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Originally published Wednesday, November 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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50 years of memories of Macy's holiday star

He never was a particularly emotional man, but there was a moment Monday afternoon when Bob James' feelings almost overcame him. Finally, his work was...

Seattle Times staff reporter

He never was a particularly emotional man, but there was a moment Monday afternoon when Bob James' feelings almost overcame him.

Finally, his work was being credited.

James was standing on the roof of the Macy's downtown Seattle store near the building's corner at Fourth Avenue and Pine Street.

He was invited to watch a crew get ready to hoist up the 161-foot-long Christmas star, which, when lit, has 4,300 light bulbs glowing around a 1,000-watt metal halide center.

This is the 50th anniversary of the star that has become a local symbol of the holidays.

And the man who designed the star is James, 86, a lifetime employee of the department store.

"I almost got a little choked up. This is the first time the star and I have gotten recognition," he said.

To many, the store still is known as the Bon Marché, after the business founded here as a dry-goods store in 1890. In 2003, it became Bon-Macy's, and in 2005 simply Macy's.

Whatever the name, this is a holiday destination for many local families, where grandparents can tell grandkids about when they were young and came to admire the huge star.

After a while on Monday, work stopped because there was a crack in a 35-foot metal arm of the star, and a welder was needed. Installation is to start again at 11 this morning.

In his home in Lake Forest Park, James still has copies of the blueprints for the mammoth structure, along with dozens of manila folders containing photos from his days as a display designer. It was a great job, he said.

James designed window displays, interior fixtures, and, of course, all those Christmas attractions. They included intricate window displays of moving model trains — which, in some cases, required someone continually manning the controls — and even a hydraulic rocket ship in the toy department that carried 30 people on a spaceflight around a model of Seattle.

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In those days, James said, money was available for designers to pursue their visual dreams.

In the early-1950s, he said, then-display director Harold McLaren returned from visiting the East Coast and talked about seeing a tree made of lights hanging from the side of a building.

"He said, 'Can we do this?' " James remembered. "I worked with some artists and designed a tree to hang on the corner of the Bon."

A few years later, he said, the design had evolved so the tree was gone, instead replaced by a star.

"I thought it was a wimpy little star," James said.

A couple of years after that, the star as it is now displayed was conceived — measuring 60 feet across, with 32 metal arms in lengths from 15 feet to 35 feet.

James' drawing has the star being held down by sandbags on the roof, instead of the winches bored into the roof. Then, as now, metal cables also hold the star onto the building.

That first time the star went up, it was a stormy, windy night, James remembered.

He sat across the street at the Bartell's store and told an engineer with him: "Wouldn't it be terrible if the wind took this thing down?"

But the star has withstood the elements, including last December's windstorm.

The only time it wasn't lighted for the holidays was in 1973, in the midst of a power "brownout" when residences and businesses were asked to cut use of electricity because of a lack of rain.

James retired from the Bon Marché in 1985, keeping all the memories from those days, and from the star he created but for which he was never recognized.

That's why he got a little choked up.

"I didn't know the star meant so much to people," he said.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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