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The 2022 Christmas window display, courtesy of a collaboration between David Poulton and Kevin Broadfoot. (Photo: Sam Brooks, Image Design: Tina Tiller)
The 2022 Christmas window display, courtesy of a collaboration between David Poulton and Kevin Broadfoot. (Photo: Sam Brooks, Image Design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyNovember 6, 2022

The men behind Queen Street’s happiest window

The 2022 Christmas window display, courtesy of a collaboration between David Poulton and Kevin Broadfoot. (Photo: Sam Brooks, Image Design: Tina Tiller)
The 2022 Christmas window display, courtesy of a collaboration between David Poulton and Kevin Broadfoot. (Photo: Sam Brooks, Image Design: Tina Tiller)

For 17 years, the Smith and Caughey’s Christmas window display have awed thousands of passers-by. Sam Brooks talked to the two men who make the magic happen.

Queen Street can be a bleak place at the best of times. Despite the effort to revive the downtown CBD, the further you walk up that main road, the more likely you are to see dollar stores, empty windows and pedestrians hurrying away to literally anywhere else.

But there remains a little 20 metre section of streetscape, nestled between a nondescript phone repair store and a similarly anonymous clothing store, that absolutely radiates happiness two months out of the year. It’s the Smith and Caughey’s Christmas window display, and it ushers in the season before Mariah Carey has even warbled her first festive note.

Walk past the storefront this year and you’ll be greeted by a charming story, told across 11 windows, titled ‘The Chaos Before Christmas’. It’s a lovely tale about magic gone wrong as the elves prepare gifts for the seasonal rush. Spoilers: dragons may appear.

What makes the window display really magical, though, are the animated puppets, a collection of vivid characters acting out charming Christmas scenes. A closer look reveals small details: the different kinds of handwriting on letters to Santa, the delicate crocheting on a reindeer’s blanket, or how not a single string crosses over, even when dozens fill the window.

These windows are a beloved part of Christmas in Auckland. But what’s involved in creating them each year?

One of the windows of the Smith and Caughey’s Christmas window display, 2022.

I meet the two men behind the window displays that bring so much joy to Auckland at Bite, Smith and Caughey’s third floor cafe. One of them is Kevin Broadfoot, the department store’s special projects manager, who works on the Christmas windows year round. The other is David Poulton, the artistic director of Promotions in Motion, a Queensland-based company specialising in animated retail windows. Every Smith and Caughey’s Christmas window display since 2007 has been the result of months of brainstorming and collaboration between the two.

“I’ve worked for some major department stores overseas, and this one’s right up there,” Poulton says. “This is a world-class department store, whether it’s in their art department or their presentation. A lot of people can be cheapskates, and do the minimum.These guys do the maximum.”

Their working relationship began from a chance encounter when Poulton happened to come into the store for a haircut. “We’d been searching for quite some time for somebody who could create animated windows for us,” Broadfoot says. “And we were just not finding that person. Then David came out of the blue.”

By 2005, Poulton was already an experienced puppeteer and windowdresser. He’s been studying the form for most of his life, including with the great German puppeteer Albrecht Roser, and even performed live as beloved Australian koala Blinky Bill for several years. In 2001, he founded Promotions in Motions, and has since worked with department stores including David Jones in Australia and Smith and Caughey’s in Poulton’s native New Zealand.

The first Smith and Caughey’s window he and Broadfoot worked on in 2007 was a small-scale affair, based on a used Christmas set repurposed to fit the window specs of the Auckland store. It was a trial run for them – not just to see if the technology would work, but if they would succeed in capturing the public’s imagination.

“It was masses of little puppet angels singing Christmas songs,” Broadfoot recalls. “We watched, and watched, and we got overwhelmingly positive feedback from the public. They loved it.

“There’s not too much else that spreads the Christmas spirit through Queen Street,” he adds. “We really wanted to build lovely memories for young kids that have seen the windows, so it becomes part of their tradition, and their Christmas memories for the rest of their lives.”

Santa, as portrayed by the Smith and Caughey’s Christmas window display, 2022.

The process of creating a Christmas display actually starts before the previous window has even been installed, a full year in advance. It begins with the story – it has to be a Christmas story, but can be a classic tale, an entirely original idea, or something in between. “We pick up on what the trends might be with kids and what they’re interested in,” Broadfoot says. “At the moment, dragons are huge, for boys and girls.” Indeed, the current display includes about a dozen dragons, with fully animated wings.

“Finding the right story is huge,” says Poulton. “Then finding characters we actually like, that we can animate to make lifelike.” 

