The A.M.& A's Windows: A Gift From the Past
Most Western New Yorkers know about the animated holiday window displays that once graced the big windows of the Adam, Meldrum & Anderson flagship store on Main Street in downtown Buffalo. Let me introduce the forgotten man who made the magic then, magic that continues after his death. His name was Joseph J. Nelson, visual merchandising director for A.M. & A.'s. Born in 1932, he grew up in Buffalo's First Ward, served in the Army and then went to work for A.M. & A.'s. Eventually promoted to his executive position, Nelson was responsible for all visual elements of the store, from seasonal displays to mannequins.
Though the tradition of the A.M. & A's decorated windows may have begun in the 1930s. Joseph Nelson grew the collection into the extensive display remembered today. His friend, Paul Furlong, said that planning and assembling the holiday windows was a painstaking process. "He used to attend the Christmas trade shows in June, so by the time August came around, he was already sick of Christmas." But Nelson would sometimes stand outside the windows in December, anonymously watching the awed reactions of shoppers who stopped to experience the animated scenes. Furlong said that Nelson received "lots of personal satisfaction" from public reaction to the displays.
Joseph Nelson retired in 1992, three years before A.M. & A's was sold to Bon-Ton. He witnessed the continuation of his holiday displays for a short time after the store became Bon-Ton. When it closed in 1995, the decline and dispersal of figures began. Buffalo Place took charge of some, some were sold and later bought by Lancaster village supporters. Theater Place purchased some in 2007. From place to place (HSBC lobby, Convention Center windows), some would be displayed, teasing Western New Yorkers who longed to see them as in days of old. Nelson died in 2006 at age 74. He probably did not know that his work would persist in the local memory and become part of Buffalo's downtown renaissance.
1957 photo of Main Street decorated for Christmas. The A.M.& A's display windows are visible at right. Image source: TBHM
In 2010, twenty animated figures were repaired and installed temporarily along the 600-block of Main Street in Buffalo. The Theatre District Association had initiated the purchase of a cache of the figures in 2007. The purchase was aided by grants from the Wendt and Baird Foundations. The Rotary Club of Buffalo paid for restoration of 60 of the mechanical figures to operating condition. Others on display await future funding for restoration. The photos and video below are from that year's displays.
In 2015, three windows of the Hyatt Atrium on Main Street downtown were decorated with the A.M. & A's figures. Furnishings, 500 Main Street, also had characters from the displays.
Perhaps the spirit of Joseph Nelson will pause again on Main Street, listening for the delighted comments on his work.