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An American Christmas Story

Behind the scenes with the company transforming New York City's biggest landmarks and stores every holiday season

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It's about 1am on Halloween in Manhattan, and Kent Fritzel is having a holiday-related emergency. It has nothing to do with ghouls, goblins, or girls dressed as Sexy Elmo vomiting into the gutters of Second Avenue. In fact, it has nothing to do with Halloween at all. He is at Saks Fifth Avenue, and he just discovered that all of his extension cords are too short.

Fritzel and a team of about 75 are transforming the ground floor of Saks from a landmark department store pushing designer perfume and dozens of varieties of eye serum into a Doctor Zhivago-inspired Christmas wonderland. Fritzel is the executive creative director of American Christmas, the company that is responsible for making the holidays happen in midtown Manhattan.

It doesn't occur to most of the millions of office workers and residents of the area that someone needs to install those iconic angels in the Rockefeller Plaza Channel Gardens, stack up the enormous red Christmas ornament pyramid across from Radio City Music Hall, hang the huge candy canes (seen above) from the façade of 9 West 59th Street, or create many of the other iconic features both inside and outside city attractions. It also doesn't occur to them that those pieces need a place to live for the 10 months of the year that they're not being used — the sort of reverse equivalent of a retiree's condo in Boca Raton.

That is where American Christmas comes in. They do all of the above work, as well as wrap the Cartier mansion on Fifth Avenue in a glittering red ribbon, decorate the set of Saturday Night Live for its holiday episodes, and design and install the holiday tableaux in countless office tower and apartment building lobbies across the city. They also have a 90,000 square foot warehouse in Mount Vernon, New York (a stone's throw north of the Bronx) that is like a year-round winter wonderland for legions of nutcrackers and more menorahs than the Maccabees could light in a month.


Christmas keeps the multi-million dollar business occupied all year long, according to American Christmas owner Fred Schwam. The company has 50 full-time, year-round employees, including a 20-person production staff working just on creating and refurbishing the decorations that go out to their various sites. They bring on another additional 125 seasonal employees starting in June every year, hiring more and more each month as Santa makes his list and checks it twice.

Schwam says that the business has grown an average of 15% every year for the past 14 years and that the contracts they have with their customers range from $1,000 for simple lobby installations to contracts that are worth more than $1 million, though he declines to disclose an exact number. Tourist advocacy group NYC & Co. estimates that 5.2 million people will visit New York City between Thanksgiving and New Year's, dropping an estimated $3.7 billion (with a B) in that time frame. That means hotels and retail outlets are all competing to give them the iconic experience they expect.

On Halloween, Saks is just one of five jobs that Fritzel is overseeing, and it is the second of four nights that it will take to fully transform that space. There are dozens of American Christmas-branded cardboard boxes spilling countless yards of lighted garland out onto the sidewalk as a crew in a cherry picker frames the ground floor doorways and windows with faux spruce. They are also working on scaffolding on the façade of the building for an updated version of the light show that will wow shoppers on the sidewalks multiple times a day with choreographed projections. It's so special — the light display itself has a five-star rating on Trip Advisor — that Saks will be live-streaming its unveiling on Monday, November 23rd, on its website. And just down the street, Fritzel's crew has two lanes of Sixth Avenue blocked off in front of Radio City Music Hall, where a giant crane is lifting a 72-foot metal Christmas tree onto the marquee.


Fritzel looks a little bit like Santa without the beard, his ears and nose a little reddish in the brisk fall air. He wears a green jacket, the top of many layers, with an American Christmas logo emblazoned on the back. He's constantly switching between his walkie talkie and his cell phone as he's also trying to coordinate the installation of the decorations at a couple of "lifestyle centers" (essentially an outdoor mall in which you can also live) in Maryland.

Oh, and there is still the problem of all of those extension cords that are coming up short. Fritzel informs a colleague over the walkie that he has a box of about 75 different extension cords on hand, just in case something like this should occur. "Trust me," he tells me. "We know exactly what we're doing."

American Christmas's headquarters sit in a snug neighborhood of factories and warehouses in southern Westchester County. A cab driver at the Mount Vernon Metro North station knows its address right away, saying lots of people get off the train going to visit and are usually in a very good mood when they do. Upon approaching the building on an unseasonably warm day in October, it looks like any of the other more conventional businesses in the area I can see, aside from the 15-foot Christmas tree in the lobby.

Fred Schwam meets me to walk me through the company's warehouse and corporate offices. Entering the warehouse is like finding something that looks like Christmas, but not quite; it's like the attic of some sort of holiday hoarder. The lighted pine marquees that hang outside of Salvatore Ferragamo on Fifth Avenue are installed close to the high ceilings and plugged in, partly to spruce the place up for a press visit, but also to make sure all the lights are working before putting them back up for another year.

