rike’s implosion rubble and sold them to the Dayton community for $50.00 each. When enough money was raised, Victoria Theatre Association contacted Michael Hamberger of Hamberger Displays in New Jersey, who began the restoration process. By all accounts, it was a worthwhile investment of time and resources.

“People are passionate about this part of Dayton’s past, and their own personal holiday memories,” Stevens says. “We see multi-generational families that come every year – grandparents, parents, and children – all sharing the magic and whimsy of the windows. It’s fun to listen and see how the kids respond nowadays – which windows are their favorites. Santa’s Workshop is always the big winner but my personal favorite is the woodland scene – and it gets high marks, too!”

Beyond being an impressive feat of mechanical engineering, there’s a little scavenger hunt in those displays called Santa’s Secret. According to Diane Schoeffler-Warren, the VTA’s Media and Public Relations Director, their staff and interns are responsible for overseeing the annual contest.

“People are passionate about this part of Dayton’s past, and their own personal holiday memories.” – Sue Stevens

“Each year, hundreds, if not a few thousand, people participate in the Santa’s Secret contest,” Schoeffler-Warren says. “Santa’s Secret is a special item that is strategically placed in each window that represents a part of Dayton history. Patrons have to find the same item in each window and sometimes it can be tricky, because Santa likes to throw people off the trail. Last year, the item was a tiny ornament with a picture of the Victoria Theatre on it. Other years it was a pop tab invented by Ermal Fraze, another year it was a tiny Wright Flyer in honor of the Wright Brothers, and there was even a little alien representing the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base hanger.”

According to Stevens, the VTA and its resident companies the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance and the Human Race Theatre Company, among others, arrange special performances and events to coincide with the display.

“Dayton Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker is a huge deal each December and its massive Nutcracker Boutique is a must-see/must-shop event,” Stevens says. “This is a successful fundraising endeavor for Dayton Ballet, and has become a holiday tradition for Daytonians. Families and school groups can bring their little ones to visit Santa as well as shop for holiday gifts at The Tike›s Shoppe, located in the Schuster Center’s Berry Reception Room. The Tike’s Shoppe is another tribute to the beloved Rike’s Department Store where children, assisted by elves, can purchase gifts for their loved ones while parents wait outside.”

In an age of digital media, video games, and computer animation, this old-style attraction still manages to impress young visitors.

“I think the windows still have a magic all their own that draws the young ones in,” Stevens says. “After all, dolls and stuffed animals haven’t gone out of style, and these move and interact. The very fact that they are historic and old-fashioned is part of their charm. The family tradition of visiting the windows each holiday season is a powerful and emotional tie.”

“I enjoy watching generations of families, school groups, even people who walk through the Schuster every day on their way to work, stop and look at the windows,” Schoeffler-Warren adds. “Kids of all ages love to watch the figurines move, they squeal at the cuteness of the animals in the Woodland Window and laugh at the brother annoying his little sister from the top bunk in the Best of the ‹60s window. I think, regardless of the CGI and other electronic/digital advancements, people still enjoy the windows and attribute them to the holiday season.”

The Wonderland Windows open on Nov. 24 as part of the Holiday Festival and Tree-Lighting in downtown Dayton, and will run through January 4, 2018. The Windows are available to view Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. They are closed on Sundays unless there is a performance, and during private events. For more information, visit victoriatheatre.com.

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com

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