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Seattle’s department store Santa photos revolutionized the holidays

Seattle is known as a hub of innovation, from jetliners to software, from coffee to online retail. But there’s one lesser-known local invention that may have had more impact on the world than all of those other industries combined.

The department store Santa Claus photo.

The first department store Santa is generally believed to have been introduced in Brockton, Mass. in 1890. Then, in the early 20th century, Santa Claus gradually became a fixture in all kinds of stores during the holiday season around the country. By the late 1930s, an annual visit to a department store Santa was not an uncommon holiday season activity in many urban areas all around the United States.

Related: KIRO Radio celebrates the holidays with ‘A Christmas Carol’

But snapping a photo of the visit to St. Nick, and selling it to mom or dad, was something new. And it might have been Seattle where it all happened first.

The light went off over Art “Happy” French’s head one day in December 1943. That year, management of the fondly remembered old Frederick & Nelson department store at Sixth and Pine in downtown Seattle (in a building now occupied by Nordstrom) decided to move Santa Claus operations from deep within the store and put him in a display window along the sidewalk instead.

French was a news photographer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and was known to be something of a gruff Gus; “Happy” was an ironic nickname. In those years, the P-I’s headquarters were kitty-corner from Frederick’s at Sixth and Pine. Sitting at his desk and seeing all those kids climbing into Santa’s lap, and all those parents looking on, gave Happy French an idea.

A year later for the 1944 Christmas season, French took several weeks’ leave from the P-I, got permission from Frederick & Nelson, and set up a photo concession alongside the jolly old elf in the window of the venerable department store. He used a hidden large-format camera and captured candid shots (portraits, really) of children visiting with Santa in glorious black and white.

It was wildly successful, so French did it again in 1945.

It’s unclear how the practice ultimately spread around the country, and Seattle’s Santa photo phenomenon may have been similar to other operations elsewhere. But in March 1946, Time magazine profiled French and the nascent industry he had launched here.

The brief article describes how French did the post-Christmas math. In a month of work during the 1945 Christmas season, he’d netted $10,000 selling Santa pictures. That was three times his annual salary at the P-I, and he’d made it working just one-twelfth the time. French quit the P-I in early 1946 and made Santa photos (and, eventually, Easter Bunny photos) his business, through an enterprise that came to be known as Arthur & Associates. The company functioned as Frederick’s exclusive Santa photo provider at the downtown flagship store and at other locations around Puget Sound.

During the time that French was first snapping pics, Santa Claus was played at Frederick’s in downtown Seattle, for the most part, by a radio actor (and tuxedo store salesperson) named Dave Harris. Photos of Harris as Santa, taken by Art French, are on the mantles (or in the attics) of thousands of Northwest families this time of year. Harris was on the job for an incredible 27 seasons, from 1942 to 1968.

Visiting the downtown Frederick’s and Dave Harris as Santa, specifically, became a local tradition for Seattle area Baby Boomers and their parents. Some families also have rare acetate recordings of the audio of their visits (with Santa and child singing “Jingle Bells” together), which were available at additional cost. Many families came year after year, and grown children came back to Frederick’s as adults with their own kids to visit Santa, whether portrayed by Harris or, later, by his bearded successors.

When Art French died unexpectedly in 1962, fellow photographer Ken Viydo and his wife Hazel took over the business that’s now run by their son Hillard.

“I was 11 when my parents first started doing this,” Hillard Viydo says. “The studio that Art operated out of was across the street from the Paramount Theatre. They would package the pictures, and I’d get to carry this small bundle down Pine Street.”

That was when Hillard Viydo first fell in love with Frederick & Nelson.

“[I was] enamored with seeing the crowds and how festive that department store was during the holidays,” Viydo said. “I’m sure most big towns had similar department store experiences, but that’s what resonated with me. How special Frederick’s was.”

While there’s no official certification that French and Frederick & Nelson were the first anywhere to offer Santa photos to customers, no other city claims the honor, and Hillard Viydo says there’s evidence to support the story.

“We’re small, we work right here, we’re local,” Viydo said, but he knows others in the Santa photo industry around the country. “The people we compete with for business are national companies that have 300 to 400 of these [Santa photo] locations, and the oldest one of those claims they started in 1961.”

After Art French passed away and under the Viydo’s multi-generational guidance, the company remained the exclusive Santa photo vendor for Frederick & Nelson until the department store went out of business nearly 30 years later. When that happened, Hillard Viydo says that Arthur & Associates was forced to reinvent itself and to find a new home.

“The heart and the mind skipped several beats when we lost Frederick’s. That was an exclusive contract. Nobody had ever heard of Arthur & Associates. It was [known as] ‘Frederick & Nelson Santa Photo,’ and we were only awarded a one-year exclusive contract [each year],” Viydo said.

Because the Frederick’s contract was “exclusive,” Arthur & Associates hadn’t been allowed to do Santa photos anywhere else. With Frederick’s shuttered, that was a problem.

“We had to create this identity and get the word out that just because Frederick’s is gone, you know kinda like a Frango, the Christmas Santa photo tradition will carry on,” Viydo said. “So we were fortunate to get a contract with a fairly new shopping center at the time, Westlake Center,” where Arthur & Associates had the Santa photo contract for seven years.

This year, Arthur & Associates is offering Santa photo services in 11 locations, from Abbotsford, BC to Tukwila, including Bellevue Square and University Village.

Hillard Viydo says that even though Frederick & Nelson is gone, one vestige of the old store is still put to use each year by Arthur & Associates at Town Center at Lake Forest Park — the “Cozy Cloud Cottage” Santa Claus set, including the fireplace and golden throne.

But those pieces of furniture aren’t the only remaining artifact of Frederick’s still around and making magic happen for families this Christmas.

“I only have one guy left that worked at Frederick’s,” said Hillard Viydo. “He’s Phil Elvrum, and he’s working at Lake Forest Park in the old Frederick’s set.”

Elvrum, a retired teacher and principal in the Edmonds School District, worked as Santa first in Everett and then at the Aurora Village locations of Frederick & Nelson beginning back in the 1980s.

Viydo says that some families who brought their kids or grandchildren to Frederick & Nelson decades ago still make the trek to see “Santa Phil” and the old Frederick & Nelson Santa furniture at Lake Forest Park.

“As we get closer to Christmas Eve, you can go there most nights and it’s all Frederick’s stories,” Viydo said. Families often tell Viydo or his staff, “’We’ve been doing this for 40 years’ and ‘we’re the fourth generation,’” Viydo said.

Santa Phil, along with the memories of Frederick’s and those rare physical artifacts, create a draw that “still carries some weight,” Viydo said.

Hillard Viydo says that “Santa Phil” will be on the golden throne in Lake Forest Park on just two more occasions this year, including Dec. 18 from 2:30-7 p.m. and from 1:30-5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24.

The final shift of the year, the one that ends late in the day on Christmas Eve, is Santa Phil’s favorite shift, Viydo says.

Santa Phil turned 87 earlier this month. Viydo doesn’t yet know if the last Frederick & Nelson Santa Claus will be back in the red suit next year.

“Oh man, he’ll tell me on Christmas Eve,” Viydo says. “He’ll say, ‘I think I can do it one more year, I think I got another year in me.’”

Reached by phone on Wednesday, a jolly and hearty Santa Phil (a native of Devil’s Lake, North Dakota and a Korean war vet) sounded cautiously optimistic about holding forth in the Cozy Cloud Cottage once again in 2017.

“If God lets me live some more, there isn’t anything that I’d rather do,” he said.

More from Feliks

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