For this Throwback Thursday post – a Christmas memory. I was part of the team that opened the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples Florida in 1989 (it has since been rebranded as Artis-Naples). It is still my favorite theatre of all times and enjoys strong support (including lots of contributions from wealthy individuals and institutions). The Naples Philharmonic League was a support group for the Philharmonic Orchestra and their major annual event was called the Festival of Trees. The league would purchase a passel of artificial trees of various sizes and local families and companies would decorate them in a theme of their choosing. They would be exhibited to the public for several weeks and auctioned off in time to bring it to your home for the holiday with all proceeds going to the orchestra. It was a fabulous and successful event every year and really set the holiday mood. When the theatre opened, the event was moved to the art galleries of the lobby at The Phil.
After a couple of years at the theatre I had an idea. I enjoy model train shows and every year a couple of trees incorporated a circular track at the base of their tree. While I never built a full layout, I knew a bit about model trains. As you may know they come in a number of scales (the term gauge actually refers to the track width, scale is the relationship of the model to real life dimensions). The scales are shown comparatively below – ranging from Large Scale (sometimes called Garden Trains) to Z Scale with HO Scale being the most popular.
As you can imagine, a circular track would vary in size with each scale. Why not have a huge artificial Christmas tree in scale circles running from Garden Scale to Z Scale ascending the tree, running through the branches as the tree narrowed the farther up you went. I presented the idea to the League using an early computer drawing program. They thought it over and accepted it but had some obstacles to overcome. The whole point of the festival was to clear the inventory each year and walk away clean. This would mean storing the tree through the year and remounting it every festival. And it would require a major investment as the huge tree necessary was a specialized order (plus all the track and trains). They agreed and we began preparing.
The League convinced the local hobby shop to donate the railroad stock. I selected a circular track in each scale and a train to run on each. I varied the style of trains from steam to electric and from different eras and sets of cars, from whimsical to realistic. The stage crew of the theatre did the hands-on work. The master carpenter built a “wedding cake” structure that was hidden inside the branches and supported each circular track as it reduced in size as each ring ascended the tree. The electrician wired the tracks down to a control panel at the base of the tree. The sound engineer wired up a couple of train whistles that the operator could trigger as desired. The mounting of the structure was complicated as the trunk had to be assembled with the support structure and then the branches installed. When complete it looked like this.
You can get the idea from the photo, but it was a wonder to see in person. The gallery was two stories with a circular opening in the center of the second floor. From the second floor you could get a clear view of each track and watch them all circling the tree (switching off directions from track to track). It was a tremendous hit each season for young and old. The best part was that the Naples Philharmonic League was primarily older retired women who dragged their spouse to the event each year. With this addition the husbands clamored to volunteer. Each operating shift was fought over and sometimes one “engineer” was reluctant to hand over the operations to the next “engineer.” The old fellas got to wear one of those blue and white striped engineers hat and some dressed specifically for their role. Some became over enthusiastic and the train would jump the track so that the stage crew had to be called in with ladders to reset the trains. After a couple of these occurrences they rigged a governor on each control to keep the speed down.
It was a great attraction for a number of years in the 1990’s but as far as I am aware, the Festival of Trees is no longer offered at Artis-Naples. While it was my idea, the real work was done by the enthusiastic members of the Naples Philharmonic League and the exceptionally talented stage crew of the theatre. Happy Throwback Thursday to one of my favorite holiday memories. Here is a closeup of the placard that gets washed out in above photo. Merry Christmas to all.