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Theater Cuckoo Crèche

Rating: 4 votes, 3.75 average.

A far cry from the toy theater of my youth — shown below left — the Theater Cuckoo Crèche features glossy Baroque figures, beautiful music box melodies, and motion.

The must-have cut-out L' Instant Durable edition features a beautiful paper nativity from the museum of Art and Popular Tradition, Innsbruck, Austria. 
Ever since I first saw the Christmas Crib/Christmas in Tyrol by L' Instant Durable (shown at left) I knew I had to use it to create a special crèche.

Not that cutting it out and arranging it as a tabletop nativity scene wouldn't have been special enough!

Because the father-and-son artists Georg and Felix Haller of Götzen embellished the Christmas Crib with marvelous images that include palms and trees, two arched mangers, and a marvelous background that spans four pages. This handsome L' Instant Durable edition is a facsimile of the 1824 paper nativity in the Tiroler Volkskunst-Museum (Museum of arts and popular traditions of Tyrol), Innsbruck.

But the glory of the Christmas Crib is — if I counted right — its 56 extraordinarily beautiful figures, featured in six card-stock pages to be cut out and displayed as a tabletop manger scene.

The Christmas Crib cover (left) shows the shepherds and dandies, sheep and goats, and Kings of the East and their retinue assembled at the manger.

But my absolute favorite Haller figures are the angels.

Putti proclaim the Good News. 
There are the three putti holding aloft a Gloria in Excelsis Deo banner; three other little angels ready to take wing; and the large standing angels in exquisite costumes, many holding a cross, symbol of the Holy Child's future Passion (see image at left).

The Theatre Cuckoo Crèche

When I found a vintage 19th century toy theater proscenium sheet (see image at bottom of page) I knew what I wanted to do with the Haller crib.

But, besides the proscenium stage and the lovely figures, I needed a way to animate the crèche.

When I found a quartz cuckoo clock movement with a platform for dancing figures and sweet music box melodies — not to mention a cuckoo call that echoes as if heard in the woods of my youth — my Theater Cuckoo Crèche started to take shape.

The colorful angels of the L' Instant Durable Christmas Crib are meant to stand on bases and to be arranged in a scene. 
The Angels Wheel

I started by placing six of the revolving angels on the rim of a wheel that would revolve round the manger. Borrowing stone blocks from the manger, I created a stepped stone wall where the angels could stand.

And I added two small arches on either side of the manger for the revolving angels to pass through.

Since I did not want the very bottom edge of this revolving wheel to show, I created a new Gloria In Excelsis Deo banner (shown below), but in the Greek of the Gospels this time: Doxa En Ypsistis Theo, in homage to my first nativity I made as a child in Greece.

Now the Gloria Putti are bordered by trees and palms, and this whole layer — shown flat below — curves about the revolving wheel, obscuring its bottom edge as I had intended.

Try as I might, however, I had trouble getting the Angels Wheel to revolve evenly. Instead, it wobbled up and down like a carnival ride!

Brass rods are inserted between each front and back angel surfaces, as shown above, to keep the wheel perfectly straight. 
Thank goodness my good friend Zaf was visiting from Greece. He's a civil engineer, he asked me for a triangle, and right away realized the reason for the Angels Wheel's wild gyrations: its post was not perfectly aligned with the crèche floor, and when that adjustment was made, the angels started gliding smoothly.

Wishing to keep the Angels Wheel running smoothly, I cut out a disc out of sheet metal and placed it about the black paper Angels Wheel base you see at left. This stabilized the revolution of the wheel — no more up-and-down carousel ride!

Not wishing to see the white wrong side of the Angels Wheel as it revolved, I added another layer on the inside. And between each of these two layers of angels, I added a small brass rod that bends at a 90º angle and attaches to the bottom of the wheel.

By curving this rod slightly in or out, I am able to make sure each angels is perfectly upright, and being able to pass through the narrow manger side arches — no mean feat, when you consider billowing clothes, and outstretched arms and wings.

The new Gloria banner features the Greek of the Gospels. 
The Prancing Dog

As I've mentioned, the primary purpose of the New Gloria banner was hiding with its foliage the bottom edge of the Angels Wheel and visuallly softening its revolution.

With the addition to this layer of the master and his dog, it occurred to me that here was another opportunity for motion. And by positioning master and dog to the extreme left, this light hearted scene did not detract from the main event: the revolving angels and the rockabye crib.

On the right of the Gloria Banner layer, I placed more trees, two goats, sheep, and, so as not to obscure the revolving angels, a prostrate shepherd.

This back view of the Theater Cuckoo Crèche, without the circular background, shows the quartz movement, the pendulum, and the triangle rod that creates an even tick-tock, and animates the Rocking Crib. 

