By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The most wonderful time of the year takes on a whole new meaning at a Minnetrista home.

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the original Dayton’s Christmas display, you’ll find some of it in Bill Ewald’s former dining room.

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In this week’s Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen shows us how Bill and his family rescued and restored these characters, and brought them back to life.

It’s often said that kids are the ones that can’t wait for Christmas. If that’s true, then Bill Ewald is a kid at heart.

“You have to love Christmas a little bit to have something like this in your house,” said John Lauritsen. “Absolutely,” Ewald replied. “You almost have to love it year-round.”

For Ewald, it began in the 1960’s when his parents would take him to Dayton’s 8th floor holiday display in downtown Minneapolis.

“Much like many other people it was a big deal to go downtown and have a dinner in a restaurant and then go to the 8th floor and walk through these marvelous exhibits,” said Ewald.

Little did he know that some of those exhibits that he loved so much would one day end up in his dining room. When Macy’s decided to close the store in 2016, everything inside had to go, including the Dayton’s characters.

“I immediately went down there and the goal was to pick up just one piece so they could have it staged in the house,” said Ewald.

But he ended up with much more than he bargained for. Many of the displays were damaged and nearly destroyed, so they were cheap. Ewald got a vision of what they once were and what they could become. He bought piece after piece knowing it meant repair after repair.

“Antlers, fingers, hands, feet noses,” said Ewald

“You sound like a plastic surgeon for puppets. And that’s what you became in a sense,” said Lauritsen. “Yeah, through trial and error,” Ewal replied. “It wasn’t all pretty, trust me.”

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For example, the only part of Scrooge that survived was his head, minus a nose.

“This was probably the most concerning thing we had in the house because my wife was not expecting to come into my workshop and find a man wearing a tux without a nose laying across my workbench. And it scared her,” said Ewald.

But she quickly got into the holiday spirit by becoming the fashion designer and seamstress for the puppets. Ewald performed surgery, putting his skills as a handyman to the test while using Italian clay and dental tools to make complex fixes.

“Absolutely, pure joy. Absolutely, pure joy. It’s one of my favorite things to do at 9:00 at night is to go down and work on these little people,” said Ewald.

With the old puppets, came new discoveries. Their original creators left symbols behind, sometimes in the form of puppet tattoos.

“The artist, when they were done, put their final signature on it just like an artist would sign their work,” said Ewald.

Ewald is now up to 19 different Dayton’s characters. Next year’s theme will be something else and he’ll begin planning for that this coming summer. Christmas at the Ewald’s really does mean Christmas in July.

“People love it. They all love it. They are all kids at heart whether they admit it or not,” said Ewald.

Ewald builds much of the tables and chairs in the displays by repurposing old wood. He also installs the gears and motors himself.

Ewald is also open for tours.

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John Lauritsen