Imagine if your holiday decorations were going to be seen by millions of people. That's the challenge for many TV-show set decorators as all the Christmas-themed episodes roll around.
"Decorations should be what's appropriate for the characters and story," says "Hannah Montana" set decorator Wendy Fine. "You don't put things outrageous that shouldn't be outrageous. If all they're talking about is the set, the sets were overdone or the actors were really bad."
Like other television show set decorators, she scoured stores and online for Christmas trinkets, knickknacks and decorations months before the actual holiday. Most holiday episodes are filmed in the summer and air in late fall.
"Mad Men" set decorator Amy Wells didn't grow up celebrating Christmas, but "the moment I got out of my parents' house, I got a lot of vintage Christmas decorations," she said. "I had a box full of stuff. Old mercury-style bowls in light frosty pink and light frosty aqua."
Wells put those vintage finds to good use on the AMC show, set in the early 1960s at fictional New York advertising firm Sterling Cooper. Season three's "Mad Men" finale, which aired Nov. 8, featured everything from a classic Christmas wreath to a fake tree in the office. Each secretary desk at Sterling Cooper had some kind of decoration, including holiday candy bowls, holiday candy, china Santas and candy canes.
Authenticity, for Wells, is paramount. She and her team regularly research '60s catalogs from JC Penney and Sears, and consult with the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, and costume designer, Janie Bryant.
"We make it look like the art department didn't come in. We make it look like it's real," Wells said. "I'm a New Yorker. I'm sure that influenced it. The decoration was authentic decoration from that day."
The show is filmed in Los Angeles, and Wells drives all over for decorations, from small, quaint stores in her South Pasadena neighborhood, such as antique store Hodgson's, to Long Beach 30 miles away. The wreath came from a prop house in North Hollywood called Almost Christmas Prop Shoppe. Big Christmas light bulbs at the new apartment of main character Don Draper were found by the box at thrift shops.
"What was available to people back then was much more limited. There were no twinkle lights," Wells said. "People made a lot of crafts, crocheted Santas over toilet rolls. ... People back then were much more spare. They were not as over-the-top as today."
For "Hannah Montana," Fine was asked to find traditional Christmas decorations such as strung-up cards and a red-ribboned wreath for the Disney show's season three holiday episode, which filmed in September 2008 in Los Angeles and aired that December.
The set included the California house that teenager Miley Stewart's family moved into from Tennessee.
"The decorations in the house were supposed to be things they may have brought from Tennessee, like traditional Christmas lights," said Fine. "There was nothing very designer about it. It was homey."
Hundreds, even thousands, of set items are used in each episode, Fine said, and many stores in Los Angeles cater to film and TV show sets.
Twelve-foot-tall Christmas trees were rented from plant rental company Green Set, Inc., in North Hollywood. A huge, golden Santa throne was rented from nearby prop house Jackson Shrub. Fine snagged Christmas bowls, tinsel and lights from Vine American Party Store in Hollywood, "one of my favorite little stores," which carries out-of-season decorations, she said.
Kelly Curley, production designer for the music-filled Playhouse Disney show "Imagination Movers," filmed in New Orleans, said the set decorator found most holiday items, including strings of Christmas lights, online. Crafts stores also carried specialty items for the show.
In the episode "Happy Ha-Ha-Holidays," which premiered Dec. 5, Santa loses his ability to "ho ho ho," so the Movers, four problem-solving guys, make him cookies.
The show also went with a classic holiday look, including a Norman Rockwell fireplace and juniper trees lined with snow outside of the Movers' warehouse.
"We try to avoid branded elements," said Curley. "We buy things that you would expect to find for Christmas, and retrofit them for our needs. We have balconies and stairwells we would line with garlands. We fabricated our ornaments for the tree."
The lair for a puppet character called Warehouse Mouse also featured elements of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
On the Net:
"Mad Men": http://www.amctv.com/originals/madmen/
"Hannah Montana": http://tv.disney.go.com/disneychannel/hannahmontana/
"Imagination Movers": http://tv.disney.go.com/playhouse/imaginationmovers/
Almost Christmas Prop Shoppe: http://www.almostchristmaspropshoppe.com/
Green Set: http://www.greenset.com/
Jackson Shrub: http://www.jacksonshrub.com/
Vine American Party: http://www.vineamericanparty.com/