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Magical memories up for bid

Auction could be salvation of Enchanted Village

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By David Filipov
Globe Staff / June 16, 2009
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In times like these, everything is for sale - even the Christmas memories of tens of thousands of Bostonians.

Back before HDTV, DVDs, or Wii, back before "The Santa Clause" or "Christmas with the Kranks," there was this: The annual pilgrimage of wide-eyed boys and girls to downtown Boston, where they came upon the soft lights and festive sounds of a magical holiday display. It was called the Enchanted Village, for years housed inside the flagship Jordan Marsh department store, more a rite of December than a place.

On Thursday, the entire Historic Enchanted Village - every ribbon, wreath, and wrapped present that once filled the 8,000-square-foot display - goes on the auction block, to be sold by a city that can no longer afford to sponsor an annual attraction that long ago stopped bringing in masses of reveling families.

Yesterday, the disassembled village occupied a beat-up warehouse in South Boston, its resi dents - four-foot tall mechanical children - displayed in a forlorn line behind a police barrier against a stark metal backdrop. Some rocked slowly to the tiny whir of their motors, others were motionless, their yellow and black power cords draped over their necks like electric bolo ties.

Santa waved silently - more a goodbye, apparently, than a ho-ho-ho.

Prospective buyers willing to put up a refundable $25,000 deposit could look over the props, period items, stuffed animals, and porcelain human figurines that make up the village. To see how the fully assembled display looked, potential bidders and curious onlookers could watch a video on a large screen. The city stopped displaying it in 2006. After that, the village enchanted no more.

"The highlight of the year was going to the Historic Enchanted Village," said Stanley J. Paine, whose company will hold the auction live at the warehouse, as well as online. "Our parents would take us out to sit in Santa's lap, then it was off to the toy store at Jordan's."

Paine said the village might be attractive to a mall, exhibition center, or theme park. Sure enough, the first prospective buyer to take a look yesterday was Chris Nicoli, marketing and entertainment manager for Canobie Lake Park in southern New Hampshire.

"It caught my eye for its historical element," Nicoli said. "I'm just taking a look at what's available."

Nicoli noted the good condition of the dolls and much of the scenery; he had never seen the village fully assembled. The village will be auctioned only in its entirety - no buying separate bears or porcelain figurines. The police barriers are intended to prevent casual viewers from making off with an enchanted souvenir from their past.

Across the warehouse lay a pile of fake evergreens from the village's streets. In another corner, cuddly bears frolicked in holiday garb and a grinch popped in and out of a tree trunk. Chestnuts roasted on an open fire - only they did not roast because the fire was unplugged.

It is a sad demise for an attraction that is still listed among the lists of things to do in Boston on numerous travel websites.

Jordan Marsh began displaying the village, handcrafted by a Bavarian toymaker, as a marketing scheme in the 1940s. It was closed in 1972, reopened in 1990, and ownership was transferred to the city after Macy's took over Jordan Marsh in 1998.

At first, city officials erected the display under a tent on City Hall Plaza. By 2003, annual attendance had dropped from a high of 200,000 to about 50,000 and the mayor announced that the city could not afford to erect and staff the display. Donors put down $250,000 and the village went on display at the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center for a couple of years. It also went into decline: Some figurines had lost parts or stopped working. Several scenes - a barber shop, a living room with children decorating a tree - were removed. By 2006, the attraction was reduced to a small display inside City Hall.

"Attendance started dropping really dramatically and it wasn't worth putting together," Mayor Thomas M. Menino said. "I have a lot of fond memories of the Enchanted Village - my mother and father taking me to Jordan's, seeing the beautiful figurines."

"And it's a sad day," Menino said of Thursday's auction. "But it also gives the Enchanted Village another opportunity to enhance people's lives and bring joy to the holiday season."

For native Bostonians, the village now fades into the twilight of such bygone icons as a Bailey's hot fudge sundae, the tuxedoed host at the European Restaurant, and a ride on the roller coaster at Paragon Park.

"I was 8 or 9 years old; I was overwhelmed by the majesty of it, like the first time I saw Fenway Park," Representative Brian Wallace of South Boston recalled of the Enchanted Village. "Disneyland had opened, but we had nothing like that here; this to me was as close to Disney as I was gonna get."

David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com. Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

The city of Boston took over the Enchanted Village display in 1998, closed it in 2006, and will put it on the auction block Thursday. (John Tlumacki/Globe staff/File 2004) (John Tlumacki/Globe staff) The city of Boston took over the Enchanted Village display in 1998, closed it in 2006, and will put it on the auction block Thursday. (John Tlumacki/Globe staff/File 2004)