Through a door that reads “Welcome to my world,” Lou Nasti flips a switch or several. The lights go up, and everything starts to move.
At left, a giant robot. At right, a talking parrot. In between, singing gnomes spin around a winter wonderland, elves are busy in their workshop, dogs frolic in a cabin (one roasts a hot dog over an artificial fire), two skeletons, each holding a can of Colt 45, ride a tandem bike.
“I can make anything move,” says Nasti, owner and proprietor of Lou Nasti’s Mechanical Displays. Headquartered in an unassuming warehouse in East Flatbush, the business designs and manufactures animated displays: for museum exhibits, department store windows, casino floors, Dyker Heights lawns, and—once—for a jungle-themed car wash in Lafayette, Illinois. But Nasti is all New York. “I’ve lived in Brooklyn my whole life,” he says, with the exception a short period working for H.R. Pufnstuf-creators Sid and Marty Krofft in Atlanta. “You’re given gifts in life,” he says, and he attributes this—his facility with all things robotics—to his creator. Nasti imagines God’s line of thought at his birth: “I need someone in Brooklyn doing dolls and puppets.”
If you’ve been to Dyker Heights, you’ve seen his work: at 1145 84th Street, the colossal Toyland display with spinning carousels, patrolling soldiers, and a giant, moving Santa Claus. Florence Polizzotto, whose late husband designed the display with Nasti, continues to put it up every year. “It’s a wonderful thing,” she says of the display, “seeing so many people coming together, having smiles on their faces.” Though it’s a lot of work and no small expense, Polizzotto emphasizes the display’s rewards. “It gives you a feeling of gratification,” she says, “that life is so precious.”
‘Eighty percent of Nasti’s business is Christmas, he says,
“then Halloween, then miscellaneous.”’
At nineteen in 1965, Nasti built a robot that landed him on the front page of The New York Times. Mr. Obos, a six-foot-five copper-colored robot moved, flashed its lights, and talked. “I think I’ll build a family of robots,” a young, clean-shaven Nasti says in the article. Its author, Philip Dougherty, describes “a faraway look in his eyes.”
“I’m not good talking with this,” the Nasti of today says, miming typing on a keyboard. “I’m good talking like this”—and his hands go broadly gestural. “I’m Italian,” he explains (unnecessarily). Later he puts on his half-moon spectacles and squints through them, grabbing one end of his voluminous, storybook mustache for emphasis. “Don’t I look like Geppetto?”
“I almost got arrested at Disney,” he says. He had jumped off his boat at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Walt Disney World and waded through the shallow water to what really interested him: the robots. “They practically dragged me out of there,” he says. “I almost got banned for life.” But did he get a look at the goods? He smiles. “They were using servos at the time,” he says. “Real advanced.”
Eighty percent of Nasti’s business is Christmas, he says, “then Halloween, then miscellaneous.” Whether you are a customer large or small, you have to arrive early. For Nasti, the holiday season starts in February. Late comers, no matter how big their budget, get turned away.
“You gotta come to New York,” he says, “You gotta meet me. You gotta trust me. I’m not selling you 400 pairs of shoes. I’m selling you an atmosphere.”
He’s been in business since 1969, though he’s had to
change the name since then. His first attempt was called
“Nasti Displays,” and he got too many phone calls about it.
But, all in all, he says, “The name Nasti doesn’t hurt.”
Nasti’s at the warehouse six days a week, from 5am to 5pm. This, he says, is the result of his perfectionism. “I could shape a Christmas tree till the leaves fall off,” he says. Nasti does all the mechanical animation and electrical work, but sometimes he picks up a needle and thread too. He’s been in business since 1969, though he’s had to change the name since then. His first attempt was called “Nasti Displays,” and he got too many phone calls about it. But, all in all, he says, “The name Nasti doesn’t hurt.”
Outside of his showroom, Nasti shows off some current projects. Pasquale, a talking tree destined for a Queens front yard. Two reindeer voiced by a couple from California: they’ll stand (and chat) at the front door to their home. (One jewelry-decked reindeer speaks with the wife’s Swedish-inflected voice: “By the way, those are some really nice hooves you have. But I digress. Merry Christmas to you all.” The other reindeer answers in the husband’s: “Oh wow, I almost forgot, that’s right, Merry Christmas. And Happy Hanukkah to the Jews! Oh wait, I think that came out wrong.”) Nasti’s work has taken him all over the world: to China, Brazil, Japan, Morocco. But his local clients still have some of the best stories. “There’s two Brooklyn guys who really hate each other,” he says. “They’re always asking what the other person was doing.” Nasti shakes his head, wagging his finger. “No.”
Nasti’s love for his work is contagious. Though he certainly looks the part of Geppetto, he could also be a Brooklyn Santa Claus. But his relationship with the holiday mimics the religious legend’s: for both, the bulk of the work of Christmas comes far before the actual day. “By December 5th,” Nasti says, “I’m done with Christmas. I don’t even want to put up my own tree. 700 trees later? I’m tired. The pressure.” He laughs, and it’s a peal of laughter that sounds straight out of Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicolas. “Thank god I take vitamins W & B,” he says with a wink. “Wine and beer.” Beats milk and cookies. ♦
Photos by Jane Bruce