The Rocking Cradle

I thought it a shame to have the plastic pendulum at the bottom of the crèche swinging to and fro in vain, and I thought it might as well give the Theater Cuckoo Crèche a beat.

By running a brass rod through the pendulum and through a brass triangle, the crèche came to life with a steady tick-tock.

This brass triangle wire (see image at left) allowed the to-and-fro movement of the pendulum to animate the crib by running up and over the Angels Wheel, then engaging a small plastic wheel (shown at far left on the image below), that in turn engages yet another wheel just behind the Mother & Child layer, which then engages and gives motion to the crib.

At this point I must take a moment and give some love to Tamiya and its Pulley Unit Set. Using plastic wheels of varying sizes and rubber bands for belts, these sets are used to animate toys. But, in this case, to give motion to the Nativity.

Tamiya wheels are found all over the Theater Cuckoo Crèche: on the cuckoo clock dancing platform motor that gives power to all the movements; on the bottom of the crèche where wheels of varying sizes transfer power — and reduce speed — to the Angels Wheel, to the Prancing Dog, and to the rod that reaches the top of the crèche and animates the little angels that revolve above the manger.

And small (less than half-an-inch) Tamiya wheels with tiny brass rods on their perimeter are used to create motion, from the Rocking Crib, to The Dandy taking off his hat, and the Archangel Raising the Cross.

The image below shows three such small wheels: the one at the far left is attached to the swinging brass triangle at the back of the crèche and transfers power to the Rocking Crib on the other side.

Tiny plastic wheels create motion. 
The center wheel causes the archangel to raise and lower the cross.

And the closest wheel animates the Dandy on the other side, who takes off and puts on his hat in reverence.

The image below also shows the Angels Wheel which revolves below the platform which, at the front, supports the nativity scene. Not to mention the narrow side arches that the angels have to negotiate.

And it all is made possible by the ingenious, adjustable, German Wilesco flexible belts that grip even the tiniest slippery plastic wheels and don't let go, creating smooth movement.

Speaking of plastic, there are two other Tamiya wheels involved, but these are gears from toy electric motor assemblies, used to reverse the movement of the Suspended Putti Wheel from that of the Angels Wheel. Having the two wheels move in opposite directions enhances the effect of angels gliding past the Nativity.

The Archangel Raising the Cross

I positioned the Archangel pointing to the cross (see the angel image, above) on a wall I created under the central arch of the manger, and set about figuring out how to animate the raising and lowering of the cross.

Side view showing the black wheel that drives the center toothed white wheel, putting in motion The Dandy and The Archangel Raising the Cross. 
Clearly, the motive power had to come from the Angels Wheel. It occurred to me that a toothed wheel set on top of the center post that causes this wheel to revolve could be used to transfer power to the Archangel's arm.

Another Tamiya tiny motor toothed wheel comes into contact with the wheel attached to the Angels Wheel center post, and in turn transfers power to the tiny plastic wheel to the back of the Archangel (the center wheel on the image just above).

The side view image at left makes the above description clear: the black center wheel that's attached to the Angels Wheel post drives the white toothed wheel in the center. This wheel's post drives another tiny wheel on the back (see image above) which in turn animates the Archangel and the Dandy.

Also made clear on the image at left is the wide span of some of the angels' wings, which could have made their sliding through the narrow side arches. Thus, the necessity of the brass rods that, tucked invisibly inside the to angel layers, insure that all the angels are standing perfectly parallel to the side arches.

And I won't even mention the trials and tribulations of making sure that the tree branches on either side of the nativity scene did not engage with angel wings, crosses, or raised hands.

The seraphs are weighted with a small flat piece of brass. 
The Putti Wheel

What to do about the fact that there were only two little flying angels I wanted to use for the Putti Wheel?

Change the color of their clothes, of course!

Now I had the six putti I needed for the smaller wheel above, but before hanging them from their aluminum wheel I inserted a small flat piece of brass between the front and back angel layers.

This gave them a bit of weight, helpful in alleviating jerky starts when the wheel starts to move.

Using Berkley Fireline (an almost invisible fishline) also helps with the desired smoothes in this angelic procession: the Fireline has body, and holds the putti remarkably steady.

But not steady enough, it seems, as my buddy in Brazil, enthusiast Celso Rosa, pointed out. But I found that the cause of that trouble was an angelic foot that would engage the manger as the Putti Wheel revolved. Luckily, a U-shaped Fireline loop runs from each angel up through, down and through to the aluminum Putti Wheel to each angel, allowing for fine adjustment.

And so the Putti Wheel glides ever so smoothly again.

