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Greetings From Kansas City

Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page P12

WHAT: The Hallmark Visitors Center.

WHERE: In the heartland, appropriately enough, one mile from downtown Kansas City, Mo.

WHY GO: Because you can visit Santa's workshop -- or at least his mailroom.

Season's greetings -- from hilarious to heartfelt -- are a really big business at Hallmark. Each December, Americans send out nearly 2 billion cards. Hallmark does its part by designing 2,800 styles, and it does so under the watchful eye of the 125,000 or so who stream through its visitors center each year.

Hallmark may be the only American company to hold "sentiment meetings," where artists brainstorm the illustrations, typefaces and text to convey those feelings. "People want us to say what they can't say," explains one of the firm's 800 artists in a video exhibit.

Founder Joyce C. Hall's desire to express the simple pioneer virtues of his Nebraska prairie has survived him to become an international empire of "personal expression products." Some 40,000 interpretations now exist, including Maya Angelou gifts, James Taylor's new Christmas CD, e-cards and 280 new holiday ornaments every year. And don't forget those wholesome TV specials.

During a recent visit on a rainy Friday morning, the visitors center is as bright and appealing as a box of new crayons (yes, Crayola is a subsidiary). A current display showcases the first American Christmas cards, sent in 1875; Hall ran with the idea shortly after founding his firm in 1910. The corporate timeline exhibit starts there, paging through card and toy fads of succeeding decades.

To appeal to mid-century Middle America, cards included art by Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses and, bizarrely, Winston Churchill, along with the Eisenhowers' first White House Christmas greeting. Ventures into new markets during the 1960s are represented by the disposable paper dress, billed as "the revolutionary paper fashion," while the '70s are commemorated by the festive Darth Vader Keepsake ornament.

In the J.C. Hall Christmas Tree gallery, it's Dec. 25 year-round. Some folks make cookies for the boss; Hall's devoted employees made complete trees, one each for 17 years. The styles reflect the fads we all fell for, like folk-art wood carvings and plexi-stained-glass ornaments, and those we'd all rather forget, like decorations crafted entirely from shellacked bread dough.

Since 1973, Hallmark has introduced more than 3,000 holiday ornaments, with top sellers on display in the visitors center. New this year are Keepsakes for adoptive parents, Barbie fans and those who serve in the military, while perennial faves include the Peanuts gang, NFL figures and Santa On the Go (the Bearded One piloting biplanes, motorcycles, etc.).

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