Chicago holidays with Marshall Fields

Being a lifetime resident for many years, Chicago has magnificently celebrated the winter holidays with amazing, timeless displays at the building behind the clock that have become well-known throughout the country. I continue to meet people today who talk of the same tradition that they had experienced as children, parents, grandparents and even great grandparents. The Marshall Fields store on State Street that began in 1870 and renamed Macy’s in 2009 have kicked off the most treasured memories for family and friends.

During the 1960’s, it began for me in a car driven by Mom accompanied by my best friend and her Mother. Of course, we were dressed in our finest, sometimes with hats and matching gloves, but always in dresses. We parked in what was known as the Underground Parking Lot on Michigan Avenue though many took the Illinois Central to walk a short distance to Marshall Fields Department Store. And there it began before we even entered the massive 8 story building.

The store had designed animated windows that told a story and so we would begin our trip around the building to see each breathtaking display. In 1946, Marshall Field’s created Uncle Mistletoe that became so popular, it was a local television show for awhile and we would watch his adventures in one window after another. Finally, generally cold and hungry, we made our way to the 7th floor to the beloved Walnut Room established in 1907 with beautiful paneling, seating 600 guests around a phenomenal Christmas Tree always stretching our necks to see if Uncle Mistletoe graced the top of the tree. In the early 1990’s, I took my little ones to the Walnut Room as well but they seemed more impressed in the pagers signaling when a table was available.

The Walnut Room at Macy’s can still be enjoyed for the holidays. Macy’s on State Street still offers holiday windows and lunches around their Christmas tree though weekdays are the best for wait times. Holiday shoppers will receive a pager so they can still shop while waiting for a table. A breakfast buffet is also served through the holiday season. Relive your childhood or start a new tradition with your children and after lunch, visit Santa on the fifth floor. See if Uncle Mistletoe is still on top of the Great Tree.

Our toys at Christmas

After leafing through a Sears brought back it back for one year in 2017,checking out the two page kid section a few years ago, it was certainly far from grand. As I remembered during my time when the Wish Book came in the mail at our house in Chicago during the 1960’s….just about this time of year, every year.

For those that remember, The Wish Book was every child’s hopes and dreams to be eternally satisfied in gifts from Santa for the holiday season. The Wish Book was every parents dream to keep us busy marking the pages, even cutting out, and highlighting the most important choices that would be wrapped and placed under our Christmas tree. This was no flimsy flyer. Published by Sears in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s holiday additions where over 400 pages in length. In 1964, 1968, and 1969 proudly boasted over 600 pages and it took two hands to carry.

How beautiful the dolls…. dressed in ruffles and fairyland colors just like it says in the book in 1964. There was Betsy Wetsy, the tiny kissing cousins, the exceptional Thumbelina. Barbie, Ken, Midge, Allan and Skipper, Barbies new dream house, vinyl cases and sculptured doll carriages priced as low as $4.98.

Then there were pages of vanities with neatly filled cosmetic trays, Little Hostess Buffet, All in I kitchen in corrugated card board as well as all steel play kitchens and fully furnished Split level houses of sturdy steel for under $10.00 along with phonographs that never needed a tube replacement. There were tuck and touch needlepoint sets that were never that easy. There were paint by number which were my favorite that I still do.

Of course there were the 3 speed bikes, Gilbert train sets, Ford J slot cars, Gemini rocket to blast to the moon, walkiestalkies with code buttons to send secret messages. There were the electric build it sets and basic science club kits, chemical sets and wood burning sets in all shapes and sizes with an actual analog computer for only 5.88. Gas and battery powered miniature cars and planes and at one point motorized erector sets. Make things work boys, with your own 53 piece workshop with a workbench to match for under 20 dollars.

We both had view masters with our collection of pictures from Cinderella, Bambi, Batman and the Man from Uncle as well as an etch a sketch for under 3 dollars. I guess those were like our cell phones today. We both played music. For the boys, it was Roy Rogers Guitar, an accordion and girls tended to receive pianos in all different sizes. And what about the games for the entire family? There was dominos, chess, checkers of all types,along with CandyLand, Cootie House, Dr. Kildare, Lie Detector, Dick Tracy, Snakes Alive, battery operated table top Pinballs.

