For many of us, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade brings back fond childhood memories of family gatherings and a kick-off to the holiday season. Perhaps no one has fonder family memories than the Gianfagna family living in Windermere.
John Gianfagna’s father, John Sr., owned a family business in Manhattan called Bliss Display Corporation for over 40 years. Their claim to fame was the holiday window displays at many of the major retailers during the holiday season, including the infamous Macy’s displays.
“After Thanksgiving dinner, we would get in dad’s car and drive down to Macy’s to see the unveiling of the windows,” John recalls. “Dad would just stand in the crowd to hear the peoples’ comments.”
John Gianfagna Sr. designed the window displays each year, coming up with concepts and ideas. Tina Gianfagna, John’s wife, would then render them in watercolors which were presented to the stores by the sales people. Once they were approved, John Jr. would transform the sketches into blueprints and drawings for construction. John’s brothers, Paul and Charles, would sculpt and build the displays completing the family circle.
“My dad was the dynamo,” John says. “He was the one that came up with the ideas, concepts, and sketches for everything we did. He continued with that type of energy and strength right up until he had to liquidate the business.”
Holiday shopping in those days was very different than it is today.
“Macy’s was the most popular place to shop back then because any wayjourner could shop there. Lord & Taylor’s was known as the ‘carriage trade’, a place where wealthy people would be dropped off in their carriages and buy nice clothes and perfume.”
Window displays back then were the “gift” to the holiday shoppers, never pushing product or merchandise, but always promoting family values and holiday cheer.
“Their strategy was to get you to stop and look into the windows long enough that you became cold and wanted to come inside and shop,” chuckled John.
Bliss Displays was “Santa’s workshop” during the late summer and fall months with anywhere from 150 to 250 carpenters, sculptors, machinists, and costume designers all working together to create the five-week holiday displays.
John tells stories of his dad and the family business with an air of pride and great respect for what his father accomplished. Family photos, scaled models, sculptures, and other artifacts from the late Bliss Diplays are sprinkled throughout their Windermere home.
A centerpiece of the Gianfagna home during the holidays is the model of a 40-foot tall Christmas tree that the family business built for the Paramus Mall in New Jersey. After the project was awarded, John Gianfagna Sr. used the model each year as his Christmas tree during the holidays.
One photo shows John Sr. going over a sketch of the Macy’s 11 windows with John Jr. just hours before they got word that late President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The theme that year was “The Animals’ Christmas in the Barn,” complete with animated animals and a live puppet show.
“Dad’s vision was to make everyone happy. Young to old, everyone would be able to understand the displays and smile. He just lived to make people happy.”
Today, John and Tina Gianfagna pass along their own family traditions which now includes their daily service to Creating Hope, a not for profit created by their late daughter Jeanette, who died of cancer in 2003. Finding that painting helped her feel better during her bout with cancer, Jeanette wrote the business plan and launched Creating Hope to help others dealing with the pain.
Utilizing their creative talents and genuine love of people, John and Tina teach cancer patients during their chemotherapy treatments how to paint bookmarks. Watercolor paint kits are then given to the patients to take home to use with their newfound talents. These same kits are also sent all over the world to cancer patients to help them deal with their pain.
You will never meet a more loving and giving couple than John and Tina. While I was hearing John talk about his father with such admiration, I looked over my shoulder and saw a photo of his dad on the wall. I know that if he were alive today, he would share the same sentiments with his son and daughter-in-law.
“My dad loved everybody, and everybody loved my dad.”
The Gianfagna family tradition continues.