The Man Who Saved Christmas - CBS TV            
Erector Set Ferris Wheel from The Man Who Saved Christmas

My Work on the Movie:
The Man Who Saved Christmas

by William "Bill" Bean

On Sunday, December 15th, 2002, CBS aired a NEW MOVIE about Erector Sets called "The Man Who Saved Christmas." It was based on the true story of A.C. Gilbert appearing before the Council of National Defense to plead the toy industries case to allow toy production for the 1918 Christmas season. While CBS based this movie on fact, it was embellished with lots of fiction and creative writing. Many characters and incidents were fictitious, but it all made for a wonderful, family oriented Christmas story.

The cast of The Man Who Saved Christmas included well known actors. Jason Alexander starred as A.C. Gilbert, Ed Asner played his father (named Charles, for the movie), Kelly Rowen played A.C.’s wife, Mary, and Ari Cohen was cast in the role of A.C.’s brother, Frank. The movie was directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, and was filmed in Toronto, Canada.

I was involved in the making of this movie, and I thought the story might be of interest. It all began with a phone call from CBS in early July. The producer told me about the movie that they were planning to make, and he asked if I would review the script. He made it clear that this was a fictitious account of the early years of A.C. Gilbert and Erector, but he wanted to make sure that there were no glaring errors in the script. Next, I talked with the Props Master, who asked if I could supply Erector and Gilbert Toy material, and build models for the movie.

The Story (a really brief synopsis)

The setting is New Haven, Connecticut in 1909, where A.C with the help of his family is struggling to establish Erector in the toy market. Mary (very pregnant) has the brilliant idea to display the models that Erector will build, and Erector becomes a success. Over the next several years sales grow and A.C. buys an old abandon building and turns it into the A.C. Gilbert toy factory. The toy line expands, and electric fans are introduced.

In early 1918, the Council of National Defense calls on A.C. to convert his factory to the production of war materials. A.C. is torn between his love of making toys and his patriotic duty to his country, which is now at war. In the interim, his brother, Frank gets drafted and A.C. decides that for now, the war effort is more important. The factory undergoes a complete transition to war time production - toys disappear and are replaced by guns, knives, bullets, gas masks and artillery shells. The government is so pleased with the results that they convince A.C. (by now the leading toy producer in the country) to head a national campaign to skip the Christmas gift giving season this year…to buy war bonds instead of toys.

As the factory changes, so does A.C. His happy, carefree attitude becomes somber, and he struggles to relate to his wife and son, A.C. Jr. (age 8). When he receives word that Frank is missing in action, he becomes totally depressed.

Then a miracle happens! Alone in the factory one dark night, he realizes that the children need Christmas, and he needs to make toys. So he sets off to Washington with a load of toys and convinces Congress that they should not cancel Christmas after all. After returning home, A.C. begins making Erector sets in his garage - just like he did when he started making Erector in 1909. In November, the war ends. Frank is released from a prisoner of war camp and returns home just in time for Christmas. The Gilbert family is reunited, children get Christmas presents, and all ends well.

The Props

After receiving the phone call from CBS, I spent the next three days at my computer, scanning boxes, catalogs, manuals, and advertising material and sending the images of these early Gilbert products to the Props Master. He then decided which of them he would use to make the props for the movie, and the things that he made were fantastic! Hundreds of cardboard Erector set boxes were created, in two styles. The later boxes were really terrific because Jason Alexander’s face was substituted for the original father’s face. How delightful! Also produced were a handful of wooden boxes similar to a No. 4 box from the mid teens. Other props included lots of Erector signs, large blue prints of Erector models, and box lid images that were transformed into huge signs that hung in the factory.

Additionally, there were lots of crates and large cardboard boxes labeled "Erector”, as well as large color pictures of Erector models, hung on the walls. All and all, the props were really outstanding, and actually quite overwhelming.

The Models

After the three days of scanning, I got my screwdriver out and began to build models. The Props Master envisioned about 15 to 20 models of all different sizes to be used throughout the movie…in A.C.’s home and office mainly. But by the time I finished, I had made over 25. Most of there models were constructed from the instruction manuals, but several of them had to be built with special considerations, so they would fit into specific scenes. In addition, the Props Master wanted another 5 really large, spectacular models for the window in the "Ben‘s Toy Store" scene. All of these models were really special, as they had to fit with wording in the script. They are all very elaborate and quite unique in how they operate.