The Sears Wish Book ceased publication in 2011, Sears brought back it back for one year in 2017 But still, though I love shopping on the Internet, the days of that 600 page book of excitement, joy and scapbooking was gone forever.

Traveling through Chicago on word trains

By Caryl Clem:

As a young reader I was told I could get a ticket at the library called a “book” and travel anywhere my heart desired.  In my mind, stories were word trains that traveled through life. Famous Carl Sandburg in his poem Chicago with the lines “building, breaking, and rebuilding” and “Laughter of Youth” imparts the feeling of a brazen, lovable, sometimes wicked child fighting limitations.  Pushing  its’ way into the future, Chicago’s unique appeal has inspired over 50 talented Chicago born authors take us into their lives to experience their hopes, dreams and trials. I have selected just a few to encourage you to explore Chicago through their perspective.

Ethnic diversity remains strength of Chicago. Exploring the Mexican American experiences, Pulitzer Prize winning author, and Luis Alberto Urrea’s new release covers the life a dying family patriarch tells us about the Mexican-American culture as adapts to each generation in the family.  His life a poignant exploration of the emotions that shape our decisions and lives.  He wrote “The Devil’s Highway”, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,”  “Into the Beautiful North”, “Queen of America”, and story collection “The Water Museum”. He is a professor at the University of Chicago.

The House of Broken Angels   
by Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown and Company, March 6

The desire to fit in, to feel successful is a constant challenge in many Chicago neighborhoods. In 1959, the play about a young financially secure young black family buying property in a white neighborhood, Raisin In the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry describes racial tensions evident today.  Current issues involving neighborhood conflicts are in plays written by Ike Holter. His award winning 2012 play “Hit The Wall”, 2014 public school issues in “ Exit Strategy”,  2016 “ Sender” and the series about Chicago police, “ Six Corners” in 2017.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Glengarry Glen Ross.”, David Mamet who wrote the screen version for “Untouchables” pens a colorful, dramatic 1920’s tale when Chicago was controlled by the mob. The strict code of obedience and the danger of knowing too much determined lives and fortunes.

by David Mamet
Custom House, February 7

The food industry has grown and expanded since the fast food spurt in the 1960’s Emily Belden lives and works in Chicago as a food journalist. Her quick wit and down to earth writing style make you feel like you are there listening to her. The challenge a life changing career decision plus the disappearance of a trusted partner makes this a suspenseful page turner.  Set in Chicago, the personality of the city influences the characters.

Hot Mess
by Emily Belden
Graydon House, March 20

   .    November 1st was Author Day. Take a word train through their writings. Chicago remains a patchwork quilt of neighborhoods whose streets are like black stiches tying the various patterns together. A sample of current Chicago authors is presented in a great article of Chicago Review of Books.

Willowbrook Ballroom

It was here that my parents were able to see Guy Lombardo, one of my Mom’s favorite band leaders. Though it was usually New Years Eve that America listened to him bring in the New Year during radio and television broadcasts. Founded in 1921 by John Verderbar, Verderbar purchased 5 acres (20,000 m2) along wooded Archer Ave Willow Springs, Illinois. He planned to build a beautiful weekend home. His son, however, wanted to build outdoor dance pavilion and he did which was extremely successful but destroyed by a fire too. Finally, the O”Henry ballroom was built in 1931. The ballroom was supposedly named after the O”Henry candy bar, manufactured in Chicago by the Williamson Candy Company, who paid Verderbar for the naming rights. As Big Band popularity spread across the US in the 1940’s, the O’Henry ballroom, also air conditioned, would support a weekly attendance of 10,000 dancers.

In 1955, as ballrooms across the country scaled down or closed, the Verderbars set out on a course to further expand their operations. A 20,000-foot (6,100 m) addition installed new kitchens, a restaurant and a private room for parties and banquets. In 1959, the entire Oh Henry complex was renamed Willowbrook Ballroom. The tastes were changing in music and few wanted ballroom dancing so contemporary musicians took over the stage at the Willowbrook. According to sources, musicians included The Crying Shames, The Association, The Buckinghams, Otis Day and the Knights and Martha Reeves to name a few.

