Monday, December 17, 2007

Handcrafted Pantyhose Christmas Elves

Christmas is approaching fast, so lets review some of the local holiday traditions common to my family - a few extinct, some barely surviving, others still raging:

The CG&E Train display + free cookies,
Provident Bank's Christmas Village display + free candycanes, 
animatronic Bear Band in the Carew Tower Arcade,
perusing The Toy Shop at the Westin Hotel,
live animals at Krohn Conservatory's holiday nativity scene/barn,
ice skating on Fountain Square,
ice skating in the promenade at King's Island Winterfest,
the Nutcracker at Music Hall,
Playhouse in the Park's A Christmas Carol,
freezing train rides at the Cincinnati Zoo's Festival of Lights,
the huge bowl of homemade eggnog at The Golden Lamb, 
chopping down our own pine at the local tree farm,
and the list goes on... 

But the most unique and memorable Christmas event for me - and one of local lore - was the Christmas display at Shillito's downtown department Store.

 The John Shillito Co. store, 7th & Race St., downtown Cincinnati (195x).
When the building still housed the department store.

The early '80s were a grand time downtown Cincinnati (from my immature perspective) with streets swamped, stores filled, and general vitality in the air - there was an energy that the city center constructed and maintained. Many people stilled frequented downtown as a valid and sometimes necessary place to shop, not only because of the festivities, but the store names were enticing and brand options were still more prevalent in the core than the suburbs - in other words, multiple department stores still existed downtown (without handouts).

Shillito's (aka John Shillito & Co.), a staple of early-Cincinnati commercialism (and the largest department store for a better part of six decades), was always a definite stop along the downtown shopping route. The multi-storied structure housed everything from clothes and jewelry to an extensive home furnishings department, and - common in the early department store era - a cafe on an upper floor. This was always a great stop (for their famous "Seven Hills Sandwich", Chocolate Cake, and "Shillito's Lazarus Chessecake"), but not the most storied one... 

 The Workshop, Shillito's Christmas Display (1979).

As Christmas loomed, the store became a huge draw for their annual holiday display - Santa's Workshop at Santaland.

I know I'm not alone when I say that traveling to the top floor of the department store was a field trip extraordinaire. Shillito's didn't have the best floorplan, so when you were deep in the store, it felt a little claustrophobic - massive supporting pillars, heavy escalators, sparse exits, and again, swarming customers - but when you finally reached the pinnacle, all else was diminished. Anticipation heightened when arriving at the rear of the floor where the Christmas display was set up, because the line was always long and seemed extremely slow. This never stopped me from wanting to experience the event several times over, and actually, if you were lucky enough to be there near closing time, you could usually run back through the exhibit without wait.

The Paint Shop, Shillito's Christmas Display (1979).

I just really enjoyed how the production encapsulated you within its sphere. Once you were in the line, there was nothing around you to remind you of the department store - only life-size dioramas of animatronic elves doing their thing on one side, and a long conveyor belt on the other (where you dropped your personal letter to Santa in a mailbox, and watched it travel the gauntlet, hopefully making to the big man). A truly imaginative display - one we all knew was plastic, but still enlivened our holiday spirit.

Santa Tracking Center, Shillito's Christmas Display (1979).
Unfortunately, these elves could not forecast their own demise.

Eventually, this display went by the wayside with the end of the Shillito's name - a result of continual department store mergers, and the end of an era; a new vacuous era of empty sidewalks, massive highways, and big box suburban retailers. Similar to many other US urban centers, Cincinnati today just hints at its former glory...but is still trying.

The John Shillito Co. store, 7th & Race St., downtown Cincinnati (2010).
A recent view of the facade (and back), now housing rental lofts and businesses.
Image source: Adam.

Transit and communication have accelerated, retailers have flocked to the people (mainly near the outerbelt), and urban storefronts sit empty. Though now, with the reemergence and popularity of city living, these storefronts often become homefronts - as with the Shillito's building (now Shilito's Lofts).  Still, while the facades have endured, the history is sometimes forgotten.

Fortunately, prior to the gutting of the department store, Santa's Workshop was saved - bought and resold to a partner of the Mariemont Inn, where he has tried to reincarnate the tradition. Unfortunately, the act has become weathered, and there are surprisingly few options for temporary showcasing. Even with a recent plea to the public for permanent housing, it seems the elves might have finally outlived their extended fortune.

• Check out these galleries of the Christmas display, past and present, plus track the sentiments & yearly locations of the sets from the new owner's Facebook page.

This article also
captures the sentiment of past Cincinnati Christmases quite well.

• Recent photos of the Shillito & Co. building downtown.

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