"Nutcracker!" the PR guy shouted. He aimed his camera.

Herr Christian Steinbach beamed. He was wearing lederhosen and a brilliant yellow Bavarian folk jacket, and had his arm around a customer.

The customer, Bonnee Cooley, beamed, too. She gave Steinbach a little squeeze and he responded with a big squeeze. "What I receive I give double back!" he proclaimed.

Herr Steinbach, 78, is revered as "King of the Nutcrackers." A nutcracker is a colorful wooden doll--Merlin, Captain Hook, Maid Marian, George Washington, Moses, Santa Claus, you name it. Steinbach's family started making them in Germany in 1832, and he's the fifth generation to carry on the business.

Collectors are ravenous for them. Cooley, a Bell Atlantic technician, has 74. She even has a Merlin the Magician, a limited edition that came out in 1991 for $185 and now is worth maybe $5,000.

"So when did you make the Happy Wanderer?" she'd asked Steinbach as he was autographing the base of her King Cole the other evening at the C Gallery II store in Gainesville, just off Interstate 66, out past Manassas.

"Thirty years ago," the master replied. Head bent, he was concentrating on his signature--getting just the right felt-tip flair. Then he took a ruler and drew an arrow through a little heart that his assistant, Inge Busse, had stamped on the base.

Cooley watched breathlessly. "He was my very first Steinbach," she said.

"Nutcracker!" the PR guy shouted, again and again.

It was his way of saying, "Say 'Cheese!' " But nobody seemed to need this explained. Getting your picture shot with Steinbach was part of the deal, along with the signatures, each of which adds maybe $50 to the value of a nutcracker. In some cases, Steinbach makes small repairs on the spot, regluing a head, rummaging in his bag for a new nose.

He has been visiting stores in the United States nearly three months now, a duty he's been performing for years. After his Gainesville appearance, he drove on to Hershey, Pa., accompanied by the PR guy.

"Every day for three months!" Steinbach explained, taking a break from his signing to chat with a reporter while several dozen customers watched from the line where some of them had been waiting three or four hours. "This time, I go first to the West Coast, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle. I'll return to Germany two days before Christmas.

"It is work, and you must like this work. Not for fun! I do it for my workers in my two factories, one in [the former] West Germany, and one in East Germany, which was occupied by the Russians and we got it back in the reunification. I have 320 workers, and they are crying for work. They trust me to bring back orders."

Steinbach added that his workers are loyal, as he is. "We have not this [practice of] 'hire and fire.' In Germany, we have not a job, we have a profession. We have all professional workers, all well trained." Three years of training, he said, then an exam, followed by a seven-year apprenticeship.

"They are all proud," Steinbach said, "to work in our factories."

C Gallery II is in a new shopping center, and is an extension of the Christmas Gallery, a store located in a nearby older shopping center. C Gallery II is jampacked with pricey Christmas items--figurines, fire-retardant wreaths and the like. One of the owners is Jim Kirby, who was thrilled to have Steinbach visiting.

"He draws a real good crowd," said Kirby, who was wearing a tux the other evening and serving champagne and lemon tarts to customers. "Collectors just flock to him."

Kirby handed out 97 numbers to individuals or couples, most with several nutcrackers to be signed. After the store closed at 8 p.m., Steinbach stayed on, signing, until Kirby finally made him take a dinner break. Then the old master returned and worked till he was finished at 1 a.m.

Not everyone could wait. Retirees Maxine and Harold Stambaugh finally had to depart without meeting Steinbach. They'd wanted to be there when he signed their Scrooge.

On the darkened sidewalk outside the store, Harold, who recently had a leg operation, stopped and gazed down at the curb.

"No knees," he said, lamenting a condition that even the old master could not have repaired.

"Hold on, honey," said Maxine.

She offered her arm, and they walked slowly into the night.

One reason the line in the store was so long was because Steinbach joked around with almost everyone, and told many stories, though it was hard to follow them exactly because his English isn't all that great.

