FOL Feature: Ernst Family Adds New Story into Old Favorites

In the 1950s and 1960s, Paul Ernst was one of the children in the thousands of cars that paraded past the Christmas wonderland at the home of Mr. and Mrs. L.T. Burns at Harrison and Clarinda. Memories of those Christmases never left him, even though his family moved to Oklahoma when he was in the third grade. When he returned in the mid-1970s with his wife Sue, his new family made seeing the lights, now moved to the front lawn of MSU's Hardin Administration Building, part of their Christmas tradition.

The idea for a new display was Sue's. After taking their grandchildren through the displays during the 2012 Christmas season, Sue noticed that there hadn't been a new display added in some time. "I just had a dream, or a vision, and I looked at Paul and said, 'Why don't you build something and let's just donate it to Midwestern,' " she said. The idea took hold, and the Ernst family -- Paul, Sue, their son Robert and his wife Lacee, and daughter Ashley Dye, put their heads together to come up with an idea.

Sue said that they thought something was needed that kids today could relate to their childhood -- a contemporary children's story that tomorrow's adults could look back on fondly. "I love everything out there, our grandkids love all the displays, there just seemed to be a need for something current," Sue said. When thinking of beloved contemporary children's characters, those in the movie Toy Story came to mind. "It's just a cute story. It spoke to boys and girls," Sue said. The idea for "A Toy's Christmas," using the characters from Toy Story, was born.

In February of this year, work began on "the Project," as the family called it. Sue laughed and said, "I haven't seen Paul for nine months." Each night after work and each weekend, Paul and Robert would leave their jobs at Paul's petroleum engineering firm and go to a workshop. From scratch, they built the scene that will thrill children of all ages, along with the other displays. They didn't have a blueprint to go by. "There was a lot of trial and error -- a lot of error," Paul said and laughed. But Sue had faith that her husband and son could make it work. "There's nothing that these two can't figure out."

By March, the trailer was welded, then the Ernsts used weatherproof materials such as PVC, steel, and weatherproof siding and paint, to build the walls of Andy's room, the home of all his toys. Robert, an MSU alumnus, built frames for the characters, then sculpted them with clay and coated them with fiberglass. After the fiberglass dried, they were broken open so they could be wired for movement and resealed with fiberglass. Paul painted the characters.

The setting is Andy's room, complete with clouds, children's drawings, and the giant Mickey Mouse wristwatch on the walls. Woody is standing on Andy's buckaroo-themed bedspread, holding a string of Christmas lights to decorate the Christmas tree on the nightstand. Rex is on the bed too, stomping his feet and carrying a tree ornament. Green Army Men rock on their connected feet up on the dresser with a Bo Peep lamp. Slinky Dog's front legs walk back and forth, stretching out his springy body. Bullseye the Horse bucks up and down. Rocky Gibraltar pumps iron while Ham the pig bobs up and down. Above it all, Buzz Lightyear flies in circles around the moon.

Andy and Molly are outside the door to Andy's room, with Buster the dog running in a circle. As the children open the door and go into the room, all the toys stop moving, and Mr. Shark, in the toy chest, disappears into the chest as the lid closes. All is still. Andy and Molly back out of the room and close the door, and Mr. Shark rises out of the chest as the lid opens. Mr. Potato Head's arms start back up circling like he's directing traffic. The Aliens carry on their dance on toy blocks and RC the car resumes its race on the floor. All the toys have come alive again.

"Wow," said Fantasy of Lights Coordinator Randy Canivel of "A Toy's Christmas." "When we first brought it out, everyone from the electrical crew to the grounds crew was amazed. It is so uplifting what this family has done."

Having so many moving figures was a challenge for the Ernsts. They had to decide the movement the characters were going to have, and then how to engineer that. "If you saw this from above, it's like an erector set. There's a lot of robotics involved," Paul said. Buster is the only figure that doesn't stop moving.

The whole Ernst family has added their touches. Andy is wearing pirate pajamas because Robert and Lacee's son Cash loves pirates. Lacee also chose the princess pajamas for Molly. To add more girl-power for Ashley's daughter Samantha, Molly is holding a Jessie doll (from Toy Story 2). Sue made the bedspread to resemble Andy's as closely as possible. Paul also built the night stand and chest, and the bed is a repurposed swing.

In Sue's mind, there was never any doubt that Paul and Robert could make the display happen. It has taken untold hours during most of the year for her vision to come alive, but it is now a reality. "It's been a true labor of love, but one we hope the community will be able to enjoy for years to come," Sue said. "We're happy to give something back to our area. We wanted to leave an Ernst legacy of some kind in this community that has blessed our family so very much. We came here in 1975 with no other family here, but it soon became our home."

The Ernsts were somewhat shy at first about anyone knowing about the project, worried that it might not happen, or work as they intended. But now that "A Toy's Christmas" is out on display with all the others that Paul saw as a wide-eyed child, he's relieved, and he hopes the children will feel what he felt those years ago. "I just want to stand back and watch the kids."
To read more about the www.msuburnsfantasyoflights.com.
Coming Wednesday: Don Henschel -- Keeping the Fantasy of Lights Tradition Alive

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