Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 52° Partly Cloudy
News >  Features

Holiday stress hits hard for set decorators

Solvej Schou Associated Press

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 TV-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 3’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.

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,” Wells said. “There were no twinkle lights. 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 3 holiday episode, which filmed in September 2008 and aired that December.

The set included the California house that teenager Miley Stewart’s (Miley Cyrus) 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.”

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 online.

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.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.