Restored Creche Figures to “Debut” at Dickens Village

The original crèche, donated by Leila Roberts in the 1950s. 1957 Photo by Bert Embree. Courtesy of the Sierra Madre Historical Archives. Click to enlarge.

Posted 11/23/11, by Bill Coburn – Each year during Sierra Madre’s annual Candlelight Procession, two young residents are selected to perform in the role of Mary and Joseph, walking down the hill at the head of the procession carrying the figure of the baby Jesus, which they then place in the manger in the town crèche (defined by Encarta World Dictionary as 1) Nativity scene: a three-dimensional representation of the scene at the birth of Jesus Christ). Local clergy then lead the crowd in Christmas carols between readings from scripture. The tradition of the Candlelight Procession was begun in 1971 by Pastor Bob Vander Zaag of Bethany Church and Rev. Richard Anderson of Congregational Church. However, the tradition of the crèche in Kersting Court began long before then, and a new chapter begins in that tradition this year.

In the 1950s, Leilah Roberts (think Roberts Market) donated the original figures for the crèche. According to a 1973 article in the local newspaper The View from Sierra Madre, Gordon Baker Lloyd was asked to assist with decorating the crèche, and as of that writing was the official keeper of the crèche. At the time, Lloyd was with the Chamber of Commerce, which has continued to be the keeper of the crèche through the years. The barn structure of the crèche was replaced in about 1968. But in 1973, according to the View article, disaster struck. On December ninth, a Monday morning, shortly after 5am, the crèche burned to the ground, including all the figures.

According to the article, the only remaining piece of the crèche was a 4-foot cross that had been used as a support for one of the figures.  The article states that the fire was not accidental, but there is no record of the perpetrator having been caught.  The town pulled together to raise money for replacement figures, with more than $400 being raised in the first week alone.  New figures were purchased in New York, and the world-famous volunteer group the Flying Tigers, upon hearing of the town’s plight, flew the figures to Sierra Madre free of charge, they arrived on Dec. 17th.

Installation of crèche in Kersting Court, circa 1988. Polaroid from the Ruth Alexander Collection. Pictured are Bill Sullivan, Jr., Gordon Baker Lloyd and Jerry Atkins of the Chamber of Commerce Photo courtesy of the Sierra Madre Historical Archives. Click to enlarge

Griffin Lumber donated wood for a new structure, which was built by members of the Volunteer Fire Dept.  Unfortunately, on Dec. 20th, strong Santa Ana winds blew into town and knocked the new structure flat.  The firefighters rebuilt a new, sturdier structure and had it in place by Dec. 22nd.

The crèche stable was replaced in 1997 by Sierra Madre City College, which had taken over storage and construction/tear down responsibility of the structure some years before.  Each year, Osti Tree Service donates palm fronds to adorn the roof, and Santa Anita Park donates hay to dress it up “stable-style.”

Prior to this year, the figures had been repainted twice since their 1973 arrival.  However, due to prolonged exposure last year to weather conditions that were particularly adverse, it was once again time for a facelift.  The Chamber of Commerce contacted Patricia Ancona, who leads the Friends of the Arts organization, recently formed to promote Sierra Madre arts and artists, as well as public art for the community.  Ms.  Ancona agreed to contact local artists in the organization to enlist their help in  restoring the damaged figures.

Patricia Ancona paints a king. Click to enlarge

According to Ms. Ancona: “Upon examination of the figures, the process had to start from the original layer of plaster that had been the outer layer of the figure pulled from a mold. Over the years since their last painting, moisture had seeped up through this layer causing shrinkage and weakness. The sanding was done all by hand requiring the use of mask and goggles. Then each figure was repaired, filling missing surface areas, rebuilding broken fingers, design elements, then covered with gesso.  Upon the repair of the first figure, I was shocked and thrilled to discover the amount of detail and design elements that had been lost under the three layers of color.”

Ms. Ancona noted that the “gesso” figure was similar to the Greco Roman sculptures that we now see as white marble.  “Beautiful flowing robes, facial expression and textile patterns, inspired me to think of the paintings so common during pre and early Renaissance times. During historical times the painting most  often called the Adoration of the Magi was a very popular theme.  In myresearch I realized that the important characters, Mary and Joseph, wore  specific colors of  garments.  Mary’s  inside robe was red with an outside layer of blue,   Joseph wore a blue-green inner robe with an outside layer of orange, and the angels sported multi-color wings, like a rainbow.”  The  decision was made to incorporate the Renaissance era colors into the restoration of the figures.

The Chamber of Commerce is paying for the materials, and the local Christian churches were solicited for donations to the Friends of the Arts, with some of the funds going to the artists themselves.  Ascension, Bethany, SM Congregational and St. Rita have committed to donating.  United Methodist is considering the donation, but as of press time, the decision had not been made.  Said Ancona  “Over the last two and one half months, I have had the pleasure of working with four other artists from our community (on this project). This has been an all-consuming activity, from sunrise to sunset, rain or shine, every weekend, holidays and a few hooky days from work. But I have enjoyed every minute.”  Other artists contributing their time and talent to the project were Carol Adams, David Em, Jeryd Pojawa, and Sherrin Mullen.

The new figures will be on display beginning this weekend during Dickens Village, the Chamber of Commerce sponsored kick-off to the holiday shopping season, which takes place in downtown Sierra Madre Saturday from 3 to 8pm.  One of the figures has remained untouched, so that people will be able to see the condition the figures were in prior to the restoration.  A second figure was kept in the all white “gesso” condition, allowing  viewers to see the detail of the unpainted figures.