By Pat Veltri
For several decades, from 1971 to 2010, Ratonians were the recipients of a delightful homemade Christmas card, in the form of an animated display featuring Santa and his reindeer traveling across the sky over a small town with snow-covered homes and businesses, – a virtual winter wonderland. Described by its sender, Virgil Buscarini, as a “Christmas card in action”, the wonderland montage, with moving figures and vehicles, was set into action with a combination of pulleys, nylon string, and rotisserie motors. Buscarini’s idea for his unique display was initially sparked by a beautiful Christmas card that he received from friends back in the late 1960s, while living in Pico Rivera, California. “It had Santa Claus going through the sky and some cars and people. I thought it would be real nice to make that in animation, and that’s how I got started,” he says.
Armed with mechanical ingenuity and a creative imagination, Buscarini used scrap plywood, old tricycle wheels, and other found materials to begin turning his idea into reality. He started out on a small scale in 1966, “The first year I built two houses and I had Santa Claus going around the two houses.” Dissatisfied with the way it turned out, he tore it down and began again. He redid the houses, added businesses, and created the pulley system for the moving parts of the display. He entered Pico Rivera’s Christmas Lighting Contest and earned second place honors in the novelty division. In subsequent years, as the display grew bigger and better, he won several first place awards in the novelty division.
Sadly, Buscarini’s wife Shirley passed away in 1969. He made plans to leave California, with his two children, and relocate to Raton, where he was born and raised. Before heading for his native home, he gave away the wonderland display, realizing that it would be too unwieldy to transport.
Once established in Raton, Buscarini found a job breaking thoroughbred horses at the CS Ranch. One particular day, while working at the ranch, he discussed Christmas with his friend and co-worker Ernie Baca and mentioned his California Christmas display. Baca suggested that he revive the display in Raton. In 1971, inspired by his friend’s prompting, he began, from scratch, to recreate his initial display. He constructed a few houses and a church and set it up in the front yard of his home on Maxwell Avenue. He didn’t use nails or screws to assemble his houses, but instead wired them together. The houses and other buildings were covered with cotton batting to simulate snow. “We had to cover it up at night because the dampness caused the cotton to turn yellow. So I couldn’t get it too big. I covered it up with canvas and I made kind of a little lean-to for the next year so I could put in some cars and a few little things and a train. People just started coming to look at it, and it grew and grew and grew,” Buscarini recalls.
Coincidentally, Buscarini had also remarried in 1971. His second wife, Virginia, loved setting up the display as much as he did, and proved to be an enthusiastic helpmate. All of the skaters, skiers and other figures in the display sport colorfully crocheted hats and clothing that showcase her needlecraft skills.
Eventually Buscarini began adding businesses to the panorama. City Market and Kenn’s Pharmacy were the first followed by other commercial enterprises and community buildings such as the Shuler Theater, Radio Station KRTN, International Bank, the El Raton Theater, Ace Hardware, and the Raton Depot, to name a few. Soon the display took on the look of “Raton America”. At some point in the life of the display, backdrops were painted by Marv Newton’s high school art classes.
To accommodate the growing exhibit, Buscarini sought a place to house it. His brother-in-law, Louie Castellini, obliged by offering him the use of the Raton Camera Corner. In future years the Winter Wonderland was given center stage at several other places, including Anthony’s Department Store, the Medicine Shoppe, the Gambles building, Hester’s Yamaha, Cimino Brothers Ford, and lastly, the DiLisio building.
Buscarini’s guest books, requesting the signatures of visitors, indicate that thousands have viewed the display over the years, including guests from almost every state in the United States, as well as several foreign countries.
From the outset there were few expenses related to the exhibit since Buscarini recycled materials that he had on hand. His policy has always been to make the display available to the public free of charge and without the need for donation requests. “I don’t like donations at all. I don’t like to charge anybody. It’s just from the heart,” he adamantly says. His daughter, Sophie Atwater, adds, “The whole thing has been a gift of love and homemade from scratch stuff, nothing was really purchased. It was all made with the best of intentions and all the love that anybody could have.”
