Stepping into Christmas Past. You only have to travel as far as Philadelphia to visit Charles Dickens's London, on display at the department store Strawbridge & Clothier
EBENEZER SCROOGE, the Victorian miser who opened his heart to Christmas, has found a home in Philadelphia. And he's brought a bustling London neighborhood with him. Strawbridge & Clothier, a department store in Philadelphia, has recreated Charles Dickens's classic ``A Christmas Carol'' in a remarkable walk-through exhibit of 26 scenes. Now in its second year, the elaborate display covers more than 6,000 feet of space in the store, and takes visitors about 20 minutes to walk through.
``Enter through the pages of my imagination,'' invites the life-like figure of Dickens, perched at the desk he used on his reading tours of America. After greeting the author, visitors walk through a dark tunnel to emerge on a London street. The time is the 1840s. Snow lines the cobblestone walk, and icy shop windows glisten with antique dolls, Punch and Judy puppets, and a grinning jack-in-the-box. The sound of carriages and chestnut vendors hovers in the air.
The first Dickens character to meet the visitors is the Artful Dodger, stolen from the pages of ``Oliver Twist.'' Mischief is painted onto his face and poverty sewn into his shabby trousers. He is four feet tall, but no one could mistake him for a mannequin - this is a Victorian street urchin captured in sculpted clay.
In another scene, Scrooge is in his bedroom awaiting the Ghost of Christmas Past. Another shows Tiny Tim and the Cratchits gathered around a paltry Christmas feast. Scrooge's sweetheart, Belle, the buoyant Fezziwigs and, of course, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come make colorful appearances.
The design team from It Figures Studio of Wilmington, Del., used 2,000 pounds of clay to create a cast of 96 figures. Eyes were handblown in glass, and clothes were carefully researched at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. With an eye on authenticity, designer Mary Berg ran nails over wool and shredded cotton to achieve a threadbare look, where appropriate. The figures are nearly life-size and move by means of electric motor animation.
The design team went twice to London for research. They photographed fa,cades and searched for Victorian antiques. The dishes, furnishings, and even clothespins in the display are authentic artifacts. Team carpenters grew so enthusiastic about English architecture that they added buildings to the original design. A visitor looking over the 12-foot high roof line of the exhibit will see Georgian rooftops in the distance.
Perhaps the most impressive effort by the designers is the cobblestone walkway that runs through the display. After casting 7,000 cobblestones in hard plastic, the team painted and mortared each stone by hand to match the patterns of an English street.
The meticulous historicity of the theatrical sets will remind parents of a museum. But for children, the display is pure Disney. And they respond to the magic. In one scene, the haunted face of Marley appears in a door knocker by means of a two-way mirror and timed flashlight. ``There's no such thing as ghosts!'' one young onlooker reminds himself aloud.
The display manages to touch viewers of all ages. In an early scene, Scrooge refuses to give alms to the poor. ``Let them die, and so decrease the surplus population,'' he trumpets.
``What a meanie,'' says an eight-year-old. ``Sounds just like the landlord,'' his mother remarks.
Philadelphia's love affair with Charles Dickens began in the 1830s when a local firm became his first American publisher. When Dickens visited the city a decade later, a hotelier hoodwinked him into holding public visiting hours. A near riot occurred as Philadelphians pushed to get in. Dickens eventually satirized the affair in a story, but he later forgave the city and returned twice on his American reading tours.
The author's great-grandson, Cedric, returns to Philadelphia every year to celebrate his birthday at the Dickens Inn. A retired executive who lives near London, Dickens's great-grandson has become a great ally of the Dickens's attraction at Strawbridge's. He publicly opens the display in late November, and signs books for the crowds.
``My great-grandfather loved Christmas,'' he says. ``He would be enormously hurt by the new commercialism of Christmas, but I believe this display would delight him very much.''
The Dickens attraction took almost two years to build. ``The first plan,'' says Ray Daub of It Figures Studio, ``was like a Reader's Digest version with fewer scenes and fewer characters.''
But this adaptation robbed the story of its complexity.
``We wanted to show the clear path that Scrooge followed to become the man he was,'' says Mr. Daub.
So the design team added a scene showing young Ebenezer as a lonely schoolboy. And they introduced minor characters like Scrooge's beloved sister Fan, who died at a young age. The display grew in sophistication.
The store shrugs off the loss of 6,000 square feet of prime selling space. They call the Dickens display a gift to the city where they established their business 119 years ago.
Their vision should prove to be good business. Last year, the display brought close to 200,000 viewers into the store. But not all viewers are shoppers.
Mrs. Liz Swanson of Woodbury Heights, N.J., brought her family into Philadelphia by bus to see the Dickens attraction, which is free to the public.
``I feel sad that I can't do much for my kids at Christmas,'' she says. ``I probably worry about it more than they do. They say they're happy just to be together around the tree.''
There are six children in the Swanson family. ``We play roles just like the Cratchits,'' says the eldest daughter.
What did the Swanson family learn from ``A Christmas Carol''?
``Love Christmas,'' pipes 10-year-old Jennifer Swanson. ``And take care of other people.''
``You waited two hours in line to learn that,'' says her older sister. ``Now don't forget it.''