In the first half of the twentieth century Cleveland was a well established major city, endowed with the cultural arts thanks to people with names like Rockefeller. Christmas was a magical time. I grew up in a village in the eastern suburbs about 20 miles from the city, but it seemed like another world. In the city I saw people with different skin color than mine for the first time. The gaseous fumes from buses was foreign to me. My mother and I would venture downtown on the "rapid transit" and visit my great-aunt Irene who worked at The May Company, which later became Kaufman's and now Macy's. Sadly, all the downtown department stores are now gone. Back then the store windows would display elaborate Christmas scenes with moving figures. At The May Company I remember being relegated to a children's playroom so my mom could shop.
Higbee's was another department store. Established in 1929, it became Dillard's in 1992. Higbee's was a store with wooden escalators and revolving doors. It had a well-loved restaurant called The Silver Grille. It was THE place to see Santa. At Twigbee's, children could do their own shopping. But the best thing was to see Mr. Jingaling! Mr. Jingaling was a Cleveland Christmas institution for 25 years. His real name was Earl Keyes, which is ironic because Mr. Jingaling was the keeper of Santa's keys. Not only could you visit him on Halle's seventh floor (the other big store), but you could receive a coveted cardboard key. I still have one stashed in a trunk somewhere. Mr. Jingaling would come on the local TV station every evening during the season, so he was a celebrity.
I still remember his song -
Mr. Jingaling, how you tingaling
Keeper of the keys
On Halle's seventh floor
We'll be looking for
You to turn the key.
We still saw him occasionally until his death in 2000. Once I saw him in a store and practically had a conniption. My children were with me, but were completely unimpressed by the weird looking dude.
If you watch "The Christmas Story" this season you will see Higbee's prominently featured in the movie. Part of the movie was filmed on Public Square in Cleveland and you can go to see "The Christmas Story" house which is now a public attraction in an area called Tremont. (I was hoping to report first-hand, but I haven't made it there yet.) There was a "Christmas Story"convention in town a few weeks ago and 4000 people traipsed through the house to see the leg lamp.
From 1909 to 1968 there was another large store called Sterling Lindner. Every year it would put up a Christmas tree that was purported to be the largest in the nation. Another must-see. Other attractions from childhood included the lighting display on Public Square and at Nela Park (the GE plant). My dad made sure we had an annual trek in the station wagon to see all the lights.
These are a big part of my Christmas memories and I know they are to others my age as well. The magic existed because there weren't a lot of special things the rest of the year. My childhood was somewhat prosaic and normal, so an animated store window was something special. Making an effort to go all the way downtown to see the one and only Santa was so believable. Meeting Santa's helper in person - priceless!
I don't want to sound like an old fart, but I wonder what is special to children now? They don't have to wait in anticipation all year to see Rudolph or Frosty - they own them on DVD. Animations and special effects are a part of their everyday lives. Maybe - I hope - there are magical experiences to replace the ones we had. I know nothing stays the same - but sometimes I wish it would.