These days, they try to alternate between traditional winter settings and summery southern hemisphere scenes. “Some years back we did Grandma’s Kiwi Christmas,” Broadfoot says, “and I think we really felt that people resonated with that story.” They’ve tried to make local Christmases a regular focus ever since.

For the past three years, the store has commissioned a local author and illustrator to write a story specifically for the window. This year’s display, “The Chaos Before Christmas”, is based on a book of the same name written by Sarina Dickson, illustrated by Lily Emo. The story process is a collaboration between the store, publisher Hachette, and the author, with the book finished a full year out so that work can begin on the window display proper.

With the book underway, Poulton and Broadfoot start work on storyboarding. “Kevin really does most of the research, and the work with the author,” Poulton says. “We’ll look at it and see if we can animate what’s been done. There are restrictions on what we can do in the windows because we only have so much space, and the windows have to flow.” Having 11 windows and 44 pages of story means pages often need to be cut, combined, or compressed to tell the full story.

Each module – the frames that take up residence inside each window – takes about 200 hours to make. “It’s all handmade,” says Broadfoot. “That’s the charm of the windows.” Poulton adds that, given the nature of the work, very few things can be bought off the shelf, so it all has to be created by his team.

While Poulton himself makes the puppet bodies and the base head, the studio’s in-house sculptor crafts each puppet’s head out of paper clay, a Japanese-based mixture of clay and paper mache. After that, Poulton’s wife Sally, Promotion in Motion’s dressmaker, sews them into their garments, and the studio’s scenic artists touch up the faces – remarkably detailed, subtle work.

Sally also strings the puppets, while Poulton and other artists make the props. All in all, Smith and Caughey’s windows take over 2000 hours in total, nearly three months of work.

Once the exhibition is built the team run it day and night for three weeks – a sort of practice run to make sure it’ll be able to do the same thing during its actual display in Auckland. Shipping it from Promotion in Motion’s Noosa studio to Auckland requires three quarters of a 40 foot container. (Shipping delays have hit these particular Christmas elves, with the exhibition arriving just a week before its scheduled opening, despite being shipped on September 1.)

Poulton makes sure he’s in Auckland for installation day, which starts at 5am – as early as possible to beat the traffic which makes unloading onto Auckland’s main street such a challenge. Once the modules are in, Poulton and three old friends from high school, now retired, help him set up – a matter of positioning, plugging and wiring. Poulton then flies back to Noosa, and Broadfoot continues to plan for the next year. Christmas is here, and Christmas is coming.

A dragon in the Smith and Caughey’s Christmas window display, 2022.

Now the 2022 window is installed, Broadfoot and Poulton have a chance to appreciate what they’ve achieved. Broadfoot thinks this year’s display has set the bar higher than ever. “When I first presented the book to David and Sally, there was a bit of stunned silence. ‘Dragons? There’s so many dragons! They’ve got such big wings! How?’”

“But we did it!” says Poulton proudly.

“And they’ve done an amazing job,” Broadfoot confirms. “Every year we say, these are the best ever, and then what are we going to do next year? What are we going to do to beat that?”

What keeps them coming back, though, is that what can seem like simply an advertisement for a department store is in fact an incredibly complex and rewarding artistic process. “I come from theatre, you know?”, says Poulton. “My bread and butter work in Australia is much more commercial, and although I do a good job there, I don’t get the artistic satisfaction I get from this. This is theatre in miniature! It’s such a pleasure to work on these and I get so disappointed when we finished. 

“I think, oh my god, I have to wait six months to do the next one!”

While Poulton can take a break, Broadfoot lives and breathes Christmas. “It’s always there for me,” he says. “I’m always trying to make things better, more special, or maybe there’s another idea that could work quite magically.”

For both of them, the real reward is seeing the reaction on the streets outside. “My greatest pleasure is to sneak out and listen to people,” Poulton says. “I don’t identify myself. Just listen and watch the reaction. I get a huge feeling, I become part of someone’s memory. They don’t remember me, but it doesn’t matter.They remember what they saw, they remember the characters.”

Broadfoot says the moment that makes it all worthwhile is seeing anybody “young at heart” go up to the windows. “They might have a lousy day written across their face, but as soon as they glimpse our windows, they beam from ear to ear,” he says. “Any person from any walk of life can have that reaction.”

As we wrap up our conversation a little girl comes up to one of the windows and, squealing in delight, puts her hands up against it – a metric for success, apparently. She points at the dragon as its wings magically swoosh up and down. Broadfoot and Poulton watch on, quietly chuffed with the reaction, one that is sure to be repeated, again and again, during the two months the display is up.

When the girl moves on, Broadfoot turns to me with a smile.

“That’s it. That’s just the best, isn’t it?”

Keep going!