It's the final day of Camp Christmas, and Lonnie Hanzon is one tired, happy camper.
Since June, he's lived Christmas 24/7, creating the massive, immersive installation that is closing today, January 5, after 46 straight days as a major attraction in the Hangar at Stanley Marketplace, right on the edge of Aurora. And Camp Christmas has definitely attracted crowds, with sometimes hundreds of people filling the space as they explore an amazing, 10,000-square-foot cultural mashup, with more than a dozen tableaus depicting the holiday through the ages. Tickets for Camp Christmas have occasionally been as hard to find as open slots for the Monet show at the Denver Art Museum. Even today, people keep hurrying up to the entry, wanting to be sure they don't miss the show, or just wanting to see it one last time.
One of those taking yet another look is Charlie Miller, director of Off-Center at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, a partner on this project, which has surpassed projections, with just under 70,000 tickets sold.
It's surpassed Hanzon's hopes, too, and that was a high hurdle, since some of the elements in Camp Christmas date back to 1982, when the artist started creating immersive experiences — long before the term "immersive" became the next big thing in the arts world. And long before Meow Wolf started to purr in Santa Fe, much less launched an expansion plant that includes a Meow Wolf Denver opening in 2021.
The Off-Center had already had several immersive successes in Denver, too, when Hanzon and Miller got the okay for Camp Christmas in June. That's when Hanzon dove into a collection he'd accumulated through years of creating Santa's Parade of Lights floats for Denver, decorations for Hudson Gardens, installations for the Houston Zoo. "You know my junk pile was massive," he admits. "You should see my studio now. We've used everything."
For four hectic months, working with other artists in that studio and drawing from the DCPA prop shop and its creative crew, Hanzon prepared pieces for the installation. He and Miller had frequent story meetings that kept things clear when all of the art was then installed in the Hangar in just three weeks, divided between thirteen areas, each with seven levels of possible involvement. Each tableau had a pun tree ("A big hit," notes Hanzon), a stamping station, and deep dives into tradition and culture that made Camp Christmas a truly immersive experience.
But mostly, people had fun here, with three generations of a family coming as a group, others arriving in costumes, all posing for selfies, oohing and aahing over the lightbulb tree that displayed 130 years of technology, discovering the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Santa's cabin (a tradition in Japan), stopping by one of the two bars for a break. Hanzon himself was there every day, cooking sugar for the candy tree in a little kitchen tucked into the installation, entertaining kids of all ages.
"In a way, it's a playground," Hanzon says.
But it's also a lot to unwrap — in many ways, the final word on just what a cultural celebration of Christmas can be, one with far more depth than the usual light shows and Santa's village. "I realized that from my 'Evolution of the Ball' [the sculpture he was commissioned to create outside of Coors Field, which is currently in storage during construction] to Camp Christmas, I like to exhaust the topic to see the whole," Hanzon says. "I looked at every angle. It's thick enough that anyone can find an experience."
The installation not only created a bump in business for Stanley shopkeepers, but made national news and also attracted visitors from across the country, including a last-second visit from an official with an Alabama Shakespeare festival. "It was a wonderful thing for Colorado and maybe beyond," Hanzon says.
And Camp Christmas could be a great thing for Hanzon, too, who'd like to bring it back to the Stanley, but also sees the possibility of introducing versions in other cities. It's gratifying to have a big hit in his home town, and also to have another immersive success for the Off-Center, which will be bringing in David Byrne this summer.
In the meantime, artists creating immersive work in Denver, continue to band together, sharing information and plans. Hanzon's looking forward to Immerse in Access, the next gathering set for Monday, January 27. But right now, he's dismantling Camp Christmas and dreaming of not just of the next Christmas, but more projects here, there and everywhere. He's once again immersed in his art.
"I have proven myself again," Hanzon says. He remembers the days when he had impressive commissions in Hong Kong, in Houston, "but I couldn't get a gig in Denver," which was trying hard to prove it was a world-class city by bringing in artists from around the world and ignoring the local talent.
But this was impossible to ignore. Camp Christmas was a real gift for Denver.
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