Sunday, December 25, 2011

Wishing You a Merry Christmas!

Shown above is an early 1970’s edition of one of the largest indoor Christmas trees in the world, and certainly the most famous one of any kind in the Chicago area – the “Great Tree” inside the Walnut Room restaurant at the legendary State Street home of Marshall Field & Company.

The Walnut Room (named for its beautiful walnut paneling) and the tree tradition date all the way back to 1907, when the current-day Marshall Field building, which evolved over a couple of decades on the corner of State and Washington streets, took on the form that is still largely recognizable today.

Standing 45 feet tall and sporting 5,000 or more ornaments and too many lights to count, the Great Tree was actually a real tree until recent decades when more stringent fire codes were imposed. Every year, a Marshall Field manager was assigned the task of traveling to Mellen, Wisconsin, a half hour from Lake Superior. There, with the assistance of local timbermen, he would select the perfect fir tree to be cut down and shipped by rail 400 miles back to Chicago. The annual lighting of the “Marshall Field’s Tree” was a big event, broadcast on and off over the years on Chicago’s WGN –TV.

For several years, our family had a tradition where the folks rousted us out of bed at 7am the day after Thanksgiving to drive downtown for breakfast at the Walnut Room, where we endeavored to be seated as close to the tree as possible. There were always long lines, but we usually ended up with good seats. These were the late 70’s and early 80’s, when Field’s launched their annual “Marshall Field’s & Christmas” campaign every year at this time, complete with commemorative hot chocolate mugs to take home. When this tradition started we were already teenagers, a period of time when I became “too cool” for a great many things, but somehow it always got through to me.

With the passing of time, much has changed, not the least of which is the name on the front doors of the store. (The name on the corner of the store remains the same, thanks to the National Register of Historic Places.) When my family and I were in Chicago this past Thanksgiving, we popped in to take a quick 3-minute look at the Walnut Room. The tree was still beautiful, the lines were still long, and I assume the food was still good. All I know is that the people I saw were having a great time. Oh, and that there’s very little I’m too cool for anymore.

I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your readership, loyalty and friendship during a year when I posted here far less than I wanted to. Hopefully what was new here you found to be enjoyable and informative.

And once again, may the True Joy of Christmas be yours, may your holidays be great and spent with family and friends, and best wishes for a wonderful and healthy New Year!


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas on Fifth Avenue

“…by night it becomes festive, chic, expensive, for in this season Fifth Avenue is the quintessence of Christmas for adults…it is a scintillating sight, alive with bright movement. And in its own way, it is full of Christmas peace, the peace which makes such elegance possible…The shops of Fifth Avenue are mostly elegant shops offering elegant Christmas gifts for or from elegant people. But a stroll down Fifth Avenue at night is within the reach of everyone. The decorations are so lovely that a man can imagine owning everything, owning all of Christmas. A man can stare at this piece of jewelry, at that fur hat, can imagine his wife wearing them – and can acquire a glow that will last him all the way home.” – from an article by Robert Daley for The New York Times, December 14, 1964.

Pictured here, from an undated slide, is E.J. Korvette’s flagship store, which opened in 1962 at 575 Fifth Avenue, adjacent to some of New York's most prestigious retailers. Korvette's beautiful decorations were in league with them, while the “elegant gifts” referred to in Mr. Daley’s article were a bit more affordable there.

Friday, December 23, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life at Penney's

Christmas in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania, sometime in the late 40’s or early 50’s. The charming Santa decoration says both “Merry Christmas” and “Season’s Greetings”, so everyone is covered. Colorful garland hangs across the storefronts on either side. The building itself easily dates to the earliest years of the 1900’s if not before, and undoubtedly housed other businesses prior to J.C. Penney’s tenure.

Looking at this, I just know that Lancaster must have been home to a gracious soul like George Bailey, protecting the town's virtue and helping people in need so they didn’t have to “go crawling to Potter” or whoever the local robber baron may have been.

A good thing, too - otherwise the neon sign here would have read “Dime a Dance” instead of “Penney’s”!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas "On The Square" at S. Klein!

So to speak, that is. Regardless of location, S. Klein stores were always “on the square”, even if they were in a mall, a shopping center, or the middle of a field. It was an integral part of the name, dating back to the opening of their famous flagship store on New York City’s Union Square. An engineering square (barely visible below the “L” in the sign) served as a company logo of sorts for years.

