The spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge lives, downtown this year. Not at the Daley Plaza, which features a smaller Christmas tree than in years past. Budgetary concerns dictate a single tree rather than smaller trees lashed together, the custom since 1955. Including platform and star on top, the shorter display tree still stands an imposing 60 feet tall and the seasonal spirit probably won’t be dampened for most people.
But Scrooge lurks if you merely walk one block east to the State Street Christmas window display at Macy’s (nee Marshall Fields). What was once enthralling is now appalling. For over 100 years, the Marshall Field’s window display has attracted visitors, a highlight of the Chicago Christmas season for millions.
Macy’s response to that annual tradition?
The current display is pitiful. No compelling narrative, just insipid bits of doggerel printed across the windows. Some Randolph and Washington display windows have been eliminated. Moving parts are at a premium and the whole presentation seems static and uninspired. Worst of all, the characters: a sorry-looking, anorectic Santa, who appears to be recovering from a bad bout of H1N1 and the elves, a grotesque bunch, who look to have straggled in after missing the callback for a Tim Burton movie.
The wonderful local tradition began in the late 19th Century when Marshall Field’s hired Arthur Fraser as display manager. Fraser worked for Field’s nearly 50 years and became a legend in the profession by revolutionizing the art of window display. In the age before television, window display as an advertising vehicle evolved into an industry itself and retailers worldwide sought to emulate Fraser’s renowned innovations at Fields.
Fraser pioneered the concept of featuring a special colorful Christmas display in 1897. Some of his influences may have come from The Show Window, a local trade magazine of the era specializing in window store display, edited by a transplanted Chicagoan, L. Frank Baum. Baum, a moonlighting writer, later left the magazine after writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In those early store windows, intimations, perhaps, of Emerald City?
In 1944, Fraser’s successors expanded on his ideas with a complete theme window concept. Walking south on State Street from Randolph to Washington, visitors saw a story unfolding window by window. That first story, a visual reenactment of “The Night Before Christmas”, captivated wartime Chicago otherwise preoccupied with news of setbacks in Europe at the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war in 1945, the window story was brought back by popular demand. People travelled from across the country to see it. Field’s extended the theme concept in 1946, introducing their own cast of Christmas characters displayed in a story entitled A Christmas Dream. The first character was jovial, avuncular Uncle Mistletoe, followed two years later by Aunt Holly. They were featured on holiday merchandise and store pamphlets told their story (no mention whether they were married or just living together).
They were so popular they had their own TV show in Chicago television’s early days, when most snow on TV was from faulty reception, not the weather. Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly were later joined by other Field’s creations including Freddy Fieldmouse, wife Marsha and their four children, Forester, Franklin, Fanny and Flora.
Time and tastes changed window themes, forcing the early characters into retirement. Subsequently, classical fairy tales or popular contemporary stories were unveiled right after Thanksgiving. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Paddington Bear and Harry Potter all had their moment in the snow. When the theme was The Nutcracker, strains of Tchaikovsky provided interesting counterpoint to the annual raucous versions of Jingle Bells by street musicians near the displays.
Predictably, department stores further south on State Street, notably Carson’s and Sears, copied Fields’ displays. Generations donned winter coats and galoshes tromping down State Street, past Salvation Army bellringers, debating the merits of the different store windows (with Fields generally the standard bearer). Hot chocolate and the obligatory family pose or romantic partner shots followed, captured variously through the years by Polaroids, Brownies, Kodachromes or video cameras. Fields’ displays alone survived to the age of digital cameras and cellphones.
Check out the current State Street embarrassment. Judge for yourself. If Macy’s treated their traditional New York Thanksgiving Parade with the same contempt they show the State Street windows, that parade today would be a half-dozen kids marching four blocks down Broadway, playing kazoos.
Those who remember the thrilling displays of yesteryear should contemplate fitting retribution for this abomination. Old Scrooge had the right idea to deal with whoever created it - ““boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart”.
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