Friday, November 26, 2010

The Day After...

See, the thing of it is this: when I was a child, the day after Thanksgiving had yet to become known as "Black Friday". In the mid 1960s, the Philadelphia police department used that moniker for the day due to the bizarre yearly chaos of midtown traffic. The term began to be promoted around 1968, 1970. After another 7 or 8 or so years,  tv news reporters during  this season would  explain (with pious intonations) that it was around the day after Thanksgiving that most large stores began to turn their yearly profit, a.k.a. "in the black". All of that was bullshit, of course, but it made for a neat little story.

In Philly, it was easy to respect stores like Gimbels and Wanamakers: their intentions were clear up front. They were both on Market Street. So, when my family would venture forth from southern New Jersey on the blessed Day After, we headed for Center City Philadelphia. There weren't any malls then.

One year, we parked somewhat away from downtown, and got around by using the trolley. The trolleys had a sort of cream and green color. They ran on tracks embedded in the street through and around the city by use of electricity - collected  from an overhead cable/wire by a metal rod and connector called a pantograph. The Philly streetcars used a single arm version.

After yesterdays' comments on the Gimbels parade, you'd think that since they had the real Santa to tell your secrets to (while a photographer snapped your picture) that I'd be impatiently waiting to get to their store. In reality, I wanted to go to Wanamakers.

Wanamakers was one of those huge old fashioned department stores with a central atrium soaring up and up 9 stories high. When you entered, you'd see this huge bronze eagle, the "meeting point" for lovers and children separated from their parents.

The eagle had been purchased from a World's Fair held in St. Louis. Mr. Wanamaker also acquired the fair's giant pipe organ. After the organ was installed in the store, people complained that the sound wasn't loud enough to "fill" the atrium space! So, Mr. Wanamaker and his heirs expanded it until it became the world's largest pipe organ.  Starting around 1956 or so, it was used as a lynch pin of a short holiday show performed every hour.

A super huge Christmas Tree would be all lit up and turn colors, and there were fountains of water that turned color too. It grew in size and scope for years until the show became famous around the world, and a tourists' destination in itself. But none of was there in my day. I only have slight memories of the show starting, staring at it in wide eyed glee, as I was pulled away - time to go. It didn't really matter much, it didn't have anything to do with my purpose there. The epiphany of my childhood, the object of my unbridled subconscious, was a ride on the Rocket monorail attached to the ceiling. You'd get into the shiny chrome cars (two of them - and no adults allowed) and take a ride around the store, descending to the eighth floor, meandering by a camera counter before traveling over what had to be the largest toy department in the world, in the universe! One exited, needless to say, by Santa's throne.

After it was all over, kids were left a quivering mass of jelly, eyes glazed over, mouths wide ope with an awed and silly kind of grin which betrayed the knowledge of enough material to furnish dreams and daydreams for at least a week if not all the way to Christmas, New Year's or maybe even to Easter.
There probably isn't anything like it now, a grand store with a splash of a futuristic fantasy extravaganza executed with the greatest of simplicities. (Sigh.) Gimbels' is gone. Wanamakers got bought and sold a couple of times by a series of wealthy men who tried to save it. Eventual corporate ownership closed off all but three stories, and sold off just about everything else - including Mr. Wanamaker's office, kept preserved as it was when he he was last there in 1920 something. The brass eagle and the sadly stationary Rocket monorail are now in a children's museum. One whole side of the building became part of high rise offices.The bargain basement in now a parking lot. The rest of the building is still a store space, now run by Macy's. In a current newspaper story, someone who is selling a book about the store pushed aside a blue colored smurf and moved a drape hanging on a column to reveal an engraving, a part of the store's past days of glory.


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Austan said...

(I love that first comment)

But everyone knows the Real Santa was at A&S in Brooklyn. His Real Name was Mr. Snow. I knew him. He came to dinner at our house. So your Santa was a just a helper. ;P

Austan said...

I've come back to read that first comment again. I think you should blog about it.