“Holiday Magic”

Mount Vernon Company Transforms Manhattan Into A Winter Wonderland Every December

The Journal News

Thanksgiving weekend typically is the one when many of us start thinking about our decorations for the holidays—figuring out which boxes need to come down from the attic, what strands of lights finally need to be thrown out and replaced, and where in the yard we can swipe live greenery and berries for mantel and table displays.

But a Mount Vernon company called American Christmas has been in high gear for months now. In fact, by the end of the week they’ll be mostly done with setting up all those iconic displays in Manhattan landmarks and midtown department stores that light up the holidays for hordes of tourists and locals alike. They’re already finalizing the take–down schedule that begins two days after Christmas and runs into mid–January.

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In January each year, creative and sales teams from American Christmas begin meeting with their 275 clients to draw up possible decorating schemes and map out holiday strategies. Most years, the company does about 400 major installations in November and December, along with decorating about 2,000 stores nationwide.

“By Feb. 1, we’re in production for the following Christmas,” says CEO Fred Schwam of Armonk. (His 35 full–time, year–round employees are encouraged to take time off in February and March so that every nimble hand will be available for the months–long Christmas rush.)

In May, the first wave of seasonal workers comes on board. By the first week of October, 150 employees, including 60 decorators, are swarming across every inch of the 110,000-square–foot, 2–story warehouse on Warren Street. Along with creating new holiday tableaux for dozens of stores, malls and office buildings across the country, they will be unwrapping and refurbishing all of the famous figures and figurines that define the New York Christmas experience: the horn–blowing wire angels that sit across from the giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, the cadets that line the ice rink just below, the thousands of white branches at Saks Fifth Avenue, the 13–foot–tall nutcrackers at the UBS Building on Sixth Avenue, the toy train display by the reflecting pool in front of the Time–Life Building and the giant colored lights at the McGraw–Hill Building (Schwam’s personal favorite).

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New this year will be seven 18–foot–tall candy canes, on wire frames and wrapped in greenery, on the West 57th Street sidewalks of the Solow Building. In Westchester, City Limits diner in White Plains is a new client this year—look for a pyramid of giant colored balls that went up on Nov. 9. American Christmas also decorates the set of “Saturday Night Live” each year.

“By Dec. 10, this floor will be almost completely empty,” Schwam says, gesturing across the entire ground floor of the Mount Vernon warehouse. Meanwhile, he has rented 19 trucks to take his elves and all their hard work, along with ace electricians and dozens of ladders, into the city night after night. “Seventy-five percent of our business, in terms of overall volume, is in New York City.”

The first round of decorations, for Radio City Music Hall, went out on Oct. 24. They include a 72–foot half–round tree with blinking red and green LED lights for the Sixth Avenue exterior of the building and a dazzling 35–foot–tall Christmas tree made of 11,000 Swarovski crystals that hangs from the ceiling of the famous art–deco lobby. “Typically, that’s our first installation because their Christmas show starts in early November,” Schwam says.

“Many clients have been with us for over 20 years,” he adds. Typically, they sign three- or four-year contracts, with the same basic design and materials over the course of the contract. “The first year is a long process, with lots of meetings and designs presented and finalized.”

No two jobs are alike, Schwam emphasizes. “Every design is custom.” The manager of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square would certainly not want to see their signature 8–foot–tall gold pine cones in the lobby of another hotel. Same for the CEO of Cartier and their one–of–a–kind panthers crafted by the creative team at American Christmas using nearly invisible wire and thousands of tiny white lights.

If you think you’re pretty organized because you’re actually using this November weekend to plan out decorations and the rest of the holidays, imagine the degree of precision planning that’s needed to pull off waves of color and light and texture inside a busy department store or atop a landmark like Radio City Music Hall. It’s not OK if a few strands of light suddenly go dead or dozens of yards of glue-gunned greenery and jingle bells start to sag on Christmas Eve.

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“Every order has 1,000 different notes about specific details about that installation,” Schwam says. “It’s absolutely essential to our success with this business, being extremely organized and detail–oriented.”

One of the most labor–intensive projects his team of craftsmen puts together is for the flagship Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue.

To create the stunning in–store trees and miles of garland for Bergdorf, American Christmas craftsmen buy natural wood branches and then strip and sand them before adding pure white paint and iridescent glitter.

“When they’re all put together, it’s just beautiful,” Schwam says. “Each tree is built for a specific site in the store.”

For the installation, 50 decorators spent four long nights in the store, accompanied by 15 trucks. Now that’s organization.

