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G. Willikers’ holiday window scenes a Saratoga Springs tradition

Saturday, December 11, 2010
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The G. Willlikers store in downtown Saratoga Springs is well-known for its holiday window displays.
Photographer: Bruce Squiers
The G. Willlikers store in downtown Saratoga Springs is well-known for its holiday window displays.

— The weather inside Linda Ambrosino’s store window is frightful.

Snowmen in black top hats and red scarves are in a slow winter dance. They’re caught in a December flurry, with a bunch of snowflakes above them and a passel of snowballs beneath them.

Since the frosty fellows have no place to go, Ambrosino is happy to let it snow at the

G. Willikers toy store at 461 Broadway.

The cool and composed snow people represent the latest seasonal greeting from Ambrosino, who opened her store during the fall of 1987 and has always designed holiday scenes behind her front glass. While she also decorates for holidays like Halloween and the Fourth of July, the Christmas showcases get the most attention.

“It’s kind of what I remember from being a child,” Ambrosino said. “You have these childhood memories. We lived in the coal regions of central Pennsylvania … there was a department store there, we took a trip every year and it wasn’t even in the town we lived in. I can’t remember the name of the store but one of the things we did was look at the windows.”

Seniors and people in middle age can remember when they pressed cold noses against store windows during evening trips to downtown. City stores such as The Carl Co. in Schenectady, Macy’s in New York City. B.B. Fowler’s in Glens Falls and Sibley’s in Rochester used to fill their spaces with toys, decorated evergreen trees and other visions of the December holidays.

Ambrosino is glad to offer nostalgia for people who walk by and into the store near Church Street that sits between the Adirondack Trust Co. and Compton’s restaurant. Last year, she and her team — husband Larry and designer Jodi Burns — placed a giant ballerina on top of a music box and let the doll spin during the yuletide. Sugarplums were in one of the other windows, two small children asleep in their beds with lollipops and colorful candies hanging above them.

“We’ve done rooftops where we’ve had Santa flying through the air,” Ambrosino said. “We’ve had a giant jack-in-the-box where instead of a jester jumping out, we’ve had Santa come out of it. We did an awesome one, one year, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’ If you were here at nighttime, you would hear people standing in front of the window trying to remember the song and singing it outside, which was so much fun.”

When Ambrosino first opened, she was across Broadway in a smaller store now occupied by Eugenio’s Cafe Gelato. She only had one window to fill. “The first window, I remember it had a great big white bear,” Ambrosino said. “And a beautiful wooden wagon.”

G. Willikers moved across the street during the early 1990s, into half of the current full-sized store. She dressed up the two window spaces and got two more windows when the store expanded around 2000.

Ambrosino knows the windows get attention. She entertains summer visitors, especially folks in town for Saratoga’s thoroughbred racing season. “This year, for August, we built a starting gate at the track and put rocking horses in,” she said.

Big decision

Plans for the Christmas window begin before the race horses have left town. She thinks people depend on the store’s good cheer to promote holiday spirit.

“We were doing our third planning session in November,” Ambrosino said. “Jodi, my husband and I were in a restaurant and we were talking about the windows. There was a woman in the booth next to us. After she got up, she goes, ‘I hope you didn’t think I was eavesdropping, but I heard you talking about your windows. It’s what I do every Christmastime, I take pictures of your windows and send them to my family.’ ”

The woman wanted a sneak preview. But Ambrosino wouldn’t tell — friends of G. Willikers found out shortly before Thanksgiving, when the 2010 show began.

The snowmen and matching triangular Christmas trees fill the two windows near the store entrance and sit atop motors that let them rotate. Elves in red and green outfits make cookies and other sweets in a third window; stuffed animals celebrate winter under a blanket, in a chair and on a sled in the fourth. Holiday music is piped outside.

Reviews are always good.

“I think it’s a great tradition,” said Karen Tracey of East Greenbush, shopping inside G. Willikers. “It reminds me of when I used to go to New York City with my parents when I was a little kid.”

Shopper Marilyn Tallon of Glens Falls had a similar story. “It reminds me of being a kid, looking at all the stores in Glens Falls,” she said.

Burns, a former Saratoga resident who now lives in Port Kent in Essex County, has been designing the G. Willikers windows since 2001. She said there’s some pressure to give strollers lush holiday scenes during December.

“We have people who tell us that after Thanksgiving dinner, they come down to look at the windows. It’s become a tradition they really look forward to,” she said.

Burns said it took her 24 hours to put the displays together this year, with bunches of people on snowman and elf duty. “There was a crew of people there for probably a day basically setting up the backgrounds of the windows, cleaning them out, cleaning the windows, hanging lights,” she said.

The work can be tricky because openings in the backs of the windows are not large. To assemble the 4-foot-tall snowmen, team Willikers had to find Styrofoam “halves” that would fit through the opening. The pieces were later glued together to form the snowmen’s ample bodies.

Ambrosino never spends more than $500 on the winter scenes, which will cheer shoppers through January. She keeps costs low by keeping decorations in stock. “A lot of that stuff has been in the window before, you just don’t know it,” she said.

Snowflakes and snowballs will be back. So will another scene next December.

“It’s so much fun,” Ambrosino said. “We laugh, we have the best time. I would be sad if we couldn’t do it.”

 
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