Founded in 1906 as a wholesale manufacturer of women’s garments by Samuel Klein, a tailor’s son who emigrated from Russia at the age of five, S. Klein on the Square had evolved into a “full line” store by the early 60’s. They staked out the rarefied territory between department store and discounter, in a similar vein to E.J. Korvette and Alexander’s. Although Klein would eventually carry everything from furniture to food, the emphasis remained on fashion, for women in particular. In 1966, they were acquired by McCrory Corporation, assuming the role of high-end counterpart to McCrory’s Lerner Shops division and their growing stable of variety stores. Sadly, Klein was another in a long list of 70’s recession casualties, gradually closing stores in the early part of the decade and gone altogether by its end.

But times were good when the photo above, showing the Greenbelt, Maryland location in one of its first Christmas selling seasons, was taken. A massive (314,000 square feet!) store, it opened on October 17, 1963, a few weeks before the opening of a even larger Klein unit in Woodbridge, New Jersey.

A little snow would have made this the perfect scene, but I’ll bet that parking lot was a bear as it was!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas at Randhurst, Early 1960's

Randhurst. In its early years it was an appealing sight, regardless of the time of year. At Christmastime that appeal was magnified in many ways. A glittering new shopping center it was, the world’s largest…where we lucky Northwest Suburbanites got fresh new gift ideas from sparkling new stores…where we found gifts galore from token to treasure…all under one roof, in 72-degree comfort.

When November rolled around, though, things took on a new air of excitement. Each Christmas purchase we made there, for example, was affixed with the gleaming “Randhurst Seal” - an evergreen-shaped foil sticker-thingy sporting the center’s winsome triangular logo, to glisten on our gifts as a symbol of our good taste and thoughtfulness.

And there were special events in abundance. What with school choir performances, ice skating shows (on temporary portable rinks), celebrity appearances, and a homestand by Jolly Old St. Nick himself, a trip to Randhurst became a must on everyone’s Christmas list in our corner of the world. Topping it off were the decorations – Christmas trees big and small, beautiful lights, animated displays and poinsettias in profusion, all of which combined to produce a magical effect.

Realizing that this holiday magic was by no means limited to Randhurst or the other ‘historically significant’ malls, of course. To be sure, “attention to detail” was the watchword for many of the early enclosed shopping centers, partly from a desire to compete favorably with the pomp and circumstance of the downtown department stores and their classic display windows. The victory of the suburban “branch stores” over their downtown flagships wasn’t yet complete, but by the mid-60’s the music had started playing and the end credits were about to roll.

As nice as many modern-day retail Christmas displays and events are today, and some are fantastic, there’s just something about the Christmas shopping experience of decades past that stands out. No doubt a major reason for this is our tendency to view this time of year through “nostalgia glasses”, to make endless comparisons with Christmas past. It’s an ingrained part of the American holiday experience. (One thing I know for certain – that department store gift boxes used to be a lot nicer than the flimsy things given out today. Don’t need my nostalgia glasses to see that.)

I suspect at least some of it may be due of the passing of an era – in this case, the era of the great display houses. For decades, the retail holiday decor business was dominated by a handful of firms whose origins dated back to the early years of the 20th century. These companies combined a theatrical flair with old-world craftsmanship to create charming and memorable scenes that became a vital part of a store’s image, year in and year out.

Most prominent among these firms was the Bliss Display Corporation of New York City. Founded by Lord & Taylor display designer James Albert Bliss in 1929, the Bliss company built elaborate displays for most of the key New York department stores – Macy’s (including this 1959 stunner), Gimbels, Abraham & Straus, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s, along with Philadelphia’s legendary John Wanamaker stores. Bliss’ reach extended well beyond the eastern seaboard, including work for St. Louis-based Stix, Baer and Fuller (I guess New Yorkers would consider St. Louis “the sticks”, right? Ok, I’ll stop that now.), among many others. A fascinating profile of the Bliss company and some of the other major display makers can be found in the book “Holidays on Display” by William L. Bird, Jr., a perennial coffee-table book at our house at Christmastime.