A slow, noiseless, motor opens and closes the curtains. The two plastic wheels animate the Putti Angels. 
The Sliding Curtains

The toy theater proscenium called for curtains, and luckily one of my vintage sheets had a rich velvet, tasseled, one in red and ecru.

But opening and closing them was a different matter.

Clearly, the easiest solution would have been to raise and lower a flat curtain, but that would have called for a twice-high proscenium to accommodate this.

My solution was curved curtains (shown at left), suspended from pie-shaped sheet metal supports.

The curved curtains necessitated also curving the proscenium facade, which gave an added dimensionality to the crèche.

This curvature is matched above by a curtained canopy, that hides from view the to-and-fro motion of the curtain metal pie-shaped supports.

The image just below shows the motor assembly, on top of the crèche, that opens and closes the doors.

Each curved curtain hangs from a pie-shaped piece of sheet metal. 
This is accomplished noiselessly by a Hankscraft Motors 4 R.P.M. (revolutions per minute) motor and two toy airplane arms attached to its shaft.

The arms, through two rods, activate to other plastic arms attached to posts on which the doors are secured. And, voile! The doors silently open and close.

Centered on the motor shaft is another, shinier, arm, shown in the image at left in contact with a switch at right.

When this arm comes into contact with this switch, the circuit is broken, and, when the curtain clock trips and the motor begins to close the doors. When the doors are just about to touch each other in the center, the center arm comes into contact with the switch at left, and the current is turned off.

Then the cycle is ready to begin again, just before the hour.

As you can see in the video at the top of the page, the curtain clock opens the doors just before the hour, and closes them a few minutes later, after the music and movement have stopped.

Now, dare I mentioned how this is accomplished? It's definitely a low-tech solution, using another quartz clock as the on-off switch.

As you can see from the image below, when the hour hand of the clock comes into contact with the first wire, the doors open, until the center arm of the motor reaches the right switch and the power is cut off.

The nice part of this arrangement is that, as the hour hand now progresses to the second wired and comes into contact with it, the battery polarity has changed, the motor reverses, and the doors close.

(Nowadays I'm aware of servos that can be programmed to do just that, but five years ago when I first started building the Theater Cuckoo Crèche I was blissfully unaware of such options.)

The mechanism that operates the curtains is decidedly low tech. 
The Feathered Hat Dandy

There are so many fine figures in the L' Instant Durable Christmas Crib it wasn't easy deciding which ones to leave out.

One of the images I had to include was a Dandy, in doublet and breeches, about to take his hat off in reverence.

I positioned him to the left of the Mother and Child, and animated him in the manner I have described above.

He's not always noticed at first — there's so much going on with angels revolving to and fro — but it puts a smile on my face every time I see him taking off his hat.

Let's see; is there anything I've forgotten to tell you?

About the mechanical side of the Theater Cuckoo Crèche, perhaps?

You can see in the image at left, below, the heart of the Theater Cuckoo Crèche, the quartz movement, at bottom center.

It runs the clock at the front and provides the motive power for all the crèche animation.

The cuckoo quartz dancing platform motor at upper right, provides the power for the Theater Cuckoo Crèche. 
The speed of the cuckoo motor is reduced by the large wheel at the center, which drives the Angels Wheel. But I wanted the Putti Wheel to revolve slightly faster, thus the smaller wheel at bottom right which transmit power to the top of crèche via a rod.

The small wheel at upper right activates the Prancing Dog, which I wanted to move at a slightly faster pace.

As importantly, the cuckoo quartz movement also also gives voice to the cuckoo and produces the music.

Now a shout-out to our German friends, for producing this little marvel. I say this because there are some nasty quartz cukcoos out there, let me tell you!

But this isn't one of them: as I watch the video at the top of the page, I think I'm listening to a cuckoo echoing in the hills of my youth.

By the way, a word must be said about the green wings of the cuckoo bird! The manufacturer has since switched to brown, and even though I was tempted to brush them with paint, I've kept them green, for Auld Lang Syne.

And the music box tunes? Crystal clear, as if you're listening to the real thing, not a computer chip. Why, in some tunes, you can even hear the air brake whirring away.

As you can probably tell, I'm quite fond of the Theater Cuckoo Crèche, perhaps more than any other animated nativity I've created, and it's been great fun sharing it with you.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about it as I much as I've enjoyed building it.

— Alexis

Even if you don't plan to animate the Christmas Crib, you'll love adding it to your collection:
Editions L'Instant Durable, P.O. box 234, 63007 Clermont-Ferrand cedex 1, France
Fax 00 33 (0)4 73 91 13 87. Email:

A toy theater proscenium provides the stage for the Nativity — the Theater Cuckoo Crèche. (Mouseover the image above to part the curtains, allowing a moment for the image to draw on your page. Photo © Crè 

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