American Christmas, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary next year, moved to its current location, in the industrial section of Mount Vernon, in 2010, after many years of being spread across five separate buildings in the Bronx.

“It’s been a fantastic situation for us, being here in Mount Vernon,” Schwam says. “It’s a great location for us in terms of the proximity to highways.” It’s also less than a mile to the last subway stop of the No. 5 line. A company shuttle bus ferries employees back and forth to the subway.

Schwam very much believes in giving back to the community. As a way to say thanks to Mount Vernon, his company donates its decorating talents to dress up the city’s Police Headquarters, the local firehouse, City Hall and the Public Library. Two nights each summer, he and his employees serve dinner at a Mount Vernon soup kitchen, and in May they walk as a team in AIDS Walk New York.

The company decorates God’s Love We Deliver in Manhattan at no charge and also donates decor to 15 to 18 charities each year. “We donate material from expired contracts,” he says. “Nothing ever gets thrown in the garbage.”

The company was founded in 1968 by Fred’s father, Marvin. He provided companies with artificial plants and flowers, with a holiday decorating business on the side.

While he was a senior at Ithaca College, Fred borrowed $150,000 from his dad and two of his dad’s best friends to buy back his father’s Christmas decorating firm from a conglomerate that was about to liquidate its assets.

“I had no intention of working for my father’s company,” he remembers. “I had absolutely no experience, I was immediately in debt—and off I went.”

He was right at the edge of bankruptcy those first few years, trying to keep his dad’s company afloat and moving forward.

“For many years, the business was a one–man gang,” Schwam remembers. “That is absolutely no longer the case. We have an incredibly passionate, terrific team of people—this is my family.”

“In the early years, I spent a lot of time trying to determine what else we should do,” he adds. “Ultimately, I came to think we should try to be the best in this industry, to expend all our energy at being the best at Christmas decorating. I think it’s proven to be the right way to go.”

Schwam, who is Jewish and has nothing but a menorah in his own house, is so obviously happy running this company that does nothing but promote holiday cheer and make people smile. We can’t help but wonder whether either of his sons—Chad is 14 and Jonah is 11—will eventually come on board and make this a third–generation local company.

Schwam just shrugs and smiles. “They’ve certainly been exposed to the business,” he says. “But it’s up to them completely, what they want to do.”

Tips From the Pro’s

We asked Kent Fritzel, chief creative officer at American Christmas, to suggest a few pointers for home decorators this holiday season.

Choose a focal point. Rather than spreading your decorating budget across many small decorations, invest in a ‘wow’ moment that people will remember.

The holidays are about light. Add as many lights as you think possible. Then add two more sets.

Texture makes it interesting. Use more than one type of light. Use an LED mini light combined with a larger light such as a C 7 or G 40. More than one light style will add texture and depth.

Do it with style. Do it right. Choose quality over quantity.

See the Decorations

Want to have a closeup look at the American Christmas decorations in Manhattan? This list should get you started. Pack up the family and let’s get walking.

  1. Bloomingdale’s, Lexington Avenue (between 59th and 60th streets)
  2. Four Seasons Hotel, 57 E. 57th St. (between Madison and Park avenues)
  3. General Motors, 767 Fifth Ave. (between 58th and 59th streets)
  4. Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Ave. (between 57th and 58th streets)
  5. Van Cleef & Arpels, 744 Fifth Ave. (between 57th and 58th streets)
  6. Solow, 9 W. 57th St. (between Fifth and Sixth avenues)
  7. Trump International Hotel & Tower, 1 Central Park West (between 60th and 61st streets)
  8. Cartier, 653 Fifth Ave. (between 51st and 52nd streets)
  9. UBS Building, 1285 Sixth Ave. (between 51st and 52nd streets)
  10. Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Sixth Ave. (between 50th and 51st streets)
  11. Time–Life, 1271 Sixth Ave. (between 50th and 51st streets)
  12. McGraw–Hill, 1221 Sixth Ave. (between 48th and 49th streets)
  13. Rockefeller Center, 600 Fifth Ave. (between 49th and 50th streets)
  14. Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave. (between 49th and 50th streets)
  15. JP Morgan Chase, 270 Park Ave. (between 47th and 48th streets)
  16. JP Morgan Chase, 383 Madison Ave. (between 47th and 48th streets)
  17. Disney Store, 1540 Broadway (between 45th and 46th streets)
  18. Marriott Marquis, 1535 Broadway (between 45th and 46th streets)
  19. Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Ave. (between 33rd and 34th streets)
  20. JP Morgan Chase, 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza
  21. New York Stock Exchange