Kathrine Nero: The mystery of the missing Shillito's elves

·3 min read
A view of Shillito’s elves displays at the Leader Furniture building in Over-The-Rhine, on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. Shilito's elves display are created by Mark Trierweiler and will be on display starting Friday in the windows of the Leader Furniture building.
A view of Shillito’s elves displays at the Leader Furniture building in Over-The-Rhine, on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. Shilito's elves display are created by Mark Trierweiler and will be on display starting Friday in the windows of the Leader Furniture building.

The Shillito’s elves are missing.

Well, some of the Shillito’s elves are missing. And Mark Trierweiler knows exactly where they are.

Better watch out, Fort Wayne. Sounds like you’re on the naughty list.

We’ll get to the mystery of the missing elves in a bit, but first, some history.

Trierweiler is the owner of about half the elves that so many Cincinnatians remember from holiday trips to the original Shillito’s department store downtown. How he got them was a combination of expertise, happenstance and nostalgia.

It all started with the old Santa’s toy factory display on Fountain Square in the mid-90s. Trierweiler is a theatrical scene designer, and he designed and fabricated the holiday installations every year.

The elves had been part of those displays, but in 1996, they found themselves without a home. Representatives from Downtown Cincinnati Inc. asked Treirweiler if he’d like them.

Silly question. Of course, he would.

A Cincinnati holiday tradition

Trierweiler grew up on the west side, with his mom taking him to see the elves every year. “Oh, heck yeah,” he recalled. “She would bring us down on the bus. I remember being very young, maybe 7, and going to Shillito’s, seeing the outside windows and going upstairs and seeing the elves and Santa, of course.”

Just a couple of decades later, he was the proud owner of about half of those very elves.

He used them in his annual Fountain Square holiday display, and then at the Westin Hotel across the street until the early 2000s.

“Then they went into storage,” he said.

More: Downtown department stores were festive for holiday shopping

The mystery of the missing elves

And here’s where Fort Wayne comes into the story.

One of the associate producers of the holiday display moved to Fort Wayne, and since the elves weren’t being used, she asked to display some of them there.

“I lobbied hard against it,” Trierweiler remembers. “I said, if they borrow the elves we will never see them again. And that’s exactly what happened.”

That was almost 20 years ago. And Trierweiler isn’t letting this go.

“We should go up and steal some sort of statue from them, and hold it hostage till we get our elves back,” he joked. At least, I think he joked.

After the elf hijacking (his words), it was quite a journey for the remaining elves.

A Dent Boy Scout troop ended up with about half of the original elves and auctioned them off to Bill Spinnenweber. His elves have been displayed in several places, including most recently, Mariemont.

But Trierweiler’s elves remained in hibernation until 2014. That’s when he decided to “pull them out, inventory them and see what I had.”

They found a home in the Carew Tower for several years. “But they’ve been dormant from 2017 until now,” Trierweiler said.

A new home

I talked to Trierweiler as he was preparing for the elves’ debut at Elves on Elder at Findlay Market, in the old Leader Furniture building. He had to reconfigure some of the displays to fit the windows and was amazed that one fit the space down to the inch.

The elves’ signature movements are still going strong, even a half century after they were built. “They were made in 1966. Now, the motors have had to be changed, but these were the ones that were redone by Lazarus in ‘79.”

Still making toys, still making a mess of Santa’s mail room, and still delighting children of all ages.

“Whenever I put these up – people would always come up and tell me the sentimental stories about when they first saw them and how it’s such a tradition for them,” Trierweiler said. “I think of myself as a caretaker of them, and I relish the thought that some new little kids will come by and see them.”

Unless those kids are from Fort Wayne.

You can see Elves on Elder every day at Findlay Market through the end of the year. They’re animated on the weekends.

Kathrine is animated every day on Coffee Break with Kathrine, weekdays at 10 a.m. on The Enquirer’s Facebook page.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Shillito's elves: Where the Cincinnati tradition lives

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