The original owners sold the ballroom in 1997 but continued on as a historic, legendary ballroom and banquet facility also constantly associated with the Resurrection Mary’s spirit who frequented the ballroom since the 1930’s. Many continued to celebrate their New Years Eve into the millennium at the ballroom with excellent food, party favors and balloons dropping and cascading throughout the ballroom floor at midnight.

The Willowbrook was destroyed by a massive fire in 2016 and it the land is being used to build condominiums. Originally, a grant had been presented to restore the historic ballroom but condo’s won the bid.

What has made me smile

I began to think about what really mattered during the daily mask parade, washing and sanitizing, election drama and the lack of daily normalcy that everyone can say they are experiencing today. Being home for Halloween on a day where the weather surprised us with sun and warmth, I was shocked that I received twenty trick or treaters with Mom, Dad or Grandma, knocking at my door as Covid continued to follow. I was safely prepared with a selection of wrapped candy, in treat bags, my mask in order as I answered the door. But the look in the eyes of the masked crowds told me everything. They were not excited about candy. It was knocking at the door, saying trick or treat and someone like me commenting about their costumes. That was the special social connection that made me smile.

As an assistant in a first grade classroom which has been in person with some some remote learning, children have adapted well to not being able to play with each other at school. Though one did comment that she missed the playground as she dreamily stared at the slides and swings while taking a break outside. Another Covid no no at school. Wonderful Halloween virtual parades had been recorded on You Tube for those who could not visit at school. However, some missed being able to see Grandma or Grandpa during the traditional outdoor experience….again being wowed by the neat costume from family.

But it was the day after the election that my Halloween smile turned to joyous tears and not because of the election. During morning meeting in the classroom, the teacher asks a question everyday. Sometimes it refers to your favorite food, what did you do over the weekend or your favorite game. On this day, she asked what has made you smile recently and I was the first to raise my hand and be called on.

It was not the Halloween trick or treaters or virtual parade. No, this was about my Soul Sister who sent me a book the night before entitled just that. This was about my beautiful friend, Carmella, who I have known since college. Someone who knows exactly what I am feeling, through the years, regardless of how often we see each other. Because of Covid fears we have not been able to get together for many months so I shared how happy I was to hear from her and the precious book about the true value of friendship. My short story almost brought tears to the teachers eyes. I promised I would bring the book to show the class the next day though just from afar. For many years, Carmella has suffered from Multiple Sclerosis.

So I shared Soul Sister written by Kelly Rae Robert and one first grader immediately read the title herself explaining what a Soul Sister was to me; truly a great friend that thinks about you all the time and doesn’t worry if you make a mistake. She really cares about you and understands. The same young lady saw a picture in the book that looked like me; you have the same hair!

Exquisitely written, it is a book that I will take with me in my travel bag at school, find a spot on my writing desk at home or place on my nightstand at night. That’s how much it means to me. My favorite line stays with’s our friendships that crack open our hearts to the light within ourselves. Later, the children remembered and talked of their own friends. One asked another to join in their circle.

We are side by side, heart to heart in this beautiful thing they call life, the author finalizes. Thank you, my soul sister, for reminding me now and forever in God’s breath that you so eloquently added in a note on the cover. I will never forget.

Kelly Rae Robert offers a variety of creative artwork, a blog, retreats and other inspirational products including gift books and cards.

Aragon ballroom

By Caryl Clem:

In 1925, Americans felt secure in the promise of continuing prosperity. Uncle Sam is boldly standing on the Peak of Prosperity waving a banner proclaiming, “Highest Living Standard in the World” in a 1925 political cartoon. The Chicago Tribune’s slogan, The World’s Greatest Newspaper spread the influence of Chicago style living.  Andrew and William Karzas in 1926 built a lavish Spanish castle style ballroom complete with stars and clouds moving across the ceiling.  Alcohol was prohibited, crowd control was maintained by “chaperones” and a strict dress code was enforced.  Classy, glamorous entertainment with live band performances, in Uptown near the “L” propelled the Aragon Ballroom into an instant success.

Wayne King played his saxophone and led his band featuring all the favorite love songs with waltz and fox