Photo courtesy of Visionary Effects.

The summer flower show at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is larger than life, even though the subject matter is small.

The Hidden Life of Trolls, which runs May 1 through Sept. 26, is an immersive, interactive exhibit featuring animatronic characters and some of the biggest props the Oakland facility has ever used. To make the mythological creatures a reality, Phipps relied on a team of local fabricators.

Planning for the show began in 2019, but the grand opening was pushed back a year due to Covid.

Jordyn Melino, associate director of exhibits, designed the cast of characters based on Scandinavian folklore, Norse mythology and the children’s books she grew up with.

Sketches for the troll designs courtesy of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

Melino took her sketches and a story outline to two local businesses: Visionary Effects in Point Breeze and Beechview’s Tolin FX.

“We are problem-solvers,” says Dan Thomson, owner of Visionary Effects. “Every client that comes to us has an idea that’s different and that’s what keeps it fun.”

Visionary Effects, which replicated Mister Rogers’ famous trolley for the biopic, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” has engineered multiple props for flower shows over the years, including Phipps’ Magical Carousel display.

For this summer’s extravaganza, Thomson and his team used animatronics to bring Fen and Ivy, the show’s mascots, to life. The Trolls will greet visitors as they enter the exhibition. A third character, Bridget, crouches under a bridge in Phipps’ Serpentine Room and asks riddles.

Tolin FX is another frequent Phipps collaborator. The company made miniature replicas of local church steeples for a gargoyle-themed exhibit in 2010, added pizzaz to the Fall Flower Show: 125 Years of Wonder in 2018, and were on track for many Garden Railroad exhibits.

In 2021, Tolin FX contributed a gigantic troll head to the pond in Phipps’ Victoria Room pond, and a forest spirit called a huldra to the Sunken Garden. Although mythological, the huldra is so lifelike that patrons might mistake her for a costumed Phipps employee.

“My mission statement for this business is to make other people’s creative endeavors more awesome,” says owner Steve Tolin.

Photo courtesy of TolinFX.

The trolls in the Palm Court and East Room were created by Phipps staff using topiary frames. Vegely Welding, a local metal fabrication company, erected the frame for the South Conservatory troll.

The entire installation process lasted three weeks, which is longer than a typical show.

What happens to these whimsical creatures and flowers once the show is over?

Some of the props will be on display for guests to view in Phipps’ Exhibit Staging Center. The plants will either be donated to organizations such as the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and the National Aviary, reused elsewhere within Phipps or composted.

Photo by Paul g. Wiegman courtesy of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

To keep the creativity alive throughout the summer, Phipps is asking kids ages 12 and under to design their own troll on a sheet of paper and submit a digital copy. Select artworks will be displayed during The Hidden Life of Trolls exhibition.

Throughout this long and innovative journey, Communications Manager Jenna Bodnar captured behind-the-scenes details on Phipps’ blog.

“It was really rewarding for us to collaborate with and showcase the creativity of Pittsburgh artists to create this exciting show,” Bodnar says.

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.