All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Christmas starts on Halloween, these days. But growing up in Detroit, seventy years ago, Christmas wasn’t mentioned until Thanksgiving. And the J.L. Hudson’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was the beginning. Then, too, began the constant Christmas carols on the radio. I learned the words to all of them, much to my semi-orthodox Uncle Mark’s chagrin. But there was no TV, and characters, like Rudolph, and Frosty the Snowman hadn’t been invented yet. There was a visit to see Santa Claus, and that was it! Oh, yes, and there was one other thing! How could I forget the J.L. Hudson Company's amazing Christmas Windows?
At the Fabulous J.L. Hudson Company, the big windows on the corner, and, sometimes, some adjacent ones along Woodward Avenue, were decorated for Christmas. Not merely decorated, but transformed into a Christmas Wonderland, often with a Disney theme. Crowds would gather around these wondrous windows, while snowflakes gathered on the awning above them, to gaze into a World of Magic. Well, that is how I remember the scene, a glimpse of animated fantasy, favorite characters I had met, only on the silver screen, there before me in Reality, separated, only by a window pane. The enchantment of this vision was further enhanced by viewing it through my own personal cloud of exhaled steam, amid the sparkling flakes of snow, gently falling, all around me
Fast forward 16 years, to find me, my wife, and month old baby, newly arrived in New York City with no money and no idea what I was going to do to make a living. An old friend from Pratt Institute, Arthur Warheit, suggested that I might be well suited to work for a woman he had worked for, for a while, a short while. The job had ended badly, and he was unwilling to explain the details, which were laden with suggestive innuendo. At the same time, he insisted, being familiar with my work from Pratt, that I might be her kind of guy. And working for her might also be a dream come true, for me.
And so with certain trepidation, I contacted “Cecilia Staples”. In the World of Window decoration, she was the equivalent of Walt Disney. Her firm, Staples Smith, had done, and still did, all the best Christmas Windows: Macy’s, Lord and Taylor’s, and all the major department stores in New York City, and clear across the Nation. Her husband had passed away, some years before, but she carried on successfully, without him. Apparently, she was the brains and talent in the organization, and always had been. Meanwhile, it just happened that her head designer had left her for some reason, death maybe, and she was looking for a replacement. Therefore, she agreed to interview me. The interview lasted a week, for which, by the way, I was not paid. But that was Ok with me, because in the end she hired me. The job, itself, lasted three days.
Cecilia Staples was the Real Thing, a living breathing human being, the likes of which could only be encountered in works of fiction, possibly penned by Tennessee Williams. She lived in a townhouse on the upper east side of NYC, not far from Bloomingdales. The house was utterly fantastic; if you like that sort of thing. Her eclectic eye had turned it into a garden of Victorian delights that had seen better days. Now it was overgrown and overflowing with a thousand objects, all radiating a kind of pseudo Victorian aura, of the Hallmark card variety. And every nook and cranny was crammed with decorative tchotchkes. It was like living in a window display, depicting “Ye Good Olde Days”.
The first floor Sitting room, which I only glimpsed in passing, was a perfect replica of the Darling household, what their living room might have looked like, while Peter Pan was upstairs, abducting Wendy. Mercifully, I never saw the bedroom. Having made that clear, let me introduce you to Cecilia.
She was a small woman in late middle age, somewhat wide and dumpy, and exquisitely grumpy! I can best describe her as all the various Disney Villainesses, rolled into a single roly poly entity. Each of them, from the Wicked Queen, of Snow White fame, to Cruella de Ville, had some traits in common with Cecilia. I don’t mean to vilify her, just because she canned me. Believe it or not, I am striving for objectivity. Imagine a cross between the Queen of Hearts and the Duchess in Alice, and you will have an idea of her demeanor. One half was Mad, as in crazy, and the other half was Mad, as in angry. I might also add, my three days there, as an employee, were literally a Mad Tea Party.
