On the day after Thanksgiving, Lou Nasti and his team were staring into the back of a yellow rental truck, empty except for a giant Santa head and torso, which weighed about 350 pounds. Santa was smiling, but not Mr. Nasti and his crew, who had to unload and carry the jolly old fellow.
“He used to be really mean-looking,” said Mr. Nasti, who designed and built Santa. Three years ago, Mr. Nasti worked on his big face to make him appear happier. “He used to look constipated,” said Mr. Nasti. “You eat all those carrots kids leave out and you’d be constipated, too.” He chuckled, helping to lighten maybe not the load but the mood, his helpers laughing along with him.
In the past four hours, the team had unloaded and set up two mechanical 250-pound, 15-foot-tall toy soldiers, a platoon of smaller soldiers, two 500-pound mechanical white horses and a team of miniature horses and their carousels, a half-dozen heavyweight pedestals, and a small army of newly made elves. They carried them all up 12 steps to the front yard of the now-famous Polizzotto house in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, which Mr. Nasti decorates every year.Continue reading the main story
“Santa is the big boy,” said Antoine Johnson, a hired hand for the day, shaking his head and staring at the colossus.
Giving his crew a pep talk, Mr. Nasti told them if at any time they thought they might drop Santa, they should just yell out. Mr. Nasti wears a back brace from a fall off the truck from three years back, so he knows what he’s talking about.Continue reading the main story
Standing at 5-foot-4, with a big white mustache, mussed gray hair and glasses on the end of his nose, Mr. Nasti looks like Papa Geppetto, but when he chuckles or gets excited, he sounds just like Joe Pesci, his voice rising an octave, the words spilling out in rapid-fire Brooklynese. Since he was a teenager growing up in Flatbush, he’s been building robots and other mechanical figures. Now they’re mostly moving, sometimes talking or singing, Christmas decorations, which he sells and installs world wide.Continue reading the main story
Four years ago he traveled to Morocco to decorate the king’s castle for Yuletide. He remembers the palace grounds in detail, the ride in the fog from Casablanca, the long road with actual armed soldiers — not toys — standing at the gates, the Gatsby-like courtyard with its weeping willow. “I said to myself: ‘Not bad, Nasti, they took you from Brooklyn to meet the king. Little Italian kid makes it big.’”
In Midwood High School in the early 1960s, he built rockets and radar interceptors; he made two airplanes collide in his classroom. His Sicilian-American mother was an artist, painting toy soldiers in a factory. His Neapolitan-American father had a mechanical mind, doing design work for a souvenir company. Mr. Nasti inherited both gifts. “My father used to say, ‘What exactly goes on up there in your head?’”
While still a teenager, he was written up in The New York Times in 1965 after building a robot named Mr. Obos. M.I.T. offered him a scholarship, he said, but he turned it down and went to work instead, building his own creations inspired by Italian opera and his favorite ballet, “Coppélia.”
There were stints at Abraham & Strauss, doing their windows and floor displays, then his job at Bliss Displays, building, among other things, Macy’s Santaland. He worked with Sid and Marty Krofft in Georgia as a puppeteer and finally in 1969, Mr. Nasti opened his own company, where he hired his father, Atilio, to work beside him. “I name some of my teddy bears Atilio, after him,” he said.
His workshop — Mechanical Displays Inc. — is in a squat brick warehouse in East Flatbush that looks on the outside like any other warehouse, except for the elephants, toy soldiers, reindeer and skeletons in the parking lot. He and his staff of 10 work the costume room, the setup room, the machine shop — filled with trays of screws, bolts, brackets, gadgets and bearings. His hands are often dirty, covered in mechanic’s grease.
Lining the walls are singing baboons, five shelves of latex heads, Pinocchio, four-foot-tall gingerbread men and those teddy bears named Atilio. But that’s all just the amuse-bouche.Continue reading the main story
A hallway lined with blue LED ribbon lights leads to a door with wooden letters that read, “Welcome to My World.” And there it is, Mr. Nasti’s showroom: a swirling, moving collection of elves, bears, reindeer, talking trees and Dickens-era figures dancing in a ballroom. Rudolph recently departed for a short stay at a Long Island home.
“I work in fairyland,” said Mr. Nasti during a workshop tour. “Though I haven’t worked a day in my life really because I love what I do. Although I did freeze my butt off this morning on a balcony in Staten Island putting up a display.”
Back in 1980, his company moved to an 80,000-square-foot space in Queens, with 63 employees. “It was like Staten Island with a roof on it,” he said. “But I was very unhappy. And when you’re in this business and you’re unhappy, the figures all wind up with frowns on their faces.” (The 350-pound Santa head is living proof.)Continue reading the main story
He would bring his two daughters, Victoria and Margot, to work as little kids so he could see them, since he was never home. They’d put flowers on displays, paint and glue figures.
“But I built this monster,” he said. He used to make his team work on Thanksgiving Day. They would set out Wednesday night to put up a big display on Park Avenue, work until midnight and then go to another building at 1 a.m. and work until the middle of Thanksgiving Day.
“Without sleep,” he said, his voice rising. “It was beyond torture. The money was big, but it didn’t pay. Quality of life is more important.”Continue reading the main story
He scaled back and moved to this 15,000-square-foot site, where he has been for the past 22 years.
Not that he sits still much these days. He takes off a half-day on Sundays to spend time with his family, whose photos line his office walls. A typical day runs from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., at which point he stops off for his “B and W vitamins.” Beer or wine at the neighborhood bar in Marine Park.
Mr. Nasti’s work has taken him to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand, Australia, the Bahamas, and Brazil, his favorite country. He has built a jungle-themed carwash in Lafayette, Ind., with water-spouting elephants, and has decorated countless department stores, toy shows, casinos, and private homes — the most famous being the Polizzotto house, which was one of the first in Dyker Heights or anywhere in Brooklyn to really do it up big more than three decades ago. He does four other houses in the neighborhood as well.
“I could make Santa lighter now,” said Mr. Nasti, looking at that giant head. “But Mrs. Polizzotto doesn’t want to change anything.” Three years ago, though, he turned off the speaking mechanism on Santa when neighbors started to complain about the noise.
In Dyker Heights, Mr. Nasti’s crew was tight, working like one of his well-oiled machines to get silent Santa out of the truck. “Teamwork makes the dream work,” chanted George Johnson, one of the young crewmen.
So down came Santa onto a dolly, rolled across 86th Street and, with the strength of seven men, lifted up those 12 stairs and onto his perch, where his giant arms and legs were attached. To carry the weight, metal poles were placed at either end of the load. “Like when they lift the saint at an Italian feast,” explained Mr. Nasti, though he got the idea years ago watching the movie “Cleopatra,” as Elizabeth Taylor was lifted by her servants.
“This is how they built the pyramids,” said Jose Albino, a painter and carpenter from the workshop, wiping sweat from his forehead as he admired Santa from the sidewalk. The lions and lawn jockeys on the property looked sort of sad, upstaged once again for the season.
The crew still had a few more hours to go and would return the next day to do the wiring to make everything move. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” said Mr. Nasti. “You know why? I wasn’t the foreman on the job.”Continue reading the main story