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Michael Rielly

Emporium Santa a rock star in SF

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Michael Rielly

Emporium Santa a rock star in SF

 

San Fransico Chronical 

Peter Hartlaub
 
EXCERPT:

 

628x471.jpg

Santa prepares to take up residence at the Emporium in November 1964, to the delight of the thousands of

people who lined Market Street in anticipation. Photo: Joe Rosenthal, The Chronicle

 

As much as I love exploring the past, I hate it when people waste time grousing about the present.
 
My weekly online archives feature "Let's Go to the Morgue!" is a reference to The Chronicle's photo morgue, not a call to arms for the cranky and bitter. Yes, many wonderful San Francisco people, places and traditions are gone. But as we eulogize them, it's important to remember that there are at least an equal number of wonderful people, places and traditions that have taken their place.
 
Except when it comes to Santa Claus.
 
Specifically the Santa at the Emporium store on Market Street, whose peak of fame happened years before I was born in 1970. I envy each and every one of you who lived through this tradition. If Photoshop existed in the 1950s, I might doubt the photos that I've seen with my own eyes.
 
Santa Claus was a complete rock star. Parts of Powell and Market streets were shut down, and packed with a demographic as diverse as the city, as Santa made his way to the Emporium's flagship location across from the Powell Street cable car turnaround.
 
Riding in style
 
In terms of crowd size and fervor, it looked like a cross between a World Series victory parade and a visit by the pope. Santa always rode in style, whether it was a horse and carriage in the very early years or the Cable Car "Santa-Cade" in the 1940s and 1950s.
 
I've looked at the clippings from the 1930s forward, and each year Santa would blow the previous parade away. Five thousand helium balloons one year. Five thousand helium balloons plus 15 monkeys the next.
 
"A parade of marchers led by a baby elephant and featuring a miniature horse, ice skating queens and assorted drummers and buglers will join him at Union Square," one Chronicle article from 1966 announced.
 
Once at the Emporium, the madness multiplied. The City of Paris department store was known for its giant Christmas tree, and Macy's arguably had the city's most impressive window displays. But while the stores north of Market closer to Union Square held the rapt attention of the wealthier crowds, working-class San Franciscans embraced the Emporium. There was an indoor ice skating rink and a Santa's workshop - sometimes with two Santas separated by a screen, to meet demand. In the late 1940s, the Emporium somehow hoisted a cable car five floors up to the top of the store.
 
The most notorious draw was the roof garden, where rides including a Ferris wheel, small roller coaster and trains delighted children. Sometimes the Emporium mixed it up, with perhaps the city's first bouncy house (the "Astro-Bounce" in 1970) and a giant two-humped slide in 1968.
 
The centerpiece was always Santa. In the decades before the Emporium and other giant retailers spread to the malls of the Bay Area suburbs, the department store Santa Clauses in San Francisco were a destination. And anointed by the adoring crowd that followed him through the streets every year, Emporium had the Alpha Santa of the Bay Area. I've also seen Chronicle archive photos of the Beatles, Menudo and the New Kids on the Block arriving in San Francisco. The Emporium Santa has a bigger police entourage, and the children have no less love in their eyes.
 
"When I was a child, I thought that Santa Claus lived on the roof of the Emporium," Angela Alioto told The Chronicle in 1995, remembering trips to the Emporium with her father, Mayor Joseph Alioto.
 
My mother, Jeanne Hartlaub, traveled to the Emporium each year on the 8-Market Muni bus.
 
"I still dream about it," my mother says. "You would walk off the street a little bit, and all the windows were decorated. You could smell the fudge on the sidewalk."
 
Once again, I was born too late for the fun. My mother says she and my grandmother took me when I was very young, but I don't remember. By the time I got to the Emporium, when I was a teen some time in the late 1980s, the store was a shell of its former self. Roof rides didn't impress me. We had Marriott's Great America.
 
Shrinking crowds
 
Alongside the sleeves of 1940s and 1950s Chronicle archive photos showing Santa being surrounded by police so he wouldn't be mobbed, are 1980s photos of much less impressive parades. Santa looks a little lonely in most of the photos. No elephants, and only one cop.
 
The Emporium on Market Street closed in 1996, a year after its 100th anniversary. Years later, a Bloomingdales opened in its place.
 
I have two young boys now, and take them to whatever Santa is most convenient during our pre-Christmas errands. What's the difference?
 
Christmas is still a cherished time for my family. San Francisco is still a beautiful city. But as far as I'm concerned, the real Santa lives in the basement of The Chronicle, in a few packets of old negatives that are almost too amazing to believe.
 
 
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Santa TJS

That Charles Howard suit spans generations!

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Santa Marty

That Charles Howard suit spans generations!

Yes it does, and I am a proud owner of a 1970's version of one.  Still in use I might add.

 
Re lined and re furred in 2012.

 

Edited by Santa Marty

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Santa TJS

Made by the late Elizabeth Babcock.

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Dutch Schrap

Marty - that's awesome!!

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Santa Marty

Made by the late Elizabeth Babcock.

 

Yes, when quality was top on the list. 

