Tuesday, December 25, 2012

...and a Very Merry Christmas to You!

This past Thanksgiving I did something for the first time in many years. Most years I catch maybe 20 or 30 minutes of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and many years have skipped it altogether. This year, my family and I watched darn near the entire thing.

I thought it was great this year, especially the music acts that stopped and performed on the “main stage” area of 34th Street, in front of The World’s Largest Store. I have a wide range of musical tastes, and felt that even those outside that range were presented very well. I was impressed.

Now I’ve always been impressed by that great structure behind the “stage”, the Macy’s flagship itself. It looked very nice that day, decorated with a kind of simple elegance, reminding me of the way it looked in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street”, something we do watch in its entirety each year.

But I can only imagine what their incredible facade displays of the late 50’s and early 60’s looked like in person. These were put together by the long defunct Bliss Display Corporation of New York. They often fully obscured the first floor, replacing the regular display windows (nothing to sneeze at in themselves) with scenes from a European-inspired Christmas fantasy world, framed in white and gold. This photo, scanned from an original slide, shows the 1963 version. As is often the case, I don’t know who the photographer was, but I’m grateful they documented scenes like this for some to remember, and for all to enjoy.  

And I’m very grateful for all of you, for your holiday wishes, your kind words and your support of PFS throughout the year. Wishing for each of you and your families Joy and Peace this Christmas season, and a great New Year!


Monday, December 24, 2012

It's Christmastiiiiime in Ford City!

It was the one indoor marching band event of my high school career. Early one Saturday morning each December, we’d pile into the buses for the 20 minute drive south, passing through towns such as Argo (Always brought to mind a box of corn starch. Still does.) and Summit to Ford City Mall for their annual indoor Christmas parade. There we’d join with other school bands, animal acts, clowns and assorted dignitaries marching the halls of the shopping center, while sound bounced off the terrazzo floor and storefronts.

We used these cheesy (on this site, that word always carries the best connotation) little songbooks called “Christmas Favorites” or something like that, which the school had probably owned since the 1950’s. I can still picture the red, green and white cover and yellowed pages. Our go-to song was that deeply meaningful Yuletide carol “Up on the Housetop.” The crowds, mostly families with young kids or older folks, always seemed to have a good time. So did we, although those memories tend to grow fonder with passing time (and with forgetting the “getting up early” part).    

These incredibly great photos come to us courtesy of Rick Drew. Rick’s Dad worked in mall management at Ford City during the mall’s early years. I would date these photos, based on the styles and store names to approximately 1968-70, some ten years before I assaulted the corridors there with my trumpet playing.

I’d love to tell the story of Ford City, one of Chicago’s most historically important malls, in full here someday, but only have time for a few brief notes at the moment. Ford City Shopping Center, opened on August 12, 1965, was “Chicago’s first all-weather, enclosed shopping center.”

The structure itself was originally built during World War II as a bomber engine plant. In the late forties, portions were used for the Tucker Car Corporation – an American dream that should have come true, and a story movingly told in one of my all-time favorite films, Tucker: The Man and his Dream. Later on it became an aircraft motor plant again, operated by Ford Motor Company, hence the name. For a few years in the early 60’s, before the mall development project, it sat vacant.

Initially, there were 82 stores, several locally-owned, with national chains F.W. Woolworth, Lerner Shops, Bond Clothes, ThomMcAn shoes, Wurlitzer pianos and organs and SupeRx Drugs (the yellow “s” at the left edge of the first photo) along with a National Tea Company food store. A General Cinema twin theatre opened soon afterward. The two anchors, at opposite ends of the center in classic “barbell” fashion, were Penneys and Chicago-based Wieboldt’s.

At 178,000 square feet, the Penneys store was the company’s largest single-floor unit at the time. Interestingly, as late as 1975, this Penneys store continued to outsell those at newer, much larger area malls, including the behemoth Yorktown Center (1968) and Woodfield Mall (1971). A year after Ford City opened, another Penneys opened 15 miles to the south at Harvey’s fabled Dixie Square Mall.  
The Wieboldt’s store initially had a restaurant and a supermarket, an interesting feature of many of their locations in the early 60’s, including Randhurst. What really strikes me about this store was that the signage, interior and exterior, was red instead of Wieboldt’s signature green, used virtually everywhere else. When I saw these pictures it was a shock, like seeing a blue Coca-Cola can or purple arches above a McDonald’s sign. So wrong, yet looking at these photos…so right. (These posts always have a way of turning melodramatic at some point, don’t they?).