But Chicago had its own Duke of Display. The Silvestri Art Manufacturing Company was founded in 1901 by George Silvestri in 1901 and operated by his son, George Jr., during the exciting years of the 1950’s and 60’s. Silvestri’s plant was located at 1147 West Ohio Street, just blocks away from the best restaurant that ever existed - the late, great Como Inn. (As voted by me, that is. Whenever our family ate out for a special occasion and the choice was mine to make, that’s where we went.) The Silvestri company made a wide range of decorations, including “the white reindeer tethered to State st. lampposts”, as the Chicago Tribune put in one of a near-annual series of articles on the “fascinating” firm, the lighted trees and wreaths at O’Hare Airport ($15,420 worth in 1966 alone), and scores of elaborate, animated holiday window sets for such Chicago luminaries (pun not intended, but I’ll take it) as Marshall Field & Company, Wieboldts, Goldblatts and Carson Pirie Scott, including several years’ worth of jaw-dropping faux-European storefronts for the latter.

Silvestri had an interesting sideline that profoundly influenced Christmas decorating in general, both commercially and at home. In the mid-1950’s, they introduced the Italian miniature Christmas light to the American public, importing them and selling them in department and discount stores under the Silvestri name. Prior to that time, most indoor or outdoor lights available were the big honkin’ “C-7 style” GE or Noma lights. (Don’t misunderstand me. I still love ‘em.) The new lights, jewel-like and much smaller, proved to be such big sellers that the Italian government bestowed a special award upon Mr. Silvestri in 1957. Until the advent of LED lighting (Maybe my eyes will get used to those things one of these days.), they were what most of us thought of as Christmas lights, though more than a few folks still call them “Italian lights” (made in China for eons now, of course) and packaging still often refers to them as “mini lights”.

I’m not sure if the Randhurst decorations pictured above were Silvestri products, but because of their extensive work for Carson Pirie Scott, it’s a strong possibility. Carsons, of course, was “first among equals” in the Randhurst Corporation partnership, with the lesser among equals being Wieboldts (another Silvestri customer, as mentioned) and The Fair/Montgomery Ward. It’s safe to assume they had lots of influence in the matter.

The photos above were taken at Randhurst between 1962 (its first Christmas season) and 1965, and appear here courtesy of the Mount Prospect Historical Society. Greg Peerbolte, the society’s executive director, wrote a great book about Randhurst that was published this past spring (and is selling very well, I’m told) and can be ordered directly from the society. If you’re interested in shopping center history (and who isn’t, I beg?) or grew up in the area and want to reminisce, you’ll enjoy it thoroughly.

The scenes give a nice feel for the festivities, including the throngs lined up to meet Santa in front of Kresge’s (dig the Aztec-sun background and the space-age outfits of his teenybopper “helpers”). And yes, the impeccably dressed man in the suit, tie and pocket square is none other than actor Cesar Romero, in between his role in the movie “Ocean’s 11” (the Sinatra original, not the Clooney remake with 400 sequels) and his iconic role as The Joker in the 1966-68 Batman TV series. In the early 1960’s, Romero was the traveling “Ambassador of Fashion” for Petrocelli’s, a line of men’s suits.

There’s an indoor skating show, starring two ladies trying to defy nature and become twins, a fairly scary skating hippopotamus (I hesitated to include this photo for fear of a “New Zoo Revue” flashback. I may delete it yet.), and an angelically-robed children’s choir in front of The Fair’s interior entrance. (Check out the backwards “n’s” on the ‘Open Tonight’ banner in back. Cute.)

Several general views follow, depicting various areas of Randhurst bedecked in Christmas finery. At least one year (1963), they featured a set of 11 “traditional” downtown store-style display windows, constructed as free-standing dioramas, one of which is pictured above in photo number 12. Lastly, the landmark Randhurst water tower is converted to a special “holiday hot-air balloon”, years before The 5th Dimension made such things fashionable.

Below, two Christmas-related ads from the early days – a newspaper ad from 1962 (the source for my hyperbolic first paragraphs – I’d love to find one of those Randhurst “Christmas seals”!) and an interesting trade ad from a late 1963 issue of Display World, offering that year’s Christmas dioramas for sale after completion of the holiday run. It was commonplace in those days for big-name department stores or shopping centers to sell their used Christmas displays to smaller-market counterparts as every year something new was needed and the displays were far too costly to toss. The old “direct from Broadway” concept, although in this case it was “direct from Mount Prospect”.

Here’s hoping your Christmas shopping is almost done!