Though El Cerrito's largest and most distinctive expression of the season – the annual Sundar Shadi Holiday Display – will be largely the same as the past displays that have drawn visitors from near and far to see the sprawling little Bethlehem along Moeser Lane, several key elements will be different, a few strikingly so.
Take the angel, a spot-lit focal point of the scene and until now always a bit of an anomaly.
Unlike the many dozens of sheep, camels, villagers and buildings that the late Sundar Shadi painstakingly fashioned by hand from scraps of wood, chicken wire, stucco and whatever other common materials he could muster, the angel was merely a mannequin draped in fabric and decked with tinsel-edged wings made of thin mesh.
This year’s angel is emerging as a larger, fully formed, hand-crafted statue from the studio of El Cerrito artist Mark Canepa.
Canepa – who runs MC ArtWorks/The Village Shops and Galleries on San Pablo Avenue – volunteered not only to serve as the doctor this year for the Shadi creatures that annually need patching up. He’s taking on the more daunting task of restoring them to what they looked like when Shadi made them – except the angel.
“The angel is a complete makeover,” he said in his large studio, which has become a rehabilitation ward for about 45 of the animals and structures.
“I’ve got about half the clan here,” said Canepa, who remembers going to see the display with his family when he was a kid. “I treat them like one of my kids. I talk to a couple of them.”
He’s not only fixing the broken pieces – reattaching legs, replacing missing ears – but also trying to restore the touches that distinguished Shadi’s style and that were were lost in other repair jobs over the years.
Take the eyes. Shadi painted simple almond-shaped eyes that can still be seen on many of the animals. Or the shadings of color that were lost when creatures were repainted. (A short video of Canepa discussing some of the work accompanies this article.)
And while most of Canepa’s work is intended to restore what the display looked like when Shadi created it, other changes this year will be new.
The lighting, for example, will see more efficient LED lights replacing incandescent. And the floodlights mounted on the top of posts will be moved the ground to create a more pleasingly lit panorama, said Rich Bartke, one of the original volunteers who saved the display for the community after Shadi died at age 101 in 2002.
The orange net fencing that Bartke called “just ugly,” and which suggested a construction site in some viewers’ eyes, will be gone, replaced by green.
These new elements didn’t materialize by miracle. “Jane and I went to, I think, seven stores last weekend when they were having sales and bought the LED lights,” he said.
“Jane” is Jane Bartke, who more than anyone else is considered responsible for the hard-won success in saving the display, seeing that it was restarted in 2002 and organizing its reappearance, disappearance, storage and maintenance every year since.
The display began with a single star in Shadi’s yard in 1950 and gradually grew as he added more year by year. He stopped erecting it when he became too old in 1997, and no one at that time knew whether it would ever be seen again.
This year, the Bartkes and other long-time volunteers asked for a new crop of community members to step forward to take over the task of overseeing it.
Responding to the call was a new committee of volunteers, including Canepa, Nina Anderson, Madelein Ferguson, Donna Houser, Michele Jawad, Patricia K’Burg and Joann Steck-Bayat.
Also serving as transition members are Jane and Rich, along with two other long-time volunteers, Gordon White and Richard Ritz.
A list of the major past volunteers and their contributions, prepared by Rich Bartke under the title “Shadi Worker Bees,” is attached to this article.
A change of music too
This year the music will differ from recent past years. With the help of Shadi’s three daughters, Rich Bartke said, the songs used by Shadi will be reintroduced during the display hours this year:
- Adeste Fideles
- The First Noel
- Jules Massenet's "Thais", for violin solo and orchestra.
- Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
- God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen
- O Come, All Ye Faithful
- Silent Night
- We Three Kings
- The First Noel
- What Child Is This
- O Holy Night
- It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
- O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
- Away In A Manger
- Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming
- Once In Royal David’s City
- O, Little Town Of Bethlehem
“Holiday Display” or “Christmas Display”?
One notable feature about the Bethlehem-like village with its three Wise Men, angel and shepherds is that there is no manger. Shadi, who was not a Christian, didn’t include one. So the organizers who resurrected the display have always called it the “Shadi Holiday Display,” Rich Bartke said.
But in a new revelation this year, they learned what Shadi himself called it.
“He didn’t have a manger, so we’ve been calling it ‘the Holiday Display,’” said Rich Bartke. “The three girls (Shadi’s daughters) told us, ‘Pop always called it “the Christmas Display”.’”
Viewing the display
The display – along Moeser Lane at Sea View Drive – will go up on Saturday morning, Dec. 15, and come down on Dec. 27, the same date that it is dismantled every year. Volunteer docents will staff the display from 5-10 p.m. each day.
The display committee appreciates donations and volunteer help with the set-up, take-down and other tasks. Those wishing to contribute or become involved can email email@example.com.
You can also find out more on the display’s Facebook page.
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