. . . And to Downtown, a Good Night
By Mary Jo Nelson
Sunday, December 25, 1983
There is no doubt in the mind of any kid growing up today in Oklahoma City. Santa Claus is a suburbanite. His realm is the shopping mall.
Like the city’s children themselves, contemporary Santas don’t know about downtown, let alone ever see it.
It wasn’t always that way. For a half-century or more before downtown was razed, the heart of Oklahoma City glowed with the very soul of Christmas. To folks past 40, ghosts of magical Christmases past hover downtown. The season turned it into a wonderland.
The multiple-story limestone and brick department stores employed plenty of friendly, helpful clerks, and stocked enough goods that within a few blocks, you could buy anything on your list.
The streets and buildings were decked out from top to bottom with lights and bells and stars and garlands. Inside and out, the stores sparkled with brightly-burning bulbs, tinseled greenery, bells that jingled and animated figures.
Windows in John A. Brown, Kerr’s and Halliburton’s department stores were taken over by mechanical creatures that danced endlessly simply because Christmas was coming. And somewhere in a quiet corner, those who sought it could find a tiny figure in a creche, detached from all the fuss and yet, somehow, the center of it.
Few people can remember that during the 1930s and who knows how long before, Oklahoma City staged an annual Christmas parade that rivaled the modern Macy’s. It is preserved in historic photograph collections.
Apparently patterned after New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, it featured stilted and costumed storybook characters who marched up and down the city’s brick streets, along the streetcar tracks. Tens of thousands turned out to watch, jamming the broad sidewalks and spilling over onto the wide streets, so close they could reach out and touch the paraders.
The highlight always was Santa Claus himself, riding a genuine sleigh drawn by eight real, live reindeer. It required three or four men to keep the deer in line, but if anybody noticed, no fuss was made about it. Neither was any notice paid to the wheels that substituted for the sleigh’s runners.
The streets themselves were a wonderland for children. Utility poles were transformed to forests of decorated Christmas trees, and strings of lights across Main and Grand (now Sheridan), Broadway and Robinson illuminated the night sky. Stores strung colored lights along their facades, five and six stories high, creating fanciful shapes.
Small Oklahoma towns would drive busloads of children to the capital for the Yule scenery.
Historian Jordan Reaves, then of Pauls Valley, “always found some excuse” to come to Oklahoma City at Christmastime during the 1920s and 1930s.
“You had Woolworth’s on one side of Main Street and John A. Brown’s on the other, and between those two stores, you could find anything in the world you wanted for Christmas,” Reaves remembers.
“Then after I moved to Oklahoma City and was working downtown, during the 1950s, I would rush into Brown’s on Christmas Eve and find a woman clerk and plead with her and she never failed to bail me out. She was always sympathetic and helpful and if she wasn’t selling what I needed, she would suggest something and tell me exactly where I could find it.
Now, that’s all gone by the board.”
Mrs. O. Alton Watson remembers taking her three children to visit Santa at Brown’s.
“Even after Ann Sheridan (her eldest) was old enough to know there wasn’t a Santa, she and the others were just paralyzed with excitement,” she related. “You knew all the clerks in the store and they knew you. It was just wonderful.”
Both Mrs. Watson and Reaves recall the crowds as one of the things that made Christmas downtown special. “They had those wide sidewalks, and they were just jammed with people,” Reaves said. “You couldn’t walk. You had to work your way down the street.”
“There were so many people you couldn’t move in the stores, even at night,” Mrs. Watson remembers. “The stores were so beautifully decorated and the toy departments were outstanding. The thrill of it was wonderful.
“Now, it’s too split up. There are just too many shopping centers, and the lights and excitement (of downtown) were something you just don’t get at the shopping malls.”
Mrs. John D. Frizzell had just finished seventh grade when her family moved here from Tulsa. That 1922 Christmas and others to follow will never be forgotten.
“Oh! It was a big deal. The big excitement was you would drive down to Main Street and try to get a parking place in front of Brown’s or Kerr’s or Halliburton’s. Then you would sit in the car and just look at the decorations and watch the people go by,” she said.
“The windows were just lovely. The first animated Santa and snow man I ever saw were in Brown’s window at Christmas.”
Mrs. Glenn Lockwood recalls the windows, too. Each year, she said, Brown’s would have a different scene of automated figures. One year, the story featured Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all busily preparing for Christmas Day.
“Some Christmases, it would be a Nativity scene, and all the animals surrounding Baby Jesus’ crib were animated.”
Edgar S. Vaught Jr. remembers the community Christmas trees that dominated Main Street just east of Broadway.
“They always had a huge Christmas tree, about three stories tall, and a big lighting ceremony,” he said. While Vaught said he still sees animated figures and lighting in various places over the city, he hasn’t since seen anything approaching the massive volume of splashy lighting and decorations that used to turn downtown into a fairlyand.
The brilliant Christmases of the 1930s were dimmed slightly by the World War II years of 1941-45. Decorators substituted great Vs (symbolizing victory) for bells that had swung across major streets.
When the war ended, Christmas regained some of its glitter. Then post-war city councils routinely approved just about any commercial development proposed, bringing a proliferation of shopping centers.
Urban sprawl set in, and urban renewal doomed many downtown businesses.
Finally, the sturdy old store buildings themselves were destroyed.
Such stores and such Christmases may not be seen again, says Milton Kamber, whose family started in business downtown more than 60 years ago. “We were pioneers,” he said.
From its last Main Street location as a division of Kerr’s, Kamber’s moved to Penn Square, then later to North Park Mall, removals that became the norm with urban renewal.
Today, the contemporary lights of major banks and one giant corportion have replaced yesterday’s yuletides. Except for these, Christmas, like the merchants, has abandoned downtown.
“I know this,” says Kamber. “It will never come back. People will not walk and look for a parking place when they can drive right up to my door.”