Earth to Santa

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird. ... It's a plane. ... It's Santa Claus?!"
Technically speaking, no.
But don't try telling that to the thousands of motorists who'll risk fender benders, stiff necks and sunburned tonsils while cruising past the intersection of Central Avenue and Clarendon over the next few weeks.

The big attraction? A seasonal assemblage of tubular steel, plastic garland, electric lights and high-tension cables strung between two high-rise office buildings in the Phoenix City Square complex. Now celebrating its 18th Christmas aloft, the Central Corridor landmark is widely regarded as the city's most famous Christmas decoration.

"Everyone really seems to love our Santa," says Phoenix City Square spokeswoman Paula Rifley. "Over the years, it's become something of a Phoenix tradition."

Built at a cost of $12,000 in 1977, the high-flying fat man has become so much a part of the Valley's holiday landscape that he's regularly featured as background art during December newscasts on local TV. And, if past years are any indication, Rifley can expect to field several dozen phone calls and letters about the beloved antigravity elf during his six-week holding pattern over the midtown business plaza.

Predictably, many of those communiques ask how in heck Santa gets off the ground each year.

"It's quite a production," answered Phoenix City Square chief engineer Jim Rich, as a team of four professional riggers and 12 building engineers prepared Santa and his reindeer for blastoff one Friday morning nearly two weeks ago. "Whenever you start stringing cable across any distance at all, you're going to run into sag."

Actual preparation had begun several weeks earlier, when the six individual components--Santa and five reindeer--were removed from storage and gussied up for this year's flight.

The pieces--each averaging six and a half feet tall, with an aggregate weight of several hundred pounds--were transferred to the roof of a one-story shopping arcade between the two high-rises, then clamped to a half-inch-thick steel cable. Both ends of that cable would eventually be attached to shackles on two lines lowered from each tower, then cranked back up in synchronization by crew members using manual winches.

"It's just like deep-sea fishing," says one crew member of the arduous project, "except there's no fish on the end."

Guy wires minimize horizontal sway during winter gusts.
In practice, the process is not as simple as it may sound--especially when viewed from the dizzying vantage point of the eastern tower's roof, where wind speeds of up to 45mph have been recorded. In fact, to the uninitiated, the scenario seems to have a lot more in common with Apollo 13 and Vertigo than a Yuletide episode of Home Improvement.

Then again, most people don't make their livings stringing Santas from 17-story buildings, either.

"This job isn't any more dangerous than anything else we do," explains rigger Connie Morrell, whose E&M Rigging company provides similar acts of high-altitude derring-do for motion pictures, commercials, concerts and other events. "Sure, there's risk in any job. You just have to be careful about what you're doing."

Hopping onto a ledge, Morrell uses a walkie-talkie to receive a progress report from workers on the 20-story office building to the west.

Give or take a few gaffes--a reindeer loses a clump of garland when it's dragged across the roof, a rigger almost loses a hank of shoulder-length hair in a spooling mishap--Operation Santa goes off without a hitch.

At 10:13 a.m., three hours after the project got under way, Santa and company finally rise off the arcade roof and into the smoggy ozone.

Yet despite the Mission Control ambiance (to say nothing of the $2,000-plus annual launch fee), there's still something downright homey about Phoenix City Square's yearly Santa sendoff.

For as Santa was cranked into fixed orbit between the two towers, one crew member monitored the operation from the roof of a third high-rise across the street. And, in the grand tradition of kibitzing during a family tree-decorating ceremony, he added his two cents worth via walkie-talkie.

"Now, move Rudolph a little to the right.


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