It all began a couple of years ago when Adam Koch’s mother sent him a Dayton Daily News clipping about the “Merry Makeover” campaign to redesign the iconic Rike’s animated holiday windows.
“I live in New York now, but my mother still cuts out and sends me newspaper articles about Dayton,” explains the Brooklyn-based scenic designer who grew up in Oakwood. “As a kid, one of the most exciting parts about Christmas in Dayton was pressing my face against the glass downtown at Rike’s to see that wonderful blend of theater, puppets, music and animatronics. I loved those windows!”
On impulse, Koch contacted the Victoria Theatre Association offering his design services, saying he’d love to be involved in the re-imagining of a beloved Christmas tradition that meant so much to him and his family. Some months later, Koch and his partner, Steven Royal, were hired for the job.
A festive “reveal”
You can enjoy the results by visiting the Wintergarden of the Benjamin & Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center where the popular display will be up through the end of the month. It was first introduced to VTA staffers, their families and donors at a festive hot chocolate and cookie party and “reveal” on Tuesday evening, Nov. 26.
Special guests included those who’d worked on the project including Dan and Mary Beth McLaughlin of Scenic Solutions who built the new sets and were also responsible for the previous window displays. “This is about the community and caretaking of a Dayton tradition,” Dan told the crowd.
Brenda Rex of the Dayton Sewing Collaborative was charged with freshening up the costumes of the elves and other characters. “Of all of our projects, this is the one that our volunteers get most excited about,” she said. “Our nonprofit gets a lot of donated fabric and some of it had the Rike-Kumler tags still on it! We tried to incorporate that vintage fabric into the costumes.”
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Among the donors present were Jeanette and Jim Patton of Clayton. “We grew up with these windows and they have so many memories for us,” said Mrs. Patton, who is 83. “It was so thoughtful to put them here where Rike’s once stood.”
Chloe Bartlett, 7, of Miamisburg came to see the windows with her grandmother. “My favorite is the one with the bunk beds,” she said, referring to the “Silent Night” bedroom scene set in the 1950s, where a brother in an upper bunk is waving his arm at his sister in the bunk bed below.
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Meet Adam Koch
A critically acclaimed theater set designer, Koch has created stage designs for theaters around the country and around the world. The team designed the set for an outdoor production of “Titanic” in Atlanta — on a body of water where they “sunk a ship every night.” They created “Dreamgirls” in Seoul, South Korea, and “A Sleepy Hollow Experience” staged both at Washington Irving’s estate in the historic Hudson Valley and also at Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre, home of Tecumseh.
A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, Koch says his early theatrical inspiration came from junior high and high schools as well as Muse Machine, Dayton Playhouse, the VTA’s Young at Heart series, The Human Race and Wright State University. He got his start as a performer — portraying Alfred P. Doolittle in Muse Machine’s “My Fair Lady” — but soon realized it was stage design he found most fascinating.
“I always ran out front in the auditorium to see how the stage looked from there,” Koch recalls. “A junior high teacher said that’s where I belonged.” A scenic designer, he explains, brings together the needs of the script and the vision of the director for one cohesive visual design. “Everything that’s not worn on stage is a scenic designer’s responsibility,” he says, adding that these days sketches are computerized and much out-of-town work can be done by email and video conferencing.
Introducing the new windows
After raising the $65,000 needed for the project, two of Koch’s redesigned windows, “North Pole,” and “Victoria,” made their debut in 2018. “Victoria,” a brand new window, pays tribute to the Dayton Ballet’s annual “Nutcracker.” This season, four additional windows were introduced: “Woodland Forest,” “Silent Night,” “Snow Day” and “Christmastime.” All have elves and animals from the original windows, as well as new elves recently discovered and donated to Victoria Theatre Association.
In addition to envisioning new whimsical holiday settings, Koch and Royal were charged with figuring out how the boxes could best be transported and stored. “The old boxes had to be moved each year and didn’t fit on the elevator at the Schuster Center,” he explains. “These new boxes are designed like a pre-fab house. These are practical and usable.”
The history of the window displays, according to Dayton historian Curt Dalton, can be traced back to 1943 when the National Cash Register Co. placed five scenes from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in its New York City office windows. Dressed in period attire, the figures were incorporated into elaborate backgrounds built by NCR carpenters.
In 1945 Frederik Rike, owner of the Rike-Kumler Co., successfully campaigned to move the display into the windows of his department store at Second and Main streets in downtown Dayton. From that time on, a visit to the windows became a popular tradition for many families in the Miami Valley.
After the store closed in 1991, the window displays were auctioned off to other communities and private buyers. Purchased by Columbia Building Co. of Bellefontaine, the animated figures and The Tike’s Shop — the kids-only zone where children can shop alone — took up seasonal residence at the Huber Centre. When space issues closed the Huber Centre’s holiday display, many of the remaining animated figures were purchased by the Downtown Dayton Partnership.
Years of wear and neglect had taken their toll — duct tape held some of the characters together and others were missing limbs and clothing. A thousand bricks gathered from the 1999 implosion of the old Rike’s building were donated to the DDP and sold for $50 each, which helped pay for restoration.
The display found a new home in 2003 when the Schuster Center opened and the Downtown Dayton Partnership donated the holiday figures to the Arts Center Foundation. Restored by Hamberger Displays of New Jersey, the animated figures were placed into newly created displays that were conceptualized by the Arts Center Foundation, designed by John and Pam Larvarnway and built by Scenic Solutions.
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In creating these new designs for the 50-year-old characters, Koch says he tried to maintain the “family” groupings while creating fresh settings for each of them. “I tried to keep in mind the way I remembered them from my childhood,” he explains. “The outside of the boxes, for example, is made to resemble the outside of Rike’s with its stone and red brick.”
One of those present when the new windows were revealed before Thanksgiving was Richard Krewson of North Dayton, a former Rike’s employee who worked on the original window displays.
“We would set the windows up and then the display department would gather at 11 p.m. on the night before Thanksgiving and be the first to see them,” he remembers. “Our ‘childhood’ would come out. I hope all of you will have your ‘childhood’ come out when you see these new windows as well.”
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