Most Clevelanders, native-born or otherwise, probably don't realize that at one time, the city’s downtown retail department store district on lower Euclid Avenue, near and around Public Square, rivaled any other like it in the country. At its peak, it was even routinely compared to New York City - truly an admirable comparison.
Prior to World War II, and brought on by the success of Cleveland’s theater district, this area of the city was alive with excitement year-round as it showcased the pride all Clevelanders had in and saw for their city. After this period, the suburban shopping centers began to spring up, which started the slow spiral toward extinction for these pillars of downtown’s commerce. The May Company, later bought out by Dilliard’s, Halle's, Higbee's, Bailey's, Taylors and Sterling-Lindner-Davis not only provided all of life’s necessities to shoppers galore on a daily basis, but brought a distinct air of elegance and pride to the city as well.
Sadly, Higbee’s and its wonderful restaurant, The Silver Grille, were the last to go in 2002.
So that's a bit of the history to the retail and adult side of the story, but the children saw each of these magnificent, multi-level structures as something entirely different during the hustle and bustle each holiday season. They were seen as magical wonderlands that provided new and exciting visuals into the wonders of the Cleveland Christmas holiday season each and every year.
From the yearly visits with Mr. Jingeling, the keeper of Santa’s keys at Halles, the truly spectacular fifty-foot Christmas tree at Sterling-Linder-Davis, and, of course, the street-side store window displays, the area was transformed right after Thanksgiving each year into the actual dreams of children all over the city.
As I’ve gotten older, and have seen reminders in print or on television of these simpler and nostalgic times, I really try to think of how exciting it must have been for those that decorated and prepared the city each and every year. I mean, imagine having the honor on any given year of putting the star at the top of the Linder-Davis five-story. To see just what I mean, Cleveland Christmas Memories, a truly remarkable book, is still available and will truly take anyone who grew up here back to these magical times.
Almost to the excitement level of Christmas morning itself, parents would bundle up their charges, head downtown for breakfast or lunch at one of the many scrumptious choices available off the downtown streets. Then it was off to view store-window street displays, with cleverly placed gift ideas of course, wondrous and glittering store decorations throughout each store, and finishing with a visit to Mr. Jingeling or Santa Claus himself.
Visits with Mr. Jingeling were equally precious, as we all knew Santa was very busy, and Mr. Jingeling definitely had his ear, so our wishes and hopes for certain gifts would absolutely make their way to the North Pole. Looking back at it, you might say that Mr. Jingeling was just about as good as a letter to Santa, a sort of personal text long before text messages existed.
So while it is true that for the most part the memories live on inside the minds of those lucky to have lived them and are willing to retell the stories, there is one yearly reminder that is easily accessible to all, and I’ll bet if you think hard enough it will come right to mind. Yep, that’s it! The Cleveland classic movie A Christmas Story.
The scene where Ralphie and his family trek downtown to see Santa includes some wonderful street scenes of Higbees and its giant Santa, as well the inside shots of decorations and Santa’s wonderland, where a clearly less than enthusiastic Santa tells Ralphie “you’ll shoot your eye out” after Ralphie finally gets up the courage to ask for the Red Ryder BB gun he so desperately desires.
I could go on and on, but I think you have the idea, and hopefully I have stirred a desire in you to research these traditions of days past more for yourself, so I’ll leave you with this.
There is a wonderful jewel of a place in Medina called Castle Noel. It is an opportunity to step into owner Mark Klaus’s (yes, Mark Klaus - no relation to the big guy but looks suspiciously a lot like him) largest indoor, and a little outdoor, collection of Christmas entertainment memorabilia. Movie props from favorites like Elf and Jingle All the Way, store displays from not only Cleveland stores, but New York department stores, and even Cousin Eddie’s RV from my second favorite classic (White Christmas still ranks #1) Christmas Vacation. Oh, and did I mention they also have the slide that Ralphie clings to as he pleads for the Red Ryder? That’s not all, you can slide down it and capture the memory for yourself!