Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Season of Lights

Here we are, just four days before Christmas 2006. This year went by quickly. The month sped by like a meteor entering earth's atmosphere. It's amazing how time goes by, especially as you get older.

One of those things that have always made the Christmas season special is the lights that illuminate the neighborhoods starting a day after Thanksgiving and going through "Little Christmas" in January. Being we have to deal with the shortest of days in December, it's great that the Christmas lights make those days a little brighter.

While the lights we have today are nice, it's my opinion that things were brighter back in the day. And more colorful. Look out your door today, what do you see? Mostly a sea of white light from small bulbs. What happened to color? It's almost as if we went from celebrating Christmas to wanting to make South Philly look more like Vegas. Especially with those homes that have the lights surrounding the entire front. It's really "production" looking and detracts from the Christmas feel.

Thankfully there still is some color around. The lights strung across our block remain in color. In our own home, we went back to multi-color lights after the long-standing white strand died a timely death. There are still many who make their decorating jobs look special. But the grand-daddy of them all around here was a man named Frank DeAntonio. It was said that Frank was one of the main decorators at the old John Wanamaker store in Center City, and his work was a testimony to that. Every year, we waited for him to put up his lights and decorations and the block really shined because of it. There were others here who tried to outdo him, but they never had the skill. I remember Mr. DeAntonio had a small n-gauge train layout in his basement window, totally crafted it himself. A nice winter snow scene with Disney characters and two sets of tracks with the trains going in opposite directions. All the kids loved it, we would go to his window often to watch.

Mr DeAntonio also had a large snowman between his bedroom windows, just like you'd see at the Christmas Light Show at what was Wanamakers and now is a Macy's store. It's arms would wave up and down in lights, a really nice piece of work. To finish the job, he used large colored bulbs for his lights, nicer than what we were used to around here. This guy knew how to decorate, and his work is missed. Frank DeAntonio passed away a number of years ago, shortly after his wife's death. He was a great guy, and always seemed to get a charge in watching the kids watch his creations. It was said that when he retired the train layout when he got older, he donated it to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. If this is so, I hope they still have it, those kids there would love it.

The folks on Smedley and Colorado Streets (2700) still do a fantastic job with their lighting. Do they compete? I don't know. Only about a block apart, I guess it's easy to believe that one of the blocks could do a better job than the other. Competition or not, who cares? Both do Christmas lighthing right, and it's really great for the neighborhood. I still see car and van loads of folks slowly driving around Smedley to have a look. The traffic pattern of Colorado makes it a quick trip up and out.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Kid's Day on the Town

This date, December 8th, was a day that my brother, sister, and I looked forward to for almost an entire year. No, it wasn't as important a date as say, Christmas, or your birthday. But December 8th was important for two reasons: It was a day off from school, and it was a day fully-spent in Center City (we called it going uptown) visiting the department stores and their
Christmas attractions.

The day always started with us sleeping in a little later than usual. After all, it was a day off, so you had to put it to good use and get a little more sleep. It was just a little, maybe an hour or two more, but then our feet hit the floor and we started to get ready.

We always took the route 2 bus north on 16th street into town. My mom and her friends didn't trust the subway, they thought too many bad things happened down there. So we stayed on the surface. The first stop once hitting Market Street was a short walk to John Wanamaker's to see the Christmas light show, which was a must, and still should be for families today. Afterward, we'd head up to the 9th floor to the toy department where there were two things a kid had to do: ride the monorail around the toy department, and go shopping for your parents at the Little Santa shop that the store set up for kids. The doorway into the shop was really low, giving the impression that only kids could come in, no adults allowed. We were so into it that we didn't think about how the adult cashiers and sales helpers got into the room. I think it's safe to say they weren't shrunken momentarily to allow them entrance, but we didn't care. We finished our trip to Wanamaker's with a stop for lunch in the fancy dining room they had there, at least fancier than places kids go most times of the year.

After lunch, we'd trek east on Market to Lit Brothers department store at 8th Street. This was before the pit they call The Gallery was built down the street. Lit's had an attraction called The Enchanted Village, an animated Christmas town that was enjoyed by kids and adults alike. We'd line up through the length of the store to wait to get to see it. The trip through the village took only maybe fifteen minutes, but we got to clown around with each other while waiting and the time wasn't wasted. The Enchanted Village survived until Lit's closed in 1975, and should someday rise again when the Please Touch Museum moves into the current Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. If you haven't been there as a child, start a tradition with your family and head there every year around Christmas time. Although I haven't seen it in three decades, I believe kids will still be interested, even in the world of high tech - which the village definitely isn't. When it's back, take them and let them decide whether or not it's for them. My bet is that they'll love it.

There was a third big department store on Market St. East in those days, but to our knowledge, Gimbel's didn't have anything like the other stores did. The only thing we can remember is that on Thanksgiving Day, they were the sponsors of the parade, and Santa Claus would ascend the ladder of a Philadelphia Fire Department ladder truck and enter the window of one of the store's upper floors to usher in the Christmas season. After that, nothing. It's a shame really, because they missed out on drawing in the kids with their parents and what could have been some tradition for some families.

The common thread in all this was the big department stores. Those that survive or have started in the more recent decades fall short in a lot of ways. They're just not the same. When you look at it, the average department store has two, maybe three floors of goods for sale today. Wanamaker's had nine in Center City. Retail is a different animal than it was back in the day, and that's sad, because generations of kids and entire families will miss out on what we remember from just thirty years ago.