Dolls of Christmas past
Neville Public Museum preserves the wonder of Prange’s department store with the help and craftsmanship of a local restorer
By John McCracken
Bill Robillard has seen his interest in whimsically decorated Christmas displays come full circle.
Robillard, who was born and raised in Green Bay, said he remembered being one of many children who would anxiously wait to press their faces against the glass of the H.C. Prange Company downtown Green Bay location ahead of the shopping seasons.
He would stare in awe of the animatronic people and animals—who could be seen performing tasks such as cooking, dancing and frolicking in daily life—all along the Washington Street department store’s exterior.
Now, Robillard has helped restore many of the animatronic displays to their former glory as a part of the Neville Public Museum’s annual Holiday Memories of Downtown Green Bay exhibit. The display is ongoing now through Jan. 9, 2022, and features an enchanted forest of Christmas lights, snow babies of the Prange doll family tree and the Bruce the Spruce talking Christmas tree.
“As a young kid, I was on the receiving end of all this,” Robillard said.
Neville Public Museum Executive Director Beth Lemke said the downtown Green Bay Christmas exhibit is an homage to a former time filled with hustle and bustle in downtown Green Bay during the holidays.
“You piled in the station wagon, you came down to Washington Street—Washington Street in the 50s was way different than it is today—and you would go get a chance to visit Prange’s window display,” Lemke said. “And my understanding is if you were really good kiddos, you would get to go to Copp’s restaurant and have Mickey Mouse sundaes.”
Robillard said working to recreate the magic brings back an “emotional and inquisitive connection” for people both familiar and unfamiliar with the displays.
“I just showed it to my grandson,” Robillard said, “and he goes ‘Grandpa, that’s all it does? But then he goes, ‘well how does it work?’”
Giving a doll a colonoscopy
Robillard is one of the few people who could figure out how these displays work, and his resume speaks for itself. He’s been restoring vintage items—such as furniture for the U.S. House of Representatives, items inside of the Smithsonian Institution and a variety of displays at the Neville—for decades. He owns and operates Encore Restorations in De Pere.
For lack of a better term, Robillard said he would equate his preliminary stages of fixing the animatronics to giving a doll a colonoscopy.
Robillard works with specialized cameras that guided through the body of the original display pieces. When scouring the insides of the dolls, he is looking for the layout of the metal frame, build-ups of rust and debris as well as other internal problems that prevent the animatronic from moving.
Robillard has been working alongside Neville to restore the dolls since 2009 when the museum acquired over 70 unique, former Prange window display items.
Despite each display being cosmetically unique—whether it be a shopkeeper selling Christmas gifts, a goose in a dress dancing with a goat or a young boy playing fetch with a dog—Robillard has found their insides are a bit more formulaic.
“They’re all unique artifacts,” Robillard said, “but from a systems perspective, there’s a lot of similarities.”
The displays were, in a sense, mass-produced back in the 1950s and internal mechanisms were repeated to increase efficiency.
“The basic anatomy is pretty much the same,” Robillard said. “And I think up until this point, folks were doing pieces for restoration and restoring a wire or broken motor, but I don’t think anybody up to this point has just looked at it from a systems perspective.”
Once Robillard has charted the internal mechanisms of the dolls, he carefully makes an incision, using a real post-mortem scalpel, to pinpoint the problems inside the doll making the least amount of changes to the item’s exterior.
Robillard said he often has to completely take apart a figure, just to learn how to put it all back together again. To do this, he doesn’t always work alone. He said he uses his network of peers from all over the country to gain advice on why a certain mechanism or wire won’t work, or find the specific buttons or type of plastic used on a doll. He said he’s worked with mechanists and engineers in Arizona as well as seamstresses in Green Bay to get the right fix.
One of the Prange’s dolls is shown with “freckles” caused by decades of internal rusting.
John McCracken photo
A container of rust and cloth materials collected during Bill Robillard’s restoration process.
John McCracken photo
Robillard said some of the common problems he sees in the displays is a process known as freckling. He describes the inside of the displays as a “microclimate.” The displays were built so that water wouldn’t come through on the outside. After decades of sitting in storage, rust has formed on the inside and is slowly seeping through the skin of the dolls, creating spots that look like freckles.
Robillard said some displays take over two days just to scrape away and fix the internal rust.
Robillard said he takes a “least harm” approach as he makes his way through Neville’s entire collection of former Prange’s window displays.
“It’s a balance between making the repair and you want to conserve everything humanly possible,” Robillard said. “You want this original as possible.”
The Prange dolls were never meant to be treated as delicate, historic items.
“Nobody ever thought they’d end up in a museum setting where now it’s our job to take care of them for forever,” Lemke said.
H.C. Prange Company was a Sheboygan department store founded in 1887 by siblings Henry and Eliza Prange. The department store found regional and Midwest success and opened its Green Bay location at 301 North Washington Street in 1928, with a major addition to the store added in 1966. In 1992, despite owning over two million square feet of retail across Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, the company sold to Younkers for $67 million. The former Green Bay Prange’s location was demolished in 2007.
In 1937 the popular department store H.C. Prange Co. celebrated its 50th anniversary. H.C. Prange found its beginnings with the opening of its first store in 1887 on North Eighth Street and Wisconsin Avenue. This photo shows the front of H.C. Prange looking north down North Washington Street in downtown Green Bay.
Photo courtesy of Neville Public Museum
301 N. Washington St in downtown Green Bay as of Dec. 6, 2021. This corner used to be home to the iconic H.C. Prange’s Co. location.
Josh Staloch photo
Lemke said the nostalgia surrounding Prange’s Christmas display brings numerous visitors to Neville each year. The unique displays pull at Green Bay heartstrings but were inspired by similar department store magic in Chicago.
“When (Henry) Prange hired George Hanrahan as their window dresser,” Lemke said, “his task was to go down to Marshall Field’s, go check out the Chicago windows and start gathering ideas and start acquiring.”
Lemke said the dolls were produced by Chicago’s Silvestri’s Art Company and the after the 2007 Prange’s demolition, a large collection of dolls were found by the late Georgia Rankin of Sturgeon Bay in a coal storage bin. Described as an “avid doll collector”, Rankin recreated some of the window displays in a pole barn. When she retired, both Neville and the Sheboygan County Historical Society each acquired a portion of the collection.
Lemke said that Prange’s was just a piece of the Christmas puzzle in mid-20th century Green Bay. In addition to the window display, Bruce the Spruce, a talking Christmas tree, could be found inside of the department store’s enchanted forest. Prange’s also recreated the children’s store, where children could shop for presents without their parents. All of this has been recreated inside of Neville.
Lemke said personally, and generationally, she is more familiar with how shopping malls would prepare for the Christmas shopping season. To continue collecting Green Bay’s history under one roof, Neville is slowly acquiring pieces from former area businesses and places.
“In the last couple of years we’ve started to acquire some things from Port Plaza Mall,” Lemke said. “Those don’t always go out, but we have really good historic images that show that time and place. We’re always trying to acquire and keep that nostalgia.”
John McCracken is the Editor of Green Bay City Pages. You can reach him via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @jmcjmc451.