One story had to do with how Eisenhower "sent" many German scientists to the Soviet Union after World War II--the point being that Americans, therefore, shouldn't have been surprised when the Soviets suddenly made scientific advances.

It was "crazy," Steinbach said.

Another story concerned an American GI who had elicited "a lot of jokes" from German locals because "he was unshaved, but in America, is always growing bigger and better!"

"Everything is bigger in America," chuckled Ronald Kirchoff, a retired IBM man of German ancestry who has visited both of Steinbach's factories and is planning to attend the big annual February toy fair in Nuremberg. Kirchoff and his wife, Anne, were sitting at the table with Steinbach as he signed their Oil Sheik, Miss Clara (with German beer mug) and a few other rare, older nutcrackers.

"Godspeed to the New Millennium," read a slogan that Inge Busse had stamped on the bottom of one of the Kirchoff dolls.

"Nutcracker!" the PR guy suddenly shouted, rousing the Kirchoffs for their picture.

Steinbach made sure that Anne Kirchoff had a guy on each arm. "Ladies in the middle!" he joked. "Because the good man on the left side, the bad man on the right."

The Kirchoffs have been collecting Steinbach nutcrackers for 15 years, they said, and Ron does some buying and selling from their home.

"We have 400 of 'em," he confided.

The nutcracker tradition was already 200 years old when Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" ballet came out in 1892. In German folklore a nutcracker brings good luck and happiness, according to one of the PR guy's press releases. "The legacy states that a nutcracker represents power and strength and serves like a trusting dog that guards your family from evil spirits and danger. [It] shows its teeth to all the bad things in the world."

You ain't going to be cracking any nuts with it, though. These nutcrackers--about 17 inches high and costing up to $260 new--are now officially art objects.

"Occasionally" at signings like the one at C Gallery II, the press release continues, "a woman will shed tears of joy."

This didn't appear to happen the other evening, though many--men and women alike--seemed moved by the touch of the old master's hand.

"I'm really excited, I think this is so neat," said Sandy Deane, a hospital administrator buying her first nutcracker. "Now I know what to tell everyone to give me for Christmas or my birthday."

"Just precious," said Gene Wagner, a semi-retired school equipment salesman.

Susan Dunn, a freelance writer, was with her father, Gene Dunn, who was wearing a colorful Steinbach necktie that Susan had ordered.

"I'm an enterprising young woman," she said, eyeing Steinbach enthusiastically. "I'm going to ask him if he wants me to sell nutcrackers on the Internet."

He didn't, but she did get to sit on his lap for a picture. He told her this: "A nutcracker shall crack all the problems upcoming in your life. If you have problems, consult with your nutcracker first."

United Airlines pilot Dave Wasulko buys a nutcracker every year for his wife, Gail. "I have 22 of them," he said, "for 22 years of marital bliss. This is number 23."

"I was desperate," said TRW project manager Connie Ford, explaining that she wasn't able to find the nutcracker she wanted--the Steinbach Millennium, depicting Herr Steinbach himself standing atop a computer and holding a rocket ship--because the stores were sold out.

Finally, Ford was able to get one as a premium--by joining the Smithsonian Associates.

Carl Schwan, an accounting consultant, told Steinbach that he was of German extraction--first son of the first son, back 16 generations. "I go to Munich and I always feel a little different than in other countries," he said.

"He feels at home," added his wife, Bonnie, a real estate agent. She brings out their 30 Steinbach nutcrackers each year--"They're like old friends"--for the holidays.

"Nutcracker!" the PR guy shouted, and the Schwans formed up with the old master for their photo.

Bonnie Schwan grinned. "He's so cute!" she whispered.

CAPTION: Christian Steinbach in Gainesville with his Millennium 2000 Nutcracker.

CAPTION: "What I receive I give double back!" says a jovial Herr Christian Steinbach, sitting on collector Susan Dunn's lap at C Gallery II in Gainesville, Va.