From Macy’s to 6th Ward
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – On their first date, Wayne Balnis introduced his girlfriend (and future wife), Carla Palmer, to a family tradition.
“He took me to see the skaters on the Catellas’ lawn on Belmont Circle,” she said. “And there’d be a line of cars behind us, waiting to see them.”
“My dad took me when I was a kid,” said Wayne.
Part of former Bresee’s Department Store Christmastime window displays, Kathleen Catella said she and her husband, Jim, obtained the mechanical figure skaters in the 1950s.
Each Christmas season, the couple set them up on their lawn, since delighting generations of Oneonta-area visitors.
“I had one young man come up to me in the grocery store and tell me his parents had taken him to see the skaters,” Kathleen said. “In high school, he took his girlfriend. And later, he proposed to her in front of them!”
“They bring back so many happy memories for so many people.”
According to the couple’s son Tim, his parents stopped doing the display in 1995, and the skaters were packed away. His dad, City Hall recreation director and Catella Park namesake, passed away in 2006.
Now, Wayne and Carla, friends of Tim, hope to carry on the tradition at their Sixth Ward home. “I always bugged him about those figure skaters,” said Carla. “Finally, he called me up and he said, ‘Mom’s ready.’”
“It’s time to bring them back,” said Kathleen.
Carla sat down with Kathleen and explained her intentions: to bring the skaters back into the public eye.
“It was like an interview,” said the younger woman. “I told her how committed we were to getting them going again. She didn’t even want any money for them. She just wanted people to see them.”
Aside from a few broken fingertips, the mechanical skaters are in good condition, but the base they skated on was accidentally destroyed when construction workers took down the outbuilding where it was being stored.
The Balnises are looking for someone to redesign the rotating track and the mechanism to make them “skate.”
Each figure is on tires that allows them to bounce off walls and each other and, in the process, spin.
Kathleen doesn’t think the skaters originated locally, but were originally among Macy’s famed window displays in New York City, before the local department store bought them.
“I don’t know how Jim got them,” said his wife. “He just came up with the idea that we should have them!”
So every year, at the start of Advent, the skaters would go out on the Catellas’ lawn. “My husband and the kids would build a structure around them to keep the snow and rain off them, and we’d put on music for them to skate to,” she said. “There would be a line of cars waiting to see them.”
“It wasn’t Christmas without the skaters,” said son Tim.
The father’s secretary, Alice, made new costumes for them. “They had jingle bells in the skirt that would ring,” said Kathleen. “It’s those little details that made the kids smile.”
The Catellas’ display was one of several on Belmont Circle.
“There was a farmer who lived there and farmed outside of town, and a carpenter on the block too,”
Kathleen said. “The carpenter built a living Nativity, and the farmer brought cows, sheep, goats and a donkey named Sassafras, with mannequins as Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The kids would wait for him to roll up the canvas every day, and then he would let them ride on Sassafras.”
By next year, Wayne and Carla are hoping to bring that same Christmas spirit to Gilbert Street.
“We know a few people who might be able to make a new base,” she said. “But we’re reaching out to anyone who might be able to help.”
“I’d be delighted to see it again,” said Kathleen. “I’ll bring my kids, grandkids and great-grandkids to see it.”