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All Over The Map: New Seattle Star a balance of ‘then and wow’

It was just over a year ago – the autumn of 2019 – when the beloved holiday star that had adorned the Bon Marché building for decades appeared to have fallen into a black hole.

The Macy’s store in that building was closing, and the New York corporate offices of the retailer refused to let KIRO Radio see the old star. A Macy’s spokesperson claimed that the giant decoration was in a state of disrepair that made it impossible to display for what would be final holiday season for Macy’s – and what had been the Bon – in that historic building.

Fast-forward to the day after Thanksgiving 2020, and a new star will debut early “Black Friday” evening that keeps much of the original 1957 star, but updates it for safety, efficiency, and with a dazzling new approach to 21st century decorative holiday lighting.

People may remember that the old star did in fact make it back to the corner of the building at 4th Avenue and Pine Street in time for the holidays last year. It’s a complicated story, and several of the key people who made the old star’s revival possible wish to remain anonymous, but credit goes to owners of the Bon Marché building, to building management, and to building tenants.

One key person involved whose identity has been known all along is Andre Lucero of Western Neon. His company was hired in 2019 to fix the old star and get it ready in time for last year’s day after Thanksgiving festivities. Then, since January, it was Western Neon who did the work to re-imagine and rebuild the star for 2020 and beyond.

Friday night at 5 p.m., the old Bon Marché star – now rechristened as the Seattle Star – will be the centerpiece of a kickoff to the 2020 holiday season organized by the Downtown Seattle Association. Because of the pandemic, the ceremonies will stream on Facebook and will be covered by KIRO 7 TV and Warm 106.9 FM.

Lucero clearly admires the design of the star, which was the handiwork of a prolific and imaginative longtime Bon Marché art director named Bob James, who passed away in 2011. On a visit to the building’s roof for the star’s 50th anniversary in 2007, James, who was then in his late 80s, energetically and enthusiastically examined the old star, snapped photos, and chatted with the installation crew.

“It’s an engineering marvel,” said Lucero, describing the complex, yet simple way the assembled star pivots over the edge of the roof to lock into place on the corner of the building.

Lucero and his crew were able to keep much of the original star intact, while replacing some pieces to eliminate galvanic corrosion – caused when dissimilar metals combine to create a destructive chemical reaction.

The new star includes “about 60% of the structure and some of the main components, the hub – the main star,” Lucero told KIRO Radio. “There’s just some nostalgia about some of that original shape and parts and pieces that Bob James created, that we definitely did not want to change at all. Changing the lighting, of course, to more modern energy efficient light, from a seven-watt incandescent bulb to a one-watt LED diode is a huge improvement on energy consumption.”

Remember the giant single bulb that sat in the “hub” or the middle of the star? Lucero says that was a 1000-watt halide bulb, more commonly used in light fixtures in giant parking lots. Apart from costing several hundred dollars to replace, those old halide bulbs had something of a quirk that more astute observers might have noticed in years past.

“It was bright,” Lucero said of the old bulb, “but unfortunately, it took a while to heat up. So, over the years of that lighting display, that [center light] would be an element that was lit, but it wouldn’t come up to full brightness for about 10 to 15 minutes” after being switched on.

“With the new star,” Lucero said, “there’s approximately 200 LED nodes that replaced that 1000-watt metal halide bulb.”

Wendy James, daughter of star designer Bob James, was kept in the loop throughout the redesign process and has been gushing about the new star on social media and in promotional materials for the tree-lighting event, and for the new crowd-driven programmable element of the display.

And, aside from the new LEDs and the elimination of corrosion, it’s really that “programmable element” that distinguishes “Seattle Star 2020” from the Bob James Bon Marché Star of 1957.

Through a website and a smartphone app, anyone willing to pay can design their own light show – timing and colors and sequence — on the new star and make it happen remotely. Options range from a very brief blink-and-you-might-miss-it show lasting 15 seconds that costs $15, to a 30-minute show that costs $1,000. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the nonprofit Mary’s Place.

As radical a departure as the new Seattle Star is from Bob James’ original vision, it’s nice to know that the Bon Marché star has been given new life, and that it will continue to appear each holiday season in the location where so many have become accustomed to seeing it – admittedly with a lot more color and motion than ever before.

And I’d venture to say that it’s easy to imagine Bob James – who’d be 99 if he were still alive – being thrilled with what Andre Lucero and his crew have done to reimagine the star as a whole new experience.

Bob’s daughter Wendy James agrees.

“I know that my Dad would be very happy about the new Seattle Star and the exciting color technology,” James wrote in an email to KIRO Radio. “I wish he could be here to see it! We are just so grateful that this tradition has been saved, and that they preserved his original design.”

Wendy James believes the ordeal of nearly losing the star last year, and then having the new star debut during the pandemic is about much more than just a bunch of lights on the side of an old building.

“We still have this cool thing that brings us together and lifts our spirits when we really need it,” she wrote.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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