In any event, they sure knew how to decorate the place for Christmas. Hope you’re having a great one!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas in Herald Square, 1974

When people think of New York City’s famed Herald Square, one name in particular comes immediately to mind – Macy’s, of course. Its 110-year old flagship, billed almost from the start as “The World’s Largest Store”, has been a revered local fixture and a worldwide tourist draw for generations.
Pictured here, in a photo dating from the 1974 Christmas season, are Macy’s next door neighbors at the time – arch-competitor Gimbels, whose rivalry with Macy’s was immortalized in comic fashion in the Christmas classic “Miracle on 34th Street” and E.J. Korvette, which opened there in 1967 and was known simply as “Korvettes” by the time this photo was taken.

Prior to Korvette’s tenure, the corner of 34th Street and Broadway was occupied by the Saks -34th Street department store. Saks & Company itself was taken over by Gimbels in 1923, and just after that opened their famous flagship store at 617 Fifth Avenue. The new Fifth Avenue location “present(ed) to New York a specialty store on a scale never before attempted in the selling of wearing apparel of the finer grade” (it was here the “Saks Fifth Avenue” name originated), while the 34th street Saks store would carry merchandise “along the (more modest) line which has characterized the Saks business”, according to an April 23, 1923 New York Times article.

In 1965, when the decision was made to close the Saks 34th Street store, E.J. Korvette, buoyed by the success of their own Fifth Avenue location, jumped at the chance to acquire the location. Korvette conceived it as a combination flagship store/corporate headquarters, a gleaming showplace with “eight selling floors, a selling basement, and a ninth floor for inventory purposes”, the Times reported in late 1965. Plans for the seven story office tower atop the store were already dropped by then, with zoning reasons cited, but by that time Korvette had already run into some trouble. The renovated building, as it appears here, opened on Halloween in 1967.

Operating under Gimbels’ ownership, the two buildings were actually connected by a two-story bridge for over forty years, crossing 33rd Street and connecting the second and third floors of each. Initially, there was some thought given to maintaining the bridge after the turnover of the Saks building to Korvette, but it ended up being torn down in April 1966. “We saw no special purpose in continuing the bridge, a Korvette executive told a Times reporter, while his counterpart at Gimbels said “My own feeling is that a bridge connecting competitors just makes no sense”.
Korvette would be gone at the end of 1980 and Gimbels six years after that, but on this date, decked out in Christmas garb, they certainly looked nice side-by-side.

My sincere to thanks to Vincent Stoessel for the use of this photo, taken by his father.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A 1950's Christmas in Martinsburg

It’s always amazed me how Kodachrome film can make an over 50-year old scene look like it took place last night. That’s certainly the case here in this beautiful night shot of a Christmas shopping crowd at a Peoples Drug store in Martinsburg, West Virginia, from an original slide I bought some time back.

But this was well over fifty years ago, probably closer to sixty, an infinitely simpler time compared to today’s warp drive existence. This was prior to the “shopping center era” for most communities across America, and prior to the “mall era” for all but a handful. These were the early postwar years, just before the boom, a time when doing a big chunk of one’s Christmas shopping at the corner drugstore was still an entirely reasonable proposition. When the main Christmas gifts one received, oftentimes, were the ones that still matter most today –time spent and meals shared with loved ones.  Oh, and maybe a new Falcon Pipe for Dad and a bottle of Tussy Wind and Weather Lotion for Mom, of course.

Peoples Drug, the leading drugstore chain in the greater Washington, D.C. area, had a history that spanned the 20th century itself, save for a few years on either end.  Founded in 1904 with a single store at 824 7th Street in D.C., the company had grown to nearly 160 stores by the end of 1955, with locations in six states (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Tennessee) in addition to those in the District. The Peoples name lasted until the early 90’s, a few years after their acquisition by CVS.

I don’t know the address of this location, and being a night photo there aren’t enough visible details to date the building with any accuracy. As always, I’m hoping someone can help us here. The signage, however, sports the wonderful late 30’s/early 40’s deco lettering (“drugs”) that many drug chains (and variety chains like Kresge and Murphy) used from time to time on corner locations.

To the extreme right of the photo you’ll notice another retail icon – a tower sign for the Acme grocery store. Now there have been lots of Acmes out there – Acme of Akron, Acme of Virginia, Acme Co. (makers of rocket-powered roller skates, dehydrated boulders and the “Do-it-Yourself Tornado Kit”), but I think this store was part of the best known Acme of all, the Acme Markets division of the Philadelphia-based American Stores Company. For many years they operated a small number of stores in the West Virginia panhandle.   

All I know is I’d have loved to have done at least some of my Christmas shopping there.  A Stetson hat and a time machine, and I’m there!   
One quick note - I’m so sorry for the long gap between posts. I’d like to be able to say I was “waiting for the end of the world” as the Mayans would put it (or was that Elvis Costello – I never get these things straight), but I can’t. I’m working on some new things to put up here, some holiday related and some not, between now and Christmas.

In any event, I hope each one of you is off to a great holiday season, or will be soon!