 

This suit was given to me in the 70's as appreciation of my "chair work" back in the day when Department stores created their own Santa experience for their customers.  Professional photos were free, cameras allowed and there was really no rush... you could spend quality time with each child and family.

 

I was an emergency stand in for a much more experienced Santa.  Of course that is not saying much, since it was my first day ever.  But it was the hook that has been stuck within me all of my adult life.

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Santa Marty

Marty - that's awesome!!

 

Thank you Dutch,

 

I purchased beautiful bright white faux fur from Eileen, and silk lining material both red and white locally and had a local tailor work his wonders on it.  I could have purchased a new one (almost) for what I spent to rework this one.  My special instructions to the tailor were "be sure to salvage the tag and put it back in".  Of course for what he was getting paid, it wasn't difficult!

 

One thing missing, that I admire in a lot of Santa's here at ClausNet is having a son interested in following along in the tradition.  My Santa Cap is off to you!

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SantaCraig

I would give nearly anything to own an original from mrs. Babcock. I would be afraid to use it, but would want to keep it for preservation sake

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Santa Marty

I would give nearly anything to own an original from mrs. Babcock. I would be afraid to use it, but would want to keep it for preservation sake

 

With all the history I have with this one, it would be very hard to give up.  Even for an original CW Howard. 

 

Mine is used very sparingly I assure you.

 

Well, I am having small second thoughts on being able to have an Original CW Howard.  ( I would want that and what I have both ).... The CW Howard Original would NOT be worn though.

Edited by Santa Marty

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Santa Johnathan

Peter is a great writer for the chronicle...and is a true pro with pop culture. We have worked together a few times. This is such a great story and the photo is awesome.

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Santa Hill

Great story but a little sad at the same time.  Santa is truly a rock star in that photo.  Now with Santa appearing every time you turn around it loses some of the luster.

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Shannon

Great story but a little sad at the same time.  Santa is truly a rock star in that photo.  Now with Santa appearing every time you turn around it loses some of the luster.

I've read newspaper reports from the '40s lamenting the fact that there was a Santa on every street corner in NYC, with six or more visible from one vantage point. So it's hardly a new phenomenon. I grew up in a small town, and there was only one place that hosted Santa. As far as I know, we'd have had to drive 30 miles to get to the next Santa. This year I will be, AFAIK, the only Santa to appear publicly in my adopted hometown, so families who stay local will have that "one Santa experience". So, perhaps it's not so much the good old days folks long for but good'n'small towns.

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Santa Johnny Boy

That's a great article!  Back in the '60s, when I grew up, Christmas was a big deal and a lot of the department stores went overboard.

I can remember the Joseph Horne Department Store in Downtown Pittsburgh would take two of their elevators, and dress them up to look like rocket ships. They added dials, gauges, push buttons & switches and kids were allowed to touch them as if they were operating the rocket ship.  Lights flashed off and on, and the elevator operator wore an astronaut suit.  The loudspeaker would countdown backwards and then you would hear the sounds of a NASA rocket taking off as the elevator made it's ascent. The elevator arrived, the doors opened and there in front of you,  in all it's glory, was Toyland!  You could see Santa waving to you off in the distance and all of the store employees were dressed as elves.  It was like Heaven to a small child.

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Santa TJS

Everyone who has ever been in New York City at Christmas time knows about the volunteer Santa's on every corner in cheap costumes collecting donations they wear white belts they have Been around for ever. They are never confused wih the premier Santa at Macy's. Clearly their presence is not comparable with multiple very convincing naturally bearded Santa's out in public.

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Santa Hill

I've read newspaper reports from the '40s lamenting the fact that there was a Santa on every street corner in NYC, with six or more visible from one vantage point. So it's hardly a new phenomenon. I grew up in a small town, and there was only one place that hosted Santa. As far as I know, we'd have had to drive 30 miles to get to the next Santa. This year I will be, AFAIK, the only Santa to appear publicly in my adopted hometown, so families who stay local will have that "one Santa experience". So, perhaps it's not so much the good old days folks long for but good'n'small towns.

I, too, grew up on a small town where the only Santa was at the mall. Even the malls were not close together so seeing more than one Santa a season was unusual.  This year I am the only Santa for Bartow, Florida (pop. 17,000) and am slated to appear at a few events for the city and Main Street organization.  The city is happy to have continuity with the same Santa appearing at all the functions.  Since this is my second year in the parade and photos with Santa at the History Center (Historical Courthouse) so some of the same children I saw last year will return and again have the same Santa in their Christmas photos. This city has a small downtown but is the county seat (population climbs to over 30,000 during the day) so the courthouse and other government departments are all here in town and has a quaint historic feel to it.  We are hoping to have events like the Fall Craft Festival and Magic On Main Street lighting bring back that hometown feel of yesteryear.

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Santa Johnathan

 

One thing missing, that I admire in a lot of Santa's here at ClausNet is having a son interested in following along in the tradition.  My Santa Cap is off to you!

 

Papá! Is that YOU!??  :sc_rofl:  

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Santa Marty

Papá! Is that YOU!??  :sc_rofl:

Just what is your mother's name..........

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