By CODY GRIESEL
News Staff Writer
BLACKWELL — A long-time Christmas tradition that has brought smiles to several generations of Kay County residents may be a mere memory after this year’s display. There’s still an opportunity, however, for area residents to visit this unique animated holiday display.
The Blackwell First Presbyterian Church, 204 S. A St., has been host to its well-known and beloved — at least to Blackwell area residents — animated Christmas display since the mid-1990s when the church began to host open house events for the community. The display, that now features a plethora of animated holiday scenes, actually took root during the 1980s when one member decided to decorate the church for Christmas. The display has grown steadily since and has become a holiday tradition for many.
Church member Dorothy Cantwell has served as the primary organizer of the display — that includes fully animated scenes from the traditional Nativity, to almost comical and lovable critters — since her husband Ray passed away in 2000. Ray had served as the church’s minister of music and, the now locally iconic display, was the brainchild of his both musical and artistic nature. Cantwell said her husband inquired about decorating the church for Christmas in the 1980s, starting with a few more Christmas trees than customary. The display continued to expand until church members decided to share those decorations with the community.
“Ray had such a creative mind and it was always working on ideas to improve the display year-long,” Cantwell said. “This was his vision and has been our gift to the church and everyone who has had the chance to visit it.”
Ray conceived the idea to add animated holiday scenes from the displays that were once common in department store windows during the holiday shopping season. The first of those animated displays — that can become very expensive — were incorporated by Ray in the early 1990s.
He added the first commercial animated characters in 1996. Cantwell said the individual scenes continued to expand and become more complex during those years before his passing. The display now includes such festive fare as mice baking Christmas cookies, traditional Christian-themed scenes, animated penguins, a wood-chopping beaver — that uses an axe instead of teeth — children enjoying their time playing in the snow, and other characters. Cantwell said it’s hard for visitors to leave without a smile on their face.
“Many of the older visitors seem to get just a big of kick out of this as the children … I think it brings back a lot of good holiday memories of seeing similar displays in department store windows when they were younger,” she said.
(See ANIMATED, Page 4B)
One of the animated scenes, “Forest Fantasy,” was featured on a segment of an Oklahoma City news program in 2001. That scene includes a honey bear, skunk and an owl welcoming visitors to their home.
Other scenes include nearly human-size and friendly mice baking Christmas cookies — even with a somewhat ironic oil painting of a sleeping cat on the kitchen wall — to Disney characters, children of the world, toy soldiers and numerous other festive renditions of animals, people and realistic scenery. The Nativity scene even includes nearly life-size animals and, as expected, an animated baby Jesus that wiggles his hands and arms. The list of scenes also includes the expected Santa and his elves in their workshop, along with Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim from “A Dicken’s Christmas.”
“This is really amazing, even to me,” Cantwell said. “It’s hard to describe the animated displays without people seeing them … when they do visit the display for the first time the look on their faces is priceless.”
Elementary school students and church groups are frequent visitors to the Christmas display that has become a holiday staple to those groups as well as many families that have incorporated visiting the animated winter wonderland as part of their Christmas tradition. Cantwell said she has had many visitors tell her that their parents brought them there as youngsters and now bring their children.
“I just love seeing the joy it brings to so many people,” she said. “This was Ray’s love and gift to the community, and I have helped carry that on since he passed away.”
In honor of Ray’s gift to the church and community, there is even an oil on canvas portrait — painted by Dorothy (both Cantwell’s are artistically inclined) — adorning the entrance to the fellowship hall where the display is housed. Cantwell said her late husband and a few friends painted most of the artwork used in the backdrop for each scene. One of those paintings is a napping cat wearing a Santa hat, which is ironically in the kitchen of the cookie-baking mama mouse.
“What else would a family of mice have hanging on the kitchen wall besides a cat?” Cantwell said.
While the animated display is much-loved by many in Kay County, Cantwell said she just can’t do the work herself and the aging church congregation are not able to volunteer as much time as they have in past years.
“It’s so much fun to do but, I can’t do it anymore,” Cantwell said. “I know it makes a lot of people sad and many have asked if we could get someone else to put it together for us … volunteers are helpful but it’s much more involved than just putting the characters out there.”
While this chapter of Kay County holiday tradition may be nearing its finale, there are still a few opportunities to visit the animated display. The there are open house events, complete with cookies and refreshments, are scheduled for Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. until Dec. 23 and from 5 to 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The display is also open from 9 a.m. to noon on weekdays, but visitors are asked to enter through the office entrance on A Street. Other times may be arranged for group visits.
For more information, contact Cantwell at 580-363-1460.