Workers, mostly younger and mostly people of color, bustle about the space, some moving large-scale decorations back and forth, others constructing wreaths, and a whole team on ladders working on the huge white boughs that'll adorn the ground floor of Bergdorf Goodman. Each year they are reconstructed using live branches, which are stripped of leaves, sanded down, coated in white paint and glitter, and then formed into various shapes. Right now, they are hanging from the ceiling in clumps, like glitzy trees that grows upside down.


There are other specialized decorations, too, like a 10-foot tall stocking with a Knicks logo that will hang in Madison Square Garden, and a basketball dotted with white Christmas lights that's bound for the NBA Store. There is also a maze of general decorations that Schwam says set decorators often come and raid for movies and TV shows, which are usually filmed in the summer.

There is also a section filled with boxes that go from floor to ceiling with a small sample taped to the outside to denote what the box contains. You can spot every type of fake greenery, ornament, light, and tinsel to be employed for the creation of custom trees, wreaths, and garlands. Next to the giant pinecones that will adorn the Marriot Marquis is a particularly odd row of ornaments that don't look Christmassy at all.

"Sometimes, I'll see something that is just a little bit different and a little unusual and I might not have a specific project in mind, but I like just having variety on hand and inevitably we use everything, right?" Schwam says about the ornament stockpile that sort of looks like the giant warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant is stored at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.


The easy metaphor to make is that it looks like elves in Santa's workshop, but it's a bit different than that. It's sort of like drowning in Christmas. When installed on the giant canvas of Manhattan, these set pieces are to scale, dwarfed by the skyscrapers and the open plazas and wide avenues that weave between them. But here, all grouped together and standing rosy cheek to garlanded jowl, it's like the day that Jesus was born is going to come collapsing down upon you at any minute. Screw Disneyland; for those who love December 25th, this could be the happiest place on Earth.

Schwam, who at 49 looks a little bit like a younger, less intense Vince McMahon from the WWE, took a circuitous route to the Christmas racket. He doesn't have a special affinity for Victorian carolers a-wassling or partridges in pear trees. In fact, he jokes about there being no way to hire employees who are trained in the Christmas arts. "I haven't come across any schools that have a Christmas decorating program," he says. "We're hiring an awful lot of creative, artistic people and teaching them you know, what we believe the right way would be to decorate, and hopefully they can then apply that creative ability. That formula has worked."

When I ask what Schwam has planned for his own house a dozen-plus miles north in Armonk, his lips curl into a bit of a smile. "I'm actually Jewish. I celebrate Hanukah at home. We certainly celebrate the Christmas season, but the reality is what I do for a living has nothing to do with my religion. Nevertheless, people think it's pretty funny that this Jewish guy owns this business."


It's even funnier that he inherited the business from his father, Marvin, who passed away about ten years ago. In 1968, Marvin, a natural artist, used his talents to create artificial plants and flower arrangements for commercial clients. They started asking him to do Christmas decorations, which became so popular that he spun off American Christmas into its own company. In 1980, he created a third company called Display Arts that brought the animatronic dolls seen in department stores's Christmas display windows and made them commercially available to the public. In 1988, a larger company bought Schwam's mini-empire, though they were only interested in the animated doll division. Fred, then a senior at Ithaca College getting a business degree, got a call from father telling him he could probably convince this company to sell him all the American Christmas assets if he wanted to start running that company on his own.

"It kind of blew me away at the time, because I had other plans. At that point in my life, I was not planning to work with my dad," he says, sitting comfortably in a large office that has more Mets memorabilia than Christmas decorations. "I though about it for a little while, and I thought I had nothing to lose. I realized very soon after that I had an awful lot to lose, but I decided to go for it." Fred borrowed the capital from his father and his two best friends and embraced his new role as New York City's Kris Kringle.


That first year, Schwam, who now oversees a whole army of helpers, only had one employee. "I was really a one-man gang. I was the salesman, I was the production guy, the truck driver, the bookkeeper — but I learned my business and I was determined to make it work," he says, adding that sometimes his 21-year-old self was putting the payroll on his personal credit cards to make it through lean times. "It took us a few years, but 1997 was really a breakthrough year for us, because that summer I signed contracts with Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, and that really put us on the map."

The summer is as important a time for American Christmas as those days covered by the advent calendar, because that is when Schwam and his team are collaborating with clients and designing installations for the next year. For huge installations like the work at Saks, the planning takes more than a year to get just right. The two weeks before Christmas are actually the slowest at American Christmas, and that's when they take all the decorations left in the warehouse and make a boffo display for their annual holiday party. The commercial installations start in August, when teams begin the labor-intensive process of putting lights on live Christmas trees around the city (most clients just don't turn the lights on until Thanksgiving approaches).

