A Nutcracker Reminiscence

Long before she was invited to design costumes for the Kansas City Ballet’s new Nutcracker, Holly Hynes created costumes for Nutcracker dolls displayed in a mantlescape at the Clinton White House. (Photo from the artist)

While Kansas City Ballet’s new production is renowned New York designer Holly Hynes’ first full-scale Nutcracker costume design, it isn’t really her first experience creating outfits for some of the ballet’s characters.

Back in 1996, when she was director of costumes for the New York City Ballet, Hynes was asked to contribute to the Clinton Administration’s White House holiday decorations. Twenty years later, during a stop in Kansas City for a Nutcracker costume fitting, she told the story with a mix of pride and amusement:

“I get a call,” Hynes began, then her voice changed to a clipped professional tone: “‘Hold for Christopher Radko. This is his representative. He’s the premiere Christmas ornament maker of the world.’”

“How do you get that title?” she wondered aloud.

Radko, who revived the art of Polish blown-glass ornaments, had been commissioned by the White House to create mantlescapes in keeping with that season’s Nutcracker theme.

After hearing Radko’s intentions for the decorations, Hynes designed costumes for a doll-sized Sugar Plum Fairy, her Cavalier, and some Snowflakes and submitted the renderings to the First Lady for approval. Then, with the blessing of the administration at City Ballet to make the costumes—“This was all for free, for the honor,” she chuckled—she agreed to the project.

Radko then asked her how she was going to make the dolls. Her eyes widened in recollection, “Oh, I’ve got to make the dolls, too?”

Hynes went home and talked to her husband, Jim Zulakis, who was an art teacher in a private school in New York. “I said, ‘Honey,’” she smiled with an exaggerated sweetness, batting her eyelashes, “‘would you make me some dolls?’”

The dolls were fashioned from Sculpey by Hynes’ art teacher husband, Jim Zulakis. (Photo from the artist)
The dolls were fashioned from Sculpey by Hynes’ art teacher husband, Jim Zulakis. (Photo from the artist)

“He kind of jumped on it. You know, when you’re an arty person and you think, ‘That would be fun.’ … I don’t know how he feels now, years later, but at the time he thought it was great.”

Zulakis made the dolls out of Sculpey (a craft clay that is baked in the oven), “and their faces and hair and the whole thing,” Hynes recounted. “And at the shop we made little bitty tights to go on their legs and little crowns for the Snowflakes.”

“And in a way…” she paused, reflecting, “I was looking at Clara’s crown, when we had a fitting this morning, and, truth, it looks like my Snowflakes from the White House. It’s kind of fun. Here we are years later and I am getting to do it big scale.”

At that time the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, was 16 years old. She was a student at the Washington School of Ballet and was cast in the Washington Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. “So of course one of the dolls looked like her.”

But with all the elaborate decorations of ornaments, flowers and icicles on the mantel in the White House’s Green Room there wasn’t room for all the dolls. The Chelsea-doll and another Snowflake didn’t make the cut.

Hynes smiled: “Every Christmas we have the Chelsea Clinton, because we got to keep the two that there wasn’t room for.”

Where are the rest of the dolls? They are preserved in Little Rock, Ark., part of the collection at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum.

CategoriesPerforming Visual
Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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