A window on home-grown art and real Christmas cheer

Hand-painted wreaths by artist Donna Miniere greet customers at Jon's Cleaners in Orlando, Dec. 20, 2013.

Hand-painted wreaths by artist Donna Miniere greet customers at Jon’s Cleaners in Orlando, Dec. 20, 2013.

Round red berries nestled in holly. Jolly elves and jaunty snowmen. In a time when most Christmas decorations bristle with made-in-China tinsel, some small businesses cling to a homemade holiday spirit with hand-painted windows.

I once watched Donna Miniere, a master of the art, at work at Jon’s Cleaners on East Michigan Street in Orlando. Clad in a red shirt and paint-smeared white overalls, she was dabbing thick paint on the wreaths adorning Jon’s glass doors.

It was great to see Miniere’s handiwork again this year at Jon’s, where owner Jon Scholtens said she’s been painting holiday windows for about 15 years.

When we talked a few years ago, Miniere recalled childhood memories from nearby Blankner Elementary, where she and other children painted snow scenes on the windows at the back of the school.

A painted snowman, seen from inside Christo's Cafe on Edgewater Drive in Orlando's College Park.

A painted snowman, seen from inside Christo’s Cafe on Edgewater Drive in Orlando’s College Park.

Brushing on the tempera paint felt like “unbelievable freedom,” Miniere said.

Later, after majoring in environmental studies at Rollins College, she returned to her childhood love of art and became a professional portrait painter.

Many years ago now, when a transient artist began some holiday windows at a business on south Orange and didn’t finish the job, Miniere stepped in to help out, and she’s been painting holiday storefronts ever since.

She sticks to the basics – holly garlands, poinsettias, candy canes, and wreaths – with with some traditional variations for individual shops. As she brushes on the paint, she likes to go as the spirit moves her, working without stencils or patterns.

Miniere has left her signature on her paintings at Jon’s and at Michigan Jewelers next door, but some other painters have left their window artistry unsigned.

Beefy-Reindeer

Beefy King's holiday scenes include a jaunty reindeer and fox.

Beefy King’s holiday scenes include a jaunty reindeer and fox.

But the paintings they’ve made – including bright candles at LaBelle Furs (one of Orlando’s oldest businesses), smiling snowmen at Christo’s Café in College Park, and a veritable village of creatures at Beefy King on Bumby – carry on a seasonal tradition that Americans have enjoyed for decades.

I love these painted figures, full of energy and fun. As Miniere noted, it’s such a shame when folks have “had art schooled out of them.” Sometimes people will tell you that they can’t draw a straight line. Don’t worry about that. If you want to draw a straight line, get out your ruler. Straight lines aren’t what art is about, as Miniere said: “There aren’t too many of them in nature.”

Windows at Beefy King, where Orlandoans have fortified themselves during Christmas shopping for more than 40 years.

Windows at Beefy King, where Orlandoans have fortified themselves during Christmas shopping for more than 40 years.

For some of us, this time of year can feel a little heavy, full of reminders of times gone and loved ones we won’t see again, and of how crazy and rushed the season feels.

But it’s hard to feel blue when you’re munching on Beefy spuds and looking through windows where elves gambol amid wacky reindeer. Here’s to our small businesses and the gifts they bring us, now and all year long.

Advertisements

Orlando’s really big star

The 1950s incarnation of Orlando's Christmas star

The 1950s incarnation of Orlando’s Christmas star

The classic holiday movie “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. The movie has always reminded me a bit of Orlando’s two largest downtown stores during the postwar era: Ivey’s and Dickson & Ives. Even if they weren’t as big as the Manhattan Macy’s and Gimbels in the movie, they were of the same genre.

In “Miracle,” Macy’s Santa (Edmund Gwenn) tells a frazzled mom (Thelma Ritter) that she can find the toy she’s seeking at Gimbel’s. As it turns out, shoppers love that spirit of cooperation.

A shopping mother played by Thelma Ritter praises Macy's Santa in the 1947 "Miracle on 34th Street."

A shopping mother played by Thelma Ritter praises Macy’s Santa in the 1947 “Miracle on 34th Street.”

In Orlando, Ivey’s and Dickson & Ives cooperated too through the big illuminated star that hung between them for the holidays at the city’s core intersection, Orange Avenue at Central Boulevard.

“Two of Orlando’s largest department stores may brood across the avenue at each other all year long. But their combined light shines out at Christmas,” the Orlando Sentinel reported in 1956.

The star debuted the year before, 1955, at a cost of $2,500. It was the brainchild of Dickson & Ives’ owner, Wilson Reed, according to his daughter Peggy Reed Mann, and was the ancestor of the big star that still graces the intersection each year, thanks in large part to the efforts of the late Jack Kazanzas.

In the late 1990s, it looked as though the star might be on its way out. The plexiglass was cracked, city officials said, and repair estimates were prohibitive.

“It just burns me up that everything has to be constantly changing,” Kazanzas said. He had grown up in the Orlando, the child of parents who had a business in the city for 40 years. He knew the downtown star was a powerful symbol for longtime residents, a reminder of the glory days for retail in downtown, before the first malls hit the area in the 1960s.

Orlando's star with its tiara of lights

Orlando’s star with its tiara of lights

In 1998, using glue and glass cleaner, Kazanzas was able to get the star into shape for its annual appearance. He kept on raising money. “I’ve watched Orlando grow and change, and I’d just like to hold on to some of the things I remember for Christmas,” he said.

The star itself — designed by Orlando sign wizard Bob Galler in 1984 — was saved, and the “tiara” of sparkling lights, designed by Orlando’s Cindy White, and added in 2005.

Each year when I see the star, I remember the stores that once surrounded it, and I remember Jack, who died in August 2010. The star now officially bears his name, and news reports of its annual appearance note that the Jack Kazanzas star once again is with us for the holidays.

Jack Kazanzas in 2009 (courtesy of Rob Smith Jr.)

Jack Kazanzas in 2009 (courtesy of Rob Smith Jr.)

In “Miracle on 34th Street,” Santa Claus, played by Edmund Gwenn, works in a department store. Kazanzas loved to wear an elf hat as he served coffee and bagels to OUC workers and fans of the star on the early Sunday morning each year when it was returned to its annual place. He had that same magical “Miracle” spirit. And he showed that with enough caring and effort, we surely don’t have to lose everything from the past we hold dear.