The Nomadic Shillito's Elves

December 02, 2018 3 Comments

Shillito's Elves

Just about every major American city has a unique holiday tradition which are often tied to a long-closed department store. In Atlanta, it’s the Pink Pig monorail that began at the now-defunct Rich’s Department store in 1956. In Cleveland, people fondly remember Mr. Jingleling from Halle’s department store which closed in the 1980s.

Cincinnati, of course, had the Shillito’s Elves and their Holiday Workshop. And while the traditions in those other cities have steadily lived on in one form or another, the journey for Santa’s Tristate helpers has been a rocky one.

They first appeared in Shillito’s flagship downtown location at 7th and Race sometime in the mid-1950s. For a generation they entertained holiday shoppers as over 131 figures appeared in nearly 40 different holiday scenes, seven of those in the store’s front windows. In 1979, a new set of elves was created to freshen up the display and make it even livelier. After Shillito’s was merged with sibling chain Rike’s by parent chain Lazurus in 1982, the elves found themselves out of work, at least for a few years.

In the 90s, they reappeared, though on a scaled-back level, in their old digs at 7th & Race in what was by then the Lazarus department store (the Shillito's-Rike's name having been scrapped in 1986 by the Columbus-based retailer). The cavernous store, at some 450,000 square feet, had plenty of spare space to dedicate to the elves and so for a few holiday seasons, they were back at work sorting Santa’s mail, building toys, and tracking his flight.  

In 1997, Lazarus moved to Fountain Place at 5th and Vine but had only a quarter of the space it had at the historic 7th and Race store. The elves and all their gear were sold to a Boy Scout troop from Dent that same year.

In 2004, Bill Spinnenweber, GM of the Mariemont Inn, stumbled onto the collection and offered, partially in jest, to buy it. In 2005, he acquired all 75 remaining elves along with 12 displays. The elves were soon back in action for the next few holiday seasons, appearing at several different locations including Newport on the Levee, Carew Tower, and Crossroads Church in Oakley.

However, the annual assembling, dismantling, moving, and storing of the elves was taking its toll on the collection. In 2014, they set up shop permanently in a Mariemont storefront owned by the Spinneweber family. With a year-round home secured, wear and tear were greatly reduced. The problem then became a financial one. The elves only bring in money for about a month, as they are inactive for most of the year. That’s 11 months of lost income on prime real estate in the heart of Mariemont.

In October of 2018, the decision was made to not open the space for the coming holiday season. In a message posted on the Facebook page for Santa's Workshop featuring the Shillito's Elves, their minders wrote:

“It is with great sadness that Santa’s Workshop will not be opening for the 2018 holiday season. We are grateful to all our staff, family and friends and would like to say a special thank you to all our wonderful patrons who have come through our doors over the years. You have made the experience unforgettable.

While there are no plans to re-open at this location, we hope to open the Workshop in a new location next year. We appreciate your loyalty and patronage and it was our pleasure to be part of the community over the past few years!”

Those plucky, hard-working elves are still a beloved holiday tradition, and perhaps with a little bit of holiday magic will find a truly permanent home and enter their eighth decade of making memories for Tristate residents.

3 Responses


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November 20, 2019

Did the elves find a new home for 2019? I think they should be at Kings Island’s Winterfest!

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