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Just Can't Wait for Christmas: The Hallmark "Art of Keepsakes" Show

Just Can't Wait for Christmas: The Hallmark "Art of Keepsakes" Show

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The Christmas sales season keeps expanding every year. I can remember a time when department store windows changed to Christmas themes promptly on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving. This year, my local WalMart had most of their Christmas decorations out by late October, and Target waited patiently until November first. But there is still one national store that has them all beat with their Christmas decorations available for sale in July -- of course I'm talking about Hallmark.

Bright and early on the morning of July 12th, Hallmark stores across the country opened their doors to show off the 2003 Christmas ornament line. Included in this year's offerings: a whistling moving Steamboat Willie ornament, a kissing Lady and the Tramp, and a ready-to-burst out playing Stitch as Elvis.

Until recently, that was the total extent of my Hallmark Ornament knowledge -- I would look each year to see if they offered interesting Disney ornaments, then either buy them or take my life in my hands and wait for the after-Christmas sales roulette. I've been to flea markets and swap meets all over the world, but the only time I was ever physically threatened was in a Hallmark store on December 26th during a half-price sale.

This summer, I learned much more about Hallmark ornaments when the Hallmark "Art of Keepsakes" traveling show came to my town. See if this sounds familiar: A large company puts on a collector's convention which offers a welcome packet with gifts, limited edition items for sale, special lectures and presentations, trivia contests, door prizes, artist signings, meals, and plenty of photo ops. Put on by the Hallmark Company, this two-day convention was very similar to a Disneyana Convention, only without the Sotheby's auction. And also without the long lines, frustration, and occasional audience booing.

Now I must admit, before attending, my reaction was "What's the big deal?" There's what, maybe 200 or so Hallmark ornaments that come out each year? You buy the ones you like and you're done. You want to collect a series and need pieces from previous years? Go to eBay and poof -- you're done. What is there to "collect?" Once I arrived and discovered that the group of 1200 attendees was approximately 75% female, I stopped being so analytical and just enjoyed learning more about Hallmark ornaments.

Maybe because there are a limited number of ornaments released each year, the Hallmark collectors, as a group, have become extremely knowledgeable -- bordering on scary. I think only baseball card collectors can compete when it comes to knowing obscure trivia concerning their hobby. Hallmark collectors can recite which artists designed which ornaments, what materials are used to make various ornaments, and even the names of the people who appear in the annual catalogs. I'm not sure where they get all this -- it's not in the catalogs -- but it is necessary to survive the frequent trivia contests. When I would admit to collecting the some Disney ornaments, I was repeatedly told that Hallmark's first licensed character was Mickey Mouse, and the first time Disney licensed his characters was to the Hallmark Company. (If I hadn't told you, one of them would have written in.)

The collectors will also cheerfully tell you that thirty years ago, Hallmark offered their first Christmas ornaments -- just eighteen that premier year -- six glass ball ornaments and twelve yarn figures. Hallmark's innovations were to date the ornaments and produce them in limited quantities. At the time, mass-produced ornaments weren't dated because retailers couldn't carry that inventory over to the next year. Besides, it was thought that dated ornaments wouldn't be that appealing to customers. Instead, Hallmark's ornaments caught on, and created a new category of collectibles. Collecting has become more popular each year, and today the Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments Club has a registered collector base of over 30,000 people worldwide.

Enough history. How was the convention? The welcome packet contained -- of course -- more ornaments. Known as "repaints", these ornaments are painted using a color scheme different from the nationally available ornaments -- making these "repaints" even more collectible. I was disappointed there were no Disney ornaments among the repaints, but then I realized with all the licensing approval stages it probably wouldn't go over too well to ask the Disney guys, "Oh hey, now that everything is approved, can we make Tinkerbell's dress magenta for a convention ornament?"

The centerpiece of the convention room was a giant twelve-foot-tall Hallmark crown, which I learned later was made of buttercup colored spandex. If nothing else, Hallmark should be applauded for getting that much buttercup spandex off of the streets.

The SRO presentations included a talk on Barbie Hallmark ornaments, the stories behind this year's ornaments, and even a sneak peak at some 2004 ornaments (talk about excited -- the collectors just couldn't wait to see these). I even learned that the Steamboat Willie ornament was among the top ten most popular sellers during Premier weekend -- July 12th and 13th.

People came for the trading, they enjoyed the presentations, but the real rock stars of this traveling show were the Hallmark artists. It was announced which artists would be coming to which cities, and collectors flew to specific cities to meet their favorites. The convention in Arizona drew collectors from Guam, Hawaii, and several parts of the East Coast. With the artists sitting in a long receiving line, collectors could meet five different Hallmark artists, get ornaments signed, and pose for pictures. Everyone received Hallmark's version of a Fastpass, telling them when they could come to have ornaments signed, so the lines never got extreme.

One strength of this convention was that artists would sign any ornament you brought, no matter how old. The only stipulation was it had to be an ornament they had designed. While waiting for your turn, you would hear people tell the artists things like: "This was the first ornament that got my daughter interested in collecting." "You got this dog just right -- it reminds me of the dog I had growing up." "This ornament always reminds me of Mom and her Christmas baking." These kinds of comments, as well as the artists' reactions, were a lot more fun to watch than the grunting at a Disneyana assembly line signing.

Of course, the main reason for the success was the artists Hallmark selected. They were all extremely patient and willing to spend time with collectors. The artists also seemed to be collectors of various items themselves, so they understood how nutty collectors can be at times.

Ken Crow is exactly the type of person you would want sculpting Disney ornaments. Armed with a quick grin and enthusiasm for all things Disney, he could easily be mistaken for Tony Baxter's younger brother. He grew up just a few miles from Disneyland, and today takes his own family on annual Disney trips -- usually Disney World. Just like most of us would, he enjoyed going to the licensing approval meetings simply because they were held on the Disney Studio lot. You can see a picture of Ken posing after signing his Lion King ornament.

Hallmark actively encourages room hopping. I turned around in one room and was face to face with Clara Johnson Scroggins, author of several books on Hallmark collectibles. If the artists are the rock stars that get approached anytime anywhere, Ms. Scroggins is the Princess of the gathering -- you know she's there, but you don't stare and you don't approach her directly. For some reason, this woman causes Hallmark collectors to speak of her in quiet respectful whispers. Fortunately, I didn't know any of this protocol, and enjoyed a quick conversation with her. She was very personable and fun to talk with. I encourage all Hallmark collectors to change the rules and go talk to Clara -- you'll be glad you did!

The only scoop that I could pry out of anyone was that there will be a 2004 ornament "based on a Disney theme park ride." While this could mean several things, the only pictures I've seen have been Small World children ornaments. Could there be pirates? Could there be hitchhiking ghosts? Maybe, and you won't have to wait very long to find out -- the 2004 ornaments will be unveiled on Hallmark's website in January!

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