Imagination and a love of making things shaped George A. McFadden’s (1904-1991) life. Visitors to the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library know him for the colorful cuckoo clocks he made when he retired. Three of his clocks are currently on view in Keeping Time: Clockmakers and Collectors. Design and automated figures interested McFadden for decades. As a teenager he created an automated display featuring a soda-drinking Eskimo to help sell Clicquot Club ginger ale at his family’s pharmacy in Bath, Maine. Soon after, he put his talent to the test as a student at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston. There he studied, among other things, stage and jewelry design. For years, he and his wife Alyce Stewart Kent McFadden (1906-1978), a costume designer, worked together on productions for a number of Massachusetts theaters. He also designed mechanized displays for department stores and circus acts.
Among the clocks and art that McFadden gave to the Museum are two photographs and a watercolor depicting what appears to be the concept and
models of a Christmas-time display. McFadden did not rate his skills as an artist highly, noting in 1981 that, “I never did amount to much of a draftsman. Art is more a means to an end with me.” But his painting of a reindeer stage show conducted by Santa Claus (at left) is adeptly executed and charming. In this work Santa, as band leader, directs a six-piece ensemble accompanying three dancing reindeer. They perform for an audience that includes an older reindeer couple (one of whom is sleeping through the show) and an inattentive reindeer mother with a mischievous child. The younger reindeer in the image is attempting to startle the drummer with what one hopes is a toy spider suspended from a string.
A photograph (at right) shows McFadden’s model of the painted scene. Another photograph (below) depicts a model of the band with a pair of reindeer performers doing tricks with balls, rings and a drum-shaped prop. Unfortunately, these images are not labeled and did not come to the Museum with any information about why and when they were made. McFadden did, over the course of his career design, automated Christmas displays for Jordan March and Filene’s department stores.
This painting and the related photographs suggest that the imaginative McFadden took a whimsical approach to celebrating the Christmas holiday. If you have any ideas or information about McFadden’s models, please leave a comment below. In the meantime, Happy Holidays to you from the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.
Robin Wiest, “McFadden Creates a Fairy Tale,” The Winchester [Massachusetts] Star, April 30, 1981, pages 13 and 33.