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The history of Fort Wayne's Santa display


Thomas Linnemeier, retired senior vice president for Fort Wayne National Bank, compiled this excerpted history of the Santa display years ago to accommodate frequent requests for information. The display’s early history was contributed by Kenneth Gaff, a Fort Wayne resident who was the first to begin construction on the display when he worked as an electrician for Brinkman Corp.:

G. Irving Latz, secretary and treasurer of Wolf & Dessauer store, and Frank Dunigan, president of the Brinkman Corp., were responsible for the original concept of this unique Christmas display. Isabel Wilkinson Parker then made a sketch of the Santa display as it would appear on the Wolf & Dessauer building. After Mr. Latz approved the sketch, Leslie Pope enlarged the small picture into a full-sized pattern. After approval was received, Ed Bradley, production manager at Brinkman, began ordering the materials for the fabrication of the display. The pattern was competed in sections and, as each section was completed, the plywood background was cut and installed on wood frames by many Brinkman employees supervised by Arthur Fackler. The electrical sockets were then located, installed and wired. The sockets and wiring were all tested before the electrical connections were soldered. …

After the display was installed, Mr. Latz thought that more reindeer were needed, so another set was quickly made and installed. This brought the total number of reindeer to six. The following year another set of reindeer was fabricated and installed, thus completing the display.

The work on the Santa display began on Oct. 7, 1940 and it was fabricated, painted and installed by Thanksgiving Eve – Nov. 20th – a scant 44 days later. That first lighting ceremony was attended by virtually every dignitary in the Fort Wayne area.

The men worked up to 18 hours a day during this period in order to complete the task for the Christmas season.

This display – reportedly the second largest lighted display in the nation at that time – shone brightly throughout the Christmas seasons of 1940 and 1941 but then experienced a three-year recess due to World War II. With the return of peace, however, the display was again erected on Wolf & Dessauer’s south wall in November 1945, along with the timely inscription: “The Christmas Lights Are On Again All Over The World.”

From that Christmas to 1958, Santa and his reindeer made their annual appearance to the delight of thousands throughout the area.

In February 1959, Wolf & Dessauer moved to its new building and, for a variety of reasons, the display began 21 years of storage, neglect and accelerating deterioration. The extent of repair was so bad that several different thoughts of renovation were abandoned.

Now the second beginning.

It started when Jim Green – a GTE phone installer – discovered the display in an old warehouse during the spring of 1979. His interests in restoring the display were soon matched by those of Pete Cruze and an appeal was made to the News-Sentinel. The resulting picture and half-page article piqued the interest of many people, including that of Don Petruccelli, executive vice president of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce. With the Chamber’s pledge of support, a small but eager group began their labor of love.

Although all worked hard throughout the summer, the process was slow and the need for additional help was apparent to all. This time the appeal was to the electronic media and the resulting coverage on Sept. 30 caught the attention of Wayne Byrd, president IBEW 305. Wayne’s nostalgic recollections of his own family’s annual trips from Kalamazoo to Fort Wayne during the 1950s just to see that sign prompted one of the most unusual and unique alliances in our city’s history. It involved all of the area’s trade unions, Ironworkers Local 147, Northeastern Indiana Electrical Contractors Association, the Chamber of Commerce and scores of interested citizens, both personal and corporate.

For the next 45 days members of more than a half-dozen unions donated over 200 hours to restoring one deer for lighting on Thanksgiving Eve. Businesses throughout the area donated paint, supplies, storage, time and money.

The rejuvenated deer was reinforced with anonymously donated steel and installed on the side of the Fort Wayne National Bank building. The overwhelmingly favorable and nostalgic response to that single deer’s lighting on Thanksgiving eve prompted a spirit of enthusiasm and interest sufficient to restore and install a second deer before Christmas that year. This enthusiasm and dedication continued throughout most of 1980.

Finally, the big night. Thanksgiving Eve, Nov. 27, 1980 – 40 years after it first appeared and 22 years after it was last seen – Santa Claus with his bag of toys and eight “tiny” reindeer was once again reflected in the eyes of our city’s children. Its massive size – 155 feet long, 5 1/2 tons and 24,717 bulbs – was dwarfed by the crowd’s response.

As Bill Latz – son of the man who first conceived this display – said at the 1979 “deer” lighting, “What we are doing here is not lighting a display, we are rekindling an old memory or starting a new one.” And that is what this whole project is all about.