Creative director Fritzel, a longtime Christmas lover who studied scenic design, has been with the company 21 years. Around mid-October, he starts working mostly nights until the final projects are completed around December 12th. Then, starting on the 26th, everything starts coming down. "What goes up in eight weeks comes down in two and a half weeks," Schwam says. "And there's a lot less pressure taking it down."


The time frame is actually starting to be a bit of a problem for American Christmas. "We've had a very, very consistent record of growth, which has been wonderful, but every job we add still gets installed in the same window," Schwam says, joking that he can't just slot a project in for March because it would be more convenient. "The answer is that we're really organized and we have really amazing people here and we have really good systems, and we'll just have more people every year."

Fritzel doesn't like the common criticism that Christmas comes earlier every year. "It's an interesting conundrum. People say, ‘Christmas, already!' but it can't all be done Thanksgiving weekend. It's not physically possible," he says while walking between Radio City and Saks. In New York, he says, it starts particularly early because when visitors come for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, they already want the holiday vibe to have taken over the city.

"People say, ‘Christmas, already!' but it can't all be done Thanksgiving weekend. It's not physically possible."

While many of American Christmas's clients have multi-year contracts where they keep the same designs, plenty of others like to change it up every year. The design process starts with a meeting between the staff of American Christmas and the client to go over some possibilities. "Our core clients tend to be a little bit more traditional: trees, wreaths, and garlands," says Dan Casterella, the company's chief creative officer who has moved up the ranks at the company since starting in 2003 (he got an early start as a professional holiday decorator, doing houses in his neighborhood as a teen). "The retail clients are really pushing for what's the next thing, how can we push the boundaries. With the big Fifth Avenue programs, is it getting music and audio involved? Is it programmable? Do we do a show instead of just having it be a still image? That's really where a lot of it's going — making it more of an experience."

Fritzel confirms that it's the retail spaces that really push the envelope past the usual nutcrackers, candy canes, and snowmen. "I think in general, retail spaces tend to be more excited about being really dynamic and memorable. It's about the brand," he says. "I tend to enjoy bigger, more complicated, more difficult projects because, I love the challenge of solving a problem."


All of the staff members I talked to all mention how the most successful projects are the real collaborations where their expertise meshes with the objectives of the client. Casterella talks about an afternoon where the creative staff of Madewell came to the showroom set up for clients at the warehouse so they could look at the latest designs in the Christmas arts for inspiration. After a day of trying out different things, they couldn't settle on a plan. The next day, the Madewell rep showed up with a chandelier and said, "We're going to decorate this," and the resulting installation became part of their stores. It was just that bit of Christmas magic they needed to get inspired.

As the experts, American Christmas designers tweak ideas and focus on planning and logistics, so that clients don't have to worry about how to hide the wires or suspend a giant wreath from a stone wall. Fritzel says that the ultimate compliment is when the client goes home during an installation, signaling they trust his staff implicitly. That is what American Christmas is really offering: for its clients to leave a normal office or store one day, and return the next to something that has been seamlessly transformed overnight.


Schwam says that the company hasn't done any of its own market research about how Christmas installations might drive retail sales. "Some of our clients do, and they'll share the information," he says. "It's gratifying when we know we were successful in helping them achieve their ultimate business objective...It's very, very reasonable to expect that when there's a particularly compelling display, it will inevitably help drive traffic." Because American Christmas does so many displays in such a concentrated area, they can also make sure that no two stores show up wearing the same dress to the Christmas party, as it were, diplomatically persuading clients away from ideas they already know they're implementing for neighbors and competitors.

And once all of New York City is transformed, it truly is a magical experience — even for the people who made it possible. "We take tremendous pride in at least the small part that we play in the feeling and the vibe that is evident in New York City at Christmas time," Schwam says. "It's very difficult to explain, but if you're walking the streets in the middle of the season, you feel it. There's an energy and a truly festive atmosphere amongst New Yorkers and the tourists because you're surrounded by all these displays and decorations."


And even after giving a month's worth of nights to setting up everything, Fritzel still takes time to experience the magic. "One of my favorite things to do, in all honesty, is on December the 10th," he says. "It's just to stand in the Channel Gardens in Rockefeller Center in the throngs of people — where, you know, you can hardly move, you can hardly breathe — and just sit there and listen to the comments. And nobody has to know that me and my team have been a part of any of this, [and I can] just hear the sheer joy and excitement that people have because they're in this beautiful environment of holiday. It's the epicenter of holiday for the world, really. And knowing you had a part in that is pretty special."