Despite some adversity in their lives the Buscarinis managed to have the display up and running every Christmas season for thirty-nine years. Virgil, retired from Kaiser Steel, has experienced some heart health issues and Virginia, a former Colfax county commissioner and probate judge, is wheelchair-bound after suffering a stroke. “They’ve gone through some misfortunes,” Atwater says, “but they still keep going. They’ve kind of had to slow down a bit on things that they can do, but they just keep doing it. When the display is up, it really does require somebody that knows how to operate it properly because of the pulleys and motors.”
In 2010 Buscarini set up the display in the DiLisio building for what he thought was the last time, and when it was taken down, it was stashed in a family member’s barn, where it resided for the past seven years.
But Buscarini didn’t anticipate the tenacity of Raton business woman, Trish Romero, who persuaded him to bring the display out of storage during the 2017 Christmas season. Romero had ample opportunity to use her powers of persuasion on Buscarini during the times he escorted his wife to Romero’s place of work for weekly hair appointments. “I was just constantly saying I missed Winter Wonderland and I wish he would do Winter Wonderland,” she says. When all was said and done, Buscarini agreed, if Romero would find a building to house the display and enough manpower to put it together.
The building and the manpower arrived via Raton Main Street, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the rebuilding and revitalization of Raton’s downtown area. Romero, who is a member, enlisted the assistance of the executive director Brenda Ferri to secure a building. According to Ferri, Raton Main Street already had a building in possession – the former site of the Raton Museum – that it had been using for art classes. “We knew we needed a space for the Winter Wonderland so I went to our city manager, Scott Berry, and talked to a few of our commissioners and asked permission to set it up in there. They all thought it was a wonderful idea so Raton Main Street would really like to thank our city partners – our city manager and our city commission – for supporting us in this endeavor and allowing us to bring this to Raton,” she states.
With Buscarini’s tutelage, Ferri, Romero and other Main Street board members and volunteers, including Jessica Barfield, Devon Barton, Eric Chavez, Katie Feldman, Mike Ferry, Arthur Fulkerson, Sandy Lucero, Diana Sanchez, and Jonni Valdez-Silva, had the display ready for opening on November 25, which coincided with the lighting of Raton’s Christmas tree and the City of Bethlehem. At that time Buscarini officially turned over his Winter Wonderland to Raton Main Street. The exhibit will remain in the building located at 216 South First Street indefinitely and in the future Raton Main Street will be responsible for its maintenance and operation. Buscarini has encouraged Main Street members to enlarge the exhibit and add their own personal touches to it.
People enjoy getting homemade Christmas cards because they reflect the love and care that was put into making them. Judging by the feedback that he has received Buscarini’s homemade “Christmas card in action” has been a consistent source of enjoyment. “Everybody loves it,” he says, and “everyone that sees it says they’d like to see it again. It’s made a lot of people happy, a lot of children. It gives me a good feeling in the heart.”
Ferri notes that it is special for Raton Main Street to have the exhibit. “We are so excited,” she says, “because most of us on Main Street grew up here in Raton so we all remember it as children and it’s just a living legacy and we wanted to be part of it.”
Romero recalls that when the display was set up in Buscarini’s yard that she and her brothers would stand by his fence and look at the display. She states, “It’s very sentimental. It’s like everybody’s childhood. It’s magical. It makes you feel like a kid again. We’re very thankful to Virgil and the Buscarini family for leaving this ‘everybody’s childhood’ for years to come, for peoples’ children and grandchildren.”
Atwater sums it up, “The Christmas card must have really been special that Dad saw all those years ago to make it really come to life and for so many people to enjoy it like they have.”
The Winter Wonderland, 216 South First Street, will be open to the public through December 30th on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.