For one thing, she was an alcoholic, to put it mildly; Lush, might be a better word. She would begin, early in the morning, drinking a mixture of milk and vodka, in a tumbler that never left her left hand. If one had anything to say to her, it had to be conveyed before noon, for after that, she became totally incoherent. And by the end of the day, she was, either nodding off, or tumbling over.
Her sole article of apparel was a Muumuu. I later came to learn, fortunately from a safe distance, that there was nothing underneath it. In the course of interviewing me, the main sticking point seemed to be the off-putting fact that I was married. She openly discussed her feelings that this was a serious obstacle to hiring me, as she said there would be many late nights with deadlines to meet. I assured her that my wife wouldn’t mind. Of course, I knew she would. But chose to put what she was saying in the best light. Although, in the back of my mind, I was wondering if what I was hearing was, in any way, related to the unspoken reason my friend, Art, no longer worked there.
On the second day of my interview, Cecilia escorted me, by taxi, to a huge factory somewhere in the heart of Brooklyn. OH my God! This was it, the place where the Christmas Windows were made. Here, there was an army of Santa’s big and little helpers, creating the displays. They were bringing to life the designs that had apparently originated in Cecilia’s townhouse in Manhattan. Artists, Craftsmen, Carpenters! Wow! This was impressive! I felt like a kid again, standing in awe before a Christmas Window. Maybe she had created the very ones that I remembered fondly, from a mere 16 years ago. There were a few artists there, as well, bending over drawing boards. I wondered if I didn’t perform well in Manhattan, or she tired of my company, would this be my fate, too, exported out to Brooklyn. Was I, like Pinocchio on Pleasure Island, getting my first peek at donkeys?
The next day, I was introduced to what would be my studio, and I was given a test assignment. She had already seen my portfolio, on the first day, and that was enough for her to continue the interview. Now, to prove my worth, once and for all, I would be required to perform! I can’t say that applying fresh coats of lacquer to canvases that I had actually done, in Paris, and bringing them in “wet” to art seminars at U of M, throughout the year before, had kept my drawing hand in shape. But, nonetheless, I felt that I was ready to take Cecilia’s test.
Just climbing the cluttered stairway that led to the top floor was a perilous adventure, as the walls were covered in a multitude of fancifully carved frames, filled with small objects and paintings, some of which were antiques and others that only looked that way. If one made it to the top floor, without knocking something off the wall, then, they had to wend their way past row upon row of vertically slotted filing cases, crammed full of presentation boards, the origins of a lifetime of past displays.
At the very end of this obstacle course, was a small room with a single drawing board. This is where I would be working. A window in front of the desk looked out onto a neglected garden, the perfect setting for a story by Edgar Allan Poe, or a Tennessee Williams play. It was a kind of private slice of decaying Paradise, sandwiched between the two opposing rows of brownstones, and hidden by high walls from viewing by those, in the fresher yards, on either side.
From the window of my studio, I could see everything below, and survey the broken statuary, some of which had toppled over, judging from the overgrowth, long ago. The fragmented pieces were just left lying there, like roman ruins, or vandalized gravestones in an abandoned cemetery. And the entire garden was overrun with once exotic plants, some growing wild and unattended, and others that were either dead or dying. There were just enough trees to strew the ground with fallen leaves. This was truly like a movie set. And for added surreal effect, there was also a large white duck that waddled, quacked and wandered as it pleased, around this scene of desolation.
Not far from the Ford Factory in Dearborn Michigan, was a dramatic structure, known as the Ford Rotunda. It had been transported there, after its initial appearance at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. I visited it, one time, as part of my high school’s trip to the Ford factory. Every year, the Ford Rotunda put on what they called a "Christmas Fantasy". And the centerpiece was always a unique Christmas tree. Cecilia had done these trees for many years. And the latest tree for the Christmas, soon to be, was already underway, in her Brooklyn factory. She would be doing the tree the following year, 1962, as well. And thus, my assignment if I chose to accept it, was to design that unique tree. It had to be a tree with an original theme.
