In his red velvet Valentino sport jacket and black Valentino shirt, Christopher Radko could pass for the U.N. ambassador to Christmas, if there were such a job. It's Saturday afternoon and he is walking through the fifth floor of Bloomingdale's in midtown Manhattan, where a line of 60 or 70 shoppers has formed. It starts near a mahogany table and snakes down a hallway.
"Are you people waiting for Christopher Radko?" he trills playfully as he approaches.
"Well, I'm him!"
Radko winds around the obstacle course of fans, ducks under a rope line, and heads to the table.
"On the count of three, I want everyone to shout 'Merry Christmas,' okay?" he hollers, once he's in place. "One, two, three!"
Who is this tall man with the tireless grin and the dyed blondish hair? And why have scores interrupted their holiday shopping sprees to shake his hand?
If you have to ask, you probably don't own "Molly Snowlitely" or "Nippity Splits" or "Sugar Plum Perfect" or any of the 15,000 other handmade glass Christmas ornaments that Radko has designed in the past 20 years. You surely don't know about the brisk collectors' market in these cutesy handmade trinkets, and you definitely aren't bidding on any of the nearly 5,000 Radko creations currently for sale on eBay.
At prices often topping $50 a pop, Radko's handiwork isn't cheap, and his aesthetic -- a sort of Disney-meets-Hallmark blend of sentimental and adorable -- can seem lethally twee. He likes to mingle modern objects with old-time lore, such as "Land Rover Discovery," which depicts a snowman driving an SUV, or "I'll Take Manhattan," which shows a pudgy Santa straddling the Empire State Building.
But Radko has countless devotees, some of whom have called New York's most prestigious auction houses to ask if anyone there will appraise their collections. (No is the answer.) Many lovingly stockpile these hangable tchotchkes and keep an eye on Radko's tour schedule at ChristopherRadko.com.
"We spend about $50 a month on a storage room in the basement, just for our collection," said Linda Dayrit, who lives in a Brooklyn apartment building and was in line on Saturday. She and her husband, Joe, have 300 Radkos. They track them all on an Excel spreadsheet, including which ornaments have been "retired," or dropped from production, and what prices they are fetching at various collector Web sites.
"We've got to keep tabs on inventory," Joe says.
Radko is doing 50 different in-store appearances this winter. At each event he pats backs, sits for photos and signs the underside of his ornaments with a Sharpie.
"I feel like I'm just the guy shoveling coal into the furnace," he says, sitting for an interview right before the Bloomies signing. "It's really about the ornaments."
Chat with Radko for half an hour and he seems like the least cynical person to ever make a fortune from Christmas. He speaks of the wonder of Christmas and says he'd like it if the holiday season were longer. He says "gosh" a lot.
"I'm in the business of lifting people's spirits," he says. "I'm in the business of connecting people to each other. I personally can't be in everyone's home -- only Santa can, right? But there's a part of me in those homes when anyone decorates with those ornaments."
Radko is 45 and unmarried, or, as he puts it, "single and accepting resumes!" He lives in an apartment on Central Park West and is momentarily stumped when asked to name anything he enjoys aside from work. Then he mentions his dog, Kyla, whom he runs with every day in Central Park.
"I did an ornament of her," he says. "She keeps me pretty busy."
His company is based in Tarrytown, N.Y., in a building on a 10-acre lot that he says is straight out of the TV show "Falcon Crest." He isn't a trained artist, but he and his staffers sketch the ornaments and then send those sketches to glassblowers in Italy, Poland and Germany, among other places. Each piece, he says, takes seven days to make. The company creates 500 new designs every 12 months, and typically sells 1 million pieces a year.
"We keep about 1,000 people in Europe very busy," he says.
It all started, according to Radko's oft-told tale, one day in 1983 when he accidentally caused the toppling of his family's 12-foot Christmas tree at his parents' home in Westchester County. That smashed all of his grandmother's antique glass ornaments, and she promptly accused young Christopher of "ruining Christmas forever," which seems kind of harsh. Guilt-ridden, he combed New York City for replacements but could only find cheesy, machine-made stuff.
So he drew up some ideas and through relatives in Europe had them manufactured. Enough friends oohed over the results that he ordered more, and at the age of 23, while working in the mailroom of the ICM talent agency, he spent lunch breaks selling ornaments. By 25 he was in business full time.
Within a decade, he was calling himself "the Ralph Lauren of Christmas" and selling battery-operated snow globes and rhinestone needlepoint pillows in addition to his line of Yuletide baubles. In 1997 he earned himself some publicity by wrapping the Kennedy Center in a mile of red ribbon. He paid for the project and donated Radko-decorated Christmas trees to be auctioned -- starting bid $10,000.
Business fell off dramatically after the attacks of Sept. 11, Radko says, and there were rumors in 2002 that the company was about to go bankrupt. It didn't, but Christopher Radko specialty stores were shuttered, and in March of this year the company was sold to Rauch Industries, a manufacturer based in North Carolina that sells ornaments to Wal-Mart and Target.
None of this turmoil seems to have dampened Radko's perpetual cheer. At the signing on Saturday, he seemed thrilled by the mention of any state in the Union.
"You're from Massachusetts? Great!" he said. He told a woman from Pennsylvania to "tell everyone in Pittsburgh 'Merry Christmas!' " When a young girl said there was snow in Ohio, he wondered, "Did you build a snowman?"
People draped themselves on Radko for family photographs. They told stories about their trees. They raved about his ornaments. A woman named Carla Howell, who owns a stationery store in Alabama, said her husband had been to a recent signing in North Carolina and won a wreath there in a raffle. Tim Howell sent the wreath and a photo of himself, arm in arm with Radko, to his wife.
"I opened the box and just started screaming," said Carla. "My employees didn't know what to do."
The Howells left with a bag piled high with Radkos, including a white pine cone with a Santa on top.