Friday, January 7, 2011

B. Altman & Company

In her reply to my last post, "Austan" noted memories of B. Altman, the escalator, and wood everywhere. All of which are also part of my memories of the place. Altman's was really was a memento of another time, when grace and civility mattered, when things were built to be beautiful as well as functional.

All of the store entrances had canopies like this one.
 If you'd ever seen it, you would never forget the view of the main floor and atrium from the escalators. Sad to say, I couldn't even find a picture of the main floor, except for this from the closeout sale.

The first floor interior was a warm polished wood. I can't imagine anyone painting it white as in the picture above. But then again... Altman's was sold in 1985 to a group of real estate investors. It was part of a leveraged buyout that failed. By 1989, Altman's was forced into bankruptcy and closed by a judge's order. The sell off of the store's remaining inventory and fixtures followed, and the doors were closed for good Dec 31st, 1989.

It was such a shame. The store had employed over 500 people. There was a seven bed hospital with a doctor and two nurses for the staff - and shoppers who would be treated on an emergency basis. There were classes for the employees teaching the three R's. There was even a large fancy dining room on one of the floors. It was called the "Charleston Garden".
One side of a postcard for the dining room.
The actual dining room.
The escalators weren't installed until late 1939-early 1940's. They had originally been used at the 1939 World's Fair. I can't swear to this, but in my memory the escalators were wooden. There are now only a handful wooden escalators left - 2 or 3 at Macy's, one in a Boston subway station, and one or two in Europe and Argentina.

One of the wooden escalators at Macy's Herald Square.
One of the staircases at B. Altman's.
I remember once going to Altman's to buy either a pair of pants or a shirt - I no longer remember which. What I do remember is that as soon as I took something off a rack, a short elderly gentleman appeared at my side. He asked if I wanted to have the item tailored to fit. It would only take a few minutes. In what seemed like seconds, his hands performed a routine of measurement that only a lifetime of practice could provide. Oh, for the days of tailored clothes.

An Altman's window display from the 1940's.
another Altman's 1940's window display

Altman's was the kind of store that would make available a hand made "Tiffany" automobile.

When Altman's 5th Avenue store opened in 1906 (there had been two previous stores) the environs were the home of the wealthy. In deference to the neighborhood, Altman's didn't put up a sign identifying the store for 25 years.

That's the kind of place it was.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Life in Champagne

One of the problems with the Internet is that it is nearly impossible to find what you're looking for unless it concerns the modern consumer culture (and who owns what or sells what or withholds what). I include in that a number of sites selling ephemera and memorabilia of the past. When the net first got going, it was a great collection of people's  well - collections. Memories. Images related or just liked. This all has to do with trying to locate a good picture of the interior of the B. Altman's store on 5th Ave in NYC. Let me explain.

B. Altman's store covered the entire block of 5th Ave to Madison,
and from 34th to 35th street. Most of the 5th Ave side now houses the
City University of New York's Graduate Center. 
As New Year's Eve approached, I found myself (naturally enough) thinking about Champagne. When I was a lad I don't think you could have a picture of New Year's Eve that didn't have a glass of champagne in it.

'Course, those were the days of Lawrence Welk, tiny bubbles in the wine and all that. I was thinking that so few people seemed to be buying champagne the last couple of years. It was part of the sparkle of life.

Whenever I think of champagne, I think of one of those colorful 'characters' that used to populate New York City. People like Moondog who was blind and would sit on a balustrade on the 53rd Street side of the CBS building selling his poetry and music.

He insisted that he was a viking, and wore an appropriate viking all leather outfit - even in the swelter of summer. Or there was Marsha the skinny black transvestite who treated everyone and everything she saw as the audience for her own show.

The person I want to mention was a singer named Larry Chelsi. He was something of a bon-vivant and a raconteur. An opera singer and Broadway performer, he told me once that he quit his stage career when the mob muscled in on his record contract.

I remember Chelsi telling me about his audition for Cole Porter for "Out of This World". The show featured a couple of Greek gods trying to spend quality time with a beautiful human female.Chelsi had been told to wear something toga-ish - at the request of Mr. Porter, to see how his legs and knees would look in a toga or tunic.

After finding himself at Porter's city digs, Chelsi performed his audition while running around the piano trying to discourage Mr. Porter's more amorous intentions. There's only one problem though - by 1949-1950 when the show opened, Porter had already been long confined to a wheelchair. Porter, by the by, used to tell people that it was while he was waiting for the doctors after a horse rolled on his legs (breaking them into pieces, leaving him in extreme pain) that he composed "At Long Last Love".

Once, while visiting him in his apartment in Turtle Bay, Chelsi went to unbury some piece of memorabilia from his bedroom and told me if I wanted anything, to help myself. As I could have used a drink of water, I went over to the kitchen fridge and opened it. It was stuffed - every shelf, nook and cranny containing bottles of champagne piled one upon another. He did have style.

The last time I saw Chelsi, it was on the great wooden escalators at B. Altman's. As I was heading to the main floor I saw Chelsi on the up escalator. He'd been out of town performing in some show, saw me - and yoo hooed while shaking his arm and hand at me. That particular arm and hand was wearing layers upon layers of the largest  charm bracelet I'd ever seen. Even at that distance, I could make out charms shaped like champagne bottles. Considering the carriage trade conservative nature of Altman's, I would have been mortified if I could have stopped laughing.

I did a few google searches for him on New Year's Day, and found that he passed in October '09. I was prompted to the search by an Australian friend's note. (It's always tomorrow over there.) Dave mentioned that his New Year's Eve had "probably too much champagne". In mind's eye memory, I saw Chelsi looking horrified, and with booming voice say, "There is No Such Thing as too much champagne."

Oh, about the ad in my New Year's Day post - I am thinking of getting in contact with the writer. I'd love to give it a go.