A VISIT TO SAINT NICHOLAS
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
In my childhood opinion, the J.L. Hudson Company was the most magical place in all Creation; at least, it was in my day, the early 1940s. I still feel that way today. The J.L. Hudson Co.’s Main store in the heart of Downtown Detroit was, to me, the heart and soul of Christmas.
Chances are, you might have already read the little interview I wrote nearly 10 years ago for my friend Elysia Roman, who was then just 8 years old. By the way, she did grow up to become a beautiful young lady and an accomplished harpist. The first question of the interview was about Hudson’s Toy Department.
Some time ago, I discovered some amazing photos on the Internet. I am so glad I copied them, as the site, which at the time, warned that no one could use them, appears to be completely gone. So here is the first question of the interview with actual photos added, magic windows looking back in time.
The first photo shows the vastness of the regular toy department, as it was all year round, now decorated for Christmas 1940. I can tell it was that year from the Disney dolls in the counter showcases. They are from Pinocchio. That would date this first photo around 1940, when I was only 3 years old.
The second photo shows the great hall, adjacent to the toy department into which the toy department expanded every Christmas. Each year, this lofty space was decorated differently with a whole new theme. The year of this photo was 1943, the very year of my little story. I was 6. High on the back wall you can see Santa’s Balcony. The staircase was to the left hidden from view.
The third Photo Shows the very same panorama of Toyland that I beheld with my own eyes, from my place in the slow moving line, as it inched along for what seemed like an enchanted Eternity on Santa’s Balcony.
These photos have a very strange and haunting quality, for they were shot when the store was empty, without a living soul in sight, unlike the beehive, buzzing with activity, and busy shoppers that I beheld in person, at the time. There are also other photos of other years, each one shows the hall decorated differently. I saw them all in person, all the themes, year after year, throughout my never ending childhood. Alas, just when I was finally old enough to know what I wanted for Christmas, sitting on Santa’s lap to ask him for it came to an abrupt end. I was twice as big as he was, before I reached the age of ten. So, although, I continued to explore every inch of the main floor, I never saw the view from Santa’s balcony again.
Elysia: 1. What interests you about inventing or making toys?
Mel: Your first question, is a particularly tough one. I could write a book on the subject, and still not arrive at the complete answer. But let me say this about that:
When I grew up in Detroit Michigan, some 60 years ago, the world around me seemed pretty dull. And at 3 or 4 years old, that world was all I knew. There was no television, and there were not even any "toy stores". But there was one wonderful place: the J.L. Hudson Co., a big department store in downtown Detroit. Somewhere on the 12th floor, was the "Toy Department". And that Toy Department seemed to me to be the one place of True Magic in the World.
Upon stepping out of the elevator and approaching the Toy Department, one could hear a tiny bell ringing. It was a distinctive sound, not quite like a doorbell or a gong, but something that combined the two. It resonated pleasantly, like the plucking of a harp string. "Boing Boinggggg", I realized, in later years, the number of "boings" was a simple code, intended to summons one employee or another. But, to me, that captivating sound meant only one thing: The toy department was near! All a person needed to do was follow the bell, and it would lead them to the Toys. My heart beat faster with excitement and anticipation every time, I heard the sound of that bell. Sometimes, I would hear a bell, just like it, in other stores, "Mommy, There's a Toy Department here!" I'd squeal, tugging at her hand. There never was. There was only one Toy Department in Detroit, and the J.L. Hudson Company was it!
Around Thanksgiving time, like the Magic Christmas tree in the "Nutcracker", the J.L. Hudson Company's Toy department grew in size and became HUGE. And high up on a balcony overlooking it all sat Santa Claus, himself. I remember ascending a hidden stairway in a long line of children to "visit him". My emotions were a mixture of thrills, excitement and sheer terror, as the line moved slowly along.
Eventually, I stepped out onto Santa's balcony, long before my "turn" to sit on his lap arrived. I looked down, and there before me lay "TOYLAND", the place that embodied all the Magic and Enchantment in my known universe. The slow moving line offered me the opportunity, for what seemed like an eternity, to gaze in awe and wonderment at the majestic vista below. It was a Glittering city of toys, with every shelf and showcase teeming with delights, not to mention de lights twinkling everywhere? And the music and the sounds and the hubbub and smell of Christmas, on it's way.
The interview with Santa was something of a disaster. "What do you want for Christmas, little boy?" he asked. I couldn't answer. I was tongue-tied. I didn't have the skill to articulate my words, or my thoughts. How could I, how dare I, attempt to explain to Santa, that I Wanted it All? How could I ask to stay, forever, there in Toyland? "Toyland, Toyland! Little girl and boy Land". I had heard in a song, that "Once you pass its borders you may ne'er return again".
Well, Elysia, This was the hardest question, and thus, this will, I hope, be the longest answer. What interests me about making toys? Maybe It's just my futile attempt to live in Toyland.
By the way, I did "grow up", somewhere along the line, and had children of my own. And, alas, I found the song was true. Once you've [grown up and] passed the borders of Toyland, you Can't return again. But, God knows, I've tried. And somewhere, deep inside me, I have never stopped hearing that little bell ringing, ever so faintly and far away, forever telling me that the Toy Department is nearby.
In a well practiced attempt to move things along, Santa offered some generic suggestions, "How about a football or... [I can't remember what]?" I sheepishly agreed that those items would be fine. The fact was, I had no idea what I wanted, beyond just wanting to possess, and embrace Toyland, and remain there, forever.