From the window, while I worked, I could look down and see Cecilia in the garden, sipping her concoction of milk and vodka. She spent most of the next two days, out there, among the ruins. Starting early in the morning, she sat and sipped, while talking to the duck. Occasionally, she got up and walked around. So did the duck. As the day progressed the walk became a stagger, or she sat on a cast iron bench and nodded off to sleep. Every once in a while, she went inside, perhaps to fill her glass, then came back out again. At one point, that was either a highlight or a lowlight of my day; I’ll let you decide. She stood in the middle of the garden, grabbed her muumuu by the hem with both hands, and lifted it, inside out, above her head. Then, she began to spin around in circles, like a whirling dervish. That was how I ass-ertained that she had nothing on under her moo moo. She continued to rotate, until she was dizzy, then, plopped her body down on a chaise lounge.
Meanwhile I addressed the job at hand, and in spite of the detractions, I managed to create a decent tree. I transferred my pencil drawing to a sheet of black illustration board, for dramatic effect, and rendered it in gouache and colored pencil. The concept was a crystal tree all made of ice, dripping with icicle tinsel, and twinkling with a thousand snow white fairy lights. This was intended to be Christmas in the Snow King’s frozen Realm, or something like that. A multitude of Snow Angels, with heart shaped butts like those baby cupids in Fantasia, decorated the tree by draping an enormous frozen garland, around it, in one long gently looping spiral, while at the same time, hovering in midair, and, seemingly, not touching the tree, itself. On the very top would be the North Star. And deep within the frozen depths of the crystal tree, warm and red and faceted, like a giant precious ruby, would be the glowing heart of Christmas.
Thus, on Friday afternoon, I wended my way down the stairways, without mishap, and carried my finished drawing out into the garden. I don’t know if her lack of sobriety helped or hindered, but she looked at it carefully, and impatiently allowed me to explain it. Then she replied; “Ok, you’re hired! You start at 9:00 A.M. on Monday morning”.
Did I say she was like the Duchess from Alice in Wonderland? Well, that was even more the case for the three days that I worked there, for we spent most of that time in the kitchen, while a cook, who looked like she was sent from central casting, rattled pots and pans, and did the dishes in the background. Just as in Alice’s kitchen, everyone was present, the Duchess, the Cook, and the Baby, which was me. All we needed was a pig, and that appeared the following day.
When I got there Monday morning, the kitchen table was piled high with a mountain of bread, rolls, muffins, bread sticks and bagels. Cecilia and I sat there, throughout the day, with glue and toothpicks, transforming these assorted baked goods into animals. It was a fun day, and it seemed like I had done OK
The second day went less smoothly. Cecilia showed me a drawing, and asked for my suggestions on how to improve it. I not only had no suggestions, I simply didn’t get it. It was a drawing of a pig in football apparel, running with a piggy bank, across a football field, for some kind of a bank campaign. Why the football theme? I asked. She threw out the world “Pig Skin”. I still didn’t know what she meant. “Pig Skin”, beyond a certain kind of glove leather, meant nothing to me. Once again, my lack of “Sportsmanship” had come back to bite me. She remarked that my thinking was far too literal and, and concluded that I didn’t have any imagination.
From there on, it was all downhill, right up to the point, when the day went all to Hell! Thank God, that was not my doing. But, before the afternoon was over, Cecilia was Ranting and Raving and Spitting Mad! This spectacle began when two men, who she was involved with on a master project, came to visit her. They were the bearers of some news she found Infuriating. Before long, we were all out in the garden looking at a huge rendering that rested across two easels. I must admit it was impressive; impressive in the amount of effort it displayed.
I learned that this was Cecilia’s brainchild, her Magnum Opus, a once in a lifetime opportunity to outdo Walt Disney by creating a Theme Park, so morally uplifting that it would put Disneyland to shame. She had been working on this project, secretly, for years. There before us, was a spectacularly rendered aerial view of a theme park that bore an incredible resemblance to the well-known map of Disneyland that everyone has seen. One had to look closely to see a difference, or read the words, scrolled across the top, on a banner that looked vaguely like an unrolled torah:
Holy S**T! This was Disneyland with a religious theme! Its naive good intentions barely masked a tasteless attempt to cash in on religion. But it was intended and presented in Good Faith. And I think Cecilia honestly believed that this effort would not only be well received, but would insure that she, too, would be well received, when she got to the Pearly Gates, which, by the way, were replicated as the entrance to the park.
So what was it that put Cecilia in a RAGE? It seems these men had just discovered a, newly published and satirical, Beat Generation poem that bore the same name and subject matter as her top secret project. And brought a copy of it with them. The poem was actually quite clever, and hilariously funny! It was presented in the form of an advertisement, proclaiming all the wonderfully uplifting things one could do at “Holy Land”, a make believe theme park that, ironically, bore the same name as the one Cecilia had conceived. There were Rides: like Jonah and the Whale, Shows: See Daniel in the Lion’s Den, three performances a day, Refreshments: Eat at the Last Supper Cafe, Souvenirs: Buy a Satan throw cushion. The list went on and on; each thing was funnier than the last. In total, it amounted to a clever and crushing incitement of America’s crass commercialism.
The problem was: all the attractions in the poem were, more or less, paralleled in Cecilia’s proposed park of the same name. As the poem was being read out loud, I could spot many of the identical locations on Cecilia’s map! Jonah’s hump-backed water slide, Father Noah’s petting zoo, a trip by Bumper Car to Hell and back, they were all there! Cecilia didn’t see the humor, in either the poem or the situation, and she was Mad as Hell! And, as each line of the poem was read, she got madder still! All she could see was the fact that someone had beaten her to the draw, and published the name and concept of her pet project, before her. My laughter stifling skills were, unfortunately, no better then than they are now. So, suffice it to say, it was not a good day for me, as well.
The third and final day started in the kitchen, again, where, I guess, I "couldn’t stand the heat", as I was soon invited to "get out". We had spent the morning with pad and paper, drawing her latest idea, ladies heads, atop giraffe like necks that were, fully, two foot long, with hair made up of fruits and vegetables. This she expected me to do out of my head, without any reference material. She looked at the first few heads I drew and remarked that they” looked evil”, so much so, that it indicated to her that I hated women. She followed up this statement with one that I was fortunate enough to hear, but once, in my entire lifetime, and that once was then! “I don’t think this is working out!” So that was that!
Two days later, I found another job, the only real one I ever had, working for a display firm, called, Austin Display. I spent a few months there, in person, followed by a year of working for them, at home, for the same modest pay.
But, that’s not all, folks! There is a follow up to this story. One thing that sort of bugged me was the fact that Cecilia Staples, apparently, used my design for the 1962 Ford Rotunda Christmas Tree, the one I did during the interview, for free.
A year later, as I suspected it might be, the frozen crystal tree with burning heart of fire was under construction at the Majestic Ford Rotunda, not far from the Ford Factory in Dearborn Michigan, when something awful happened.
Don’t blame me! I swear I didn’t do it! In fact I didn’t even know about it, not, until it was all over! Even when I heard the news, I didn’t put two and two together, until a long time later. Nor will I dare to suggest or think that Fate or justice played a role in what transpired. Suffice it to say that while the Christmas tree was being trimmed, a most spectacular FIRE consumed the entire Ford Rotunda, and in the space of one short hour, burned it to the ground. I’d like to think that there, among the dying embers of the once mighty Ford Rotunda, the warm and radiant heart of Christmas, continued glowing, till the end.
Early one January, a few years later, I read in the newspaper that Cecilia Staples had passed away, on New Year’s Eve, and there was also something mentioned about her falling down a flight of stairs in her New York towhouse. I searched through Google today to verify that memory, but could find nothing, nothing, except for one small article, written while she was still living. It mentions that she and her husband, both, had studied art at Pratt, (like me), and that they got their start in business by selling small decorations made of papier mache at New York City street fairs. Apart from that, Google has nothing else to say, not even an obituary. I guess, half a Century is a long time, too long ago to be remembered. And yet, it seems like only yesterday to me.