Displaying Christmas Spirit

Catherine Hale’s world is one of dancing mice, foxes in kilts and pandas that ski.

Toy carolers deck the halls 365 days a year and the lights twinkle nonstop.

Hale and her temp elves at Santa Claus Productions have been busy turning the lobbies of the Los Angeles and Riviera country clubs, a Century City tower and a Westwood high-rise into tinseled tableaux.

Cathy Christmas, as she’s known in some parts, wasn’t born with visions of sugarplums dancing in her head. She was a real estate broker for 13 years.

But in 1984, her accountant, who had a Christmas decorating business on the side, urged her to look into it. The next December, on a whim, Hale flipped open the Yellow Pages and started calling banks, asking: “Would you like to buy a Christmas tree?”

Until then, Hale says, she didn’t know a spruce from a fir. “I thought all over the world there was one tree called a Christmas tree.” She netted 40 tree sales anyway.

The next year, at the L.A. Gift Mart, she came across a purveyor who was calling it quits and, for $10,000, bought 16 boxes of assorted baubles and collectibles and five artificial trees.

Then she panicked. “I owned 100 panda bears. Now what do you do?”

What Hale did was to convince Trammell-Crowe, which had just bought the Fluor building in Irvine, to let her decorate its public areas. Then she sold South Coast Plaza an 85-foot white fir that took 7,000 lights.

That was when she realized, “I owned too much stuff to say it was a whim.”

By 1992, her client list included five hotels--among them the Beverly Hilton, a few Hyatts and a Ramada Renaissance--and 13 office buildings.

Every year, she’d just move into the Hilton for the holidays. “The ornaments (were stolen) every weekend,” she explained. Or there would be an SOS: “Catherine, someone took the poinsettia . . . " Even empty gift-wrapped packages walked out the door.

This year she made a vow: No more hotels. Ever.

But she still does other spaces, and, for an average of $5,000 per office lobby, clients can choose from 54 foxes, 67 teddy bears, 36 pandas and two five-foot Santa Clauses--all available on a lend-lease basis (with security deposit).

Sleighs and Santas aren’t the sort of thing one shoves into a guest room closet off-season. So last year Hale moved Santa Claus Productions into a West L.A. mall.

When a confused shopper wanders in, Hale explains politely that she’s not in the retail business. This is, rather, a display area cum office, complete with two frisky kittens that have the run of the place.

Recently, she made a deal with a photographer whose home she’s selling. He put all 100,000 pieces of her Christmas decorations on photo CDs. So now she can scan in an image of a space, add foxes, reindeer and all and send the client a computer picture for approval.

Hale rents props to TV shows and once decked out the Rodeo Collection in Beverly Hills for a magazine shoot. For lack of time, she recently declined a challenge to outfit the Budweiser Clydesdales with horse-proof lights.

Now, the 42-year-old Tennessee-born entrepreneur is talking of franchising. (The Mrs. Fields of winter?)

And her own home, presumably, is by now a Christmas extravaganza?

Well, actually, she doesn’t do a tree: “Do you think I want that mess at home?”

Tinker of Toys

At her Reseda clinic (formerly the family garage), Sandra Borenstein is diagnosing a koala brought in that day with its straw-stuffed body ripped open.

The koala, its owner explained, was a gift from a special someone when she was a teen-ager. The slashing, the owner said, had been at the hands of her 5-year-old: “My husband walked out on me and my two little kids, and my littlest one got very angry about it.

“The way she dealt with it was to destroy things. She took nail scissors and cut open the seams.”

Borenstein picks up a photo of another patient: “The raccoon from hell.” It had been held together with rusting safety pins when delivered to her door.

The raccoon, the client explained, had been a favorite of her fiance when he was a little boy. The bride-to-be wanted it put back together as a wedding surprise.

Dolls do not leave the “Dolls by Sandra” hospital looking brand new again. For that, she says, “you can go to Toys R Us.”

She doesn’t restore; she repairs. “It’s just like with an old person who’s very fragile. You do the best you can to put them back together.”

Borenstein, 59, the self-styled “little old doll maker from Reseda,” backed into the business 10 years ago when she made a Raggedy Ann and Andy as a Hanukkah gift for her young daughter.

Self-taught, she now teaches a mother-daughter class in the San Fernando Valley and another at an elementary school in Calabasas. The hardest part, she’s found, is getting little girls to imagine an original doll: “In this age of TV, if they don’t see it, it’s not there.”

She assures them, “You can’t make a mistake. Look at the Cabbage Patch Doll. That had to be somebody’s mistake.”

As a doll doctor, Borenstein scours yard sales and thrift shops for dolls from which she’ll take arms and legs. For stickum, she’ll use whatever works: “I’ve even had my dentist give me what he uses to fix plates.”

Repairs must be subtle, no screws through an arm. If children see that, “they think of themselves. Is the doctor going to put a hole in my arm?”

Borenstein gets more excited over a vintage Mickey Mouse than about dolls that drink and talk and wet. “Once the child understands the mechanism, it’s over.” (Naturally, her own granddaughter rejected a Doll by Sandra in favor of one that eats things).

Once, Hollywood called. The job: To make a doll to sit erect, hiding a ringing telephone. The solution: “I gave her a beanbag tush,” using beans she’d bought to make soup.

She is not, she acknowledges, a business whiz. If she reads about a child orphaned or abused, she’s apt to drop by--like Santa Claus--with a gift doll. At Christmas, paying customers and charities vie for her time.

“The longer it takes me to fix a doll, the lower the price becomes. Guilt.”

Now, isn’t she lucky to be able to salvage the dolls she herself had as a child! Borenstein looks a bit sheepish. “I destroyed them all,” she says. “I hated dolls.”