Building the models created a major dilemma for me. The time frame of the movie is 1909 (yes, in the movie A.C. creates Erector in 1909) through 1918. So to be historically accurate, all the models should have been built with style l parts. This created two big problems:
1. These parts are very limited in their versatility, and
2. Where would I ever get enough of them?
So after some deep deliberation, I decided to build the models with later parts. As you can tell by now, the models play a very prominent role in this movie, and I looked at this movie as an opportunity to "showcase" Erector to the public. The audience for this movie will be in the millions. After weighing these things in my mind, it was clear that historical accuracy (remember, this is not a documentary) was less important than spectacular props.

Some of the larger models include a factory built Ferris Wheel, 1919 Battle Ship and the 1924 Coal Loader model from my permanent collection. Special models included a small Ferris Wheel that A.C. was building in a scene with his son, the "first" Gilbert fan (and an airplane to go with it), a clockwork motor tractor and clockwork motor bi-plane, and a special version of the Airplane Ride. The models created for the window in Ben’s Toy Store were a 40 inch high Ferris Wheel based on the 1928 Classic Period model, a 60 inch high twin skyscraper, still under construction with an operating crane, an operating draw bridge, a modified version of the Hammerhead Crane, and a highly modified version of the Merry-Go-Round.

The Trip To Toronto

The final request of the Props Master was that I come to Toronto and actually create the toy window display. I arrived on the set on Monday morning. The final scenes of the movie were being shot at Gooderham and Worts, an out-of-business distillery that was built in the 1880’s and was located in the historical district of Toronto. The set was fantastic, the detail extraordinary. When I saw the A.C. Gilbert factory, I felt like I stepped back in time 80 years. There was a 20 foot high sign on the outside of the "factory" which read "Gilbert Erector" "The A.C. Gilbert Company" and "The Worlds Greatest Toys". The interior was filled with old machinery, crates and crates of parts, and finished products rolling down a conveyer belt. (By the time I arrived, the factory had been "converted" to produce war materials. It was loaded with gas masks, rifles, large artillery shells, bayonets and the like.) Gilbert’s office overlooked the main factory floor and it was packed with old office furnishings, drawings and blueprints, old electrical paraphernalia, and of course, lots and lots of Erector models.

Later that same day, I was introduced to my window at Ben’s Toy Store. Also I was introduced to my "crew", which consisted of a carpenter, a painter, and an assistant. We started the window display by building a 2 1/2 high foot platform, which measured 12 x 6 feet and sat directly behind the window. This is where the models would be located, and Jason Alexander would do his acting. The director also wanted an electric train in the window, so after moving the models into place, I had to figure out how to add the train and still leave room for Mr. Gilbert. This was accomplished by adding the Cantilever Bridge, removing some girders from the base of the skyscraper model, and actually running the track through the skyscraper. The visual impact was outstanding. Then the electrician wired it all up and we plugged it in. A large crowd formed outside the window. Actors and directors, wardrobe and props people, carpenters and painters, electricians and lighting crew, and a host of others watched for the longest time. It was wonderful!

The network had also specified that the window display have the New York City sky line as a background, so for the next several days I created a city of high-rise buildings from Erector girders. The final touches to the toy store (behind the window display) were made by the set dressers who filled the store with antique (and antique looking) toys. They also dressed the exterior of the store with three marvelous "Ben’s Toy Store" signs and tons of Christmas trim.

The big day for the toy store scene was Thursday, and the first people to arrive were the special effects people who transformed as 80 degree day in August to winter in Connecticut. The artificial snow looked so real that I felt my feet getting cold. The scene in the toy window will last about 2 minutes in the movie, but it took about 8 hours to shoot! There were no glitches - that time frame is normal (I learned).

The scene starts with shoppers peering in the store window at the wonderful models A.C. has made. Snow is falling, and A.C is still in the window (he worked all night) putting on the finishing touches on his Erector display. He sees the crowd forming, and does a magic trick (he makes an Erector set box disappear) to entertain them. Then he throws a switch, and the whole window comes to life! The people then pour into the store, and buy every last Erector set. Watch this scene carefully, and you may recognize one of the faces in the crowd of Erector customers.

Saturday morning I loaded the van with my models and a host of souvenir props and headed back to Ohio. My next big project will be creating a permanent display in my collection with these props. I am sure the movie will become a Christmas Classic. Hope you enjoyed it, too!

    That's me in the Derby in The Man Who Saved Christmas
Dayton's Hero from The Man Who Saved Christmas
From the Movie - The Man Who Saved Christmas
From the Movie - The Man Who Saved Christmas

From the Movie - The Man Who Saved Christmas
From the Movie -  The Man Who Saved Christmas
Scene from the Movie - The Man Who Saved Christmas
From the Movie - The Man Who Saved Christmas
From the Movie - The Man Who Saved Christmas
From the Movie - The Man Who Saved Christmas

From the Movie - The Man Who Saved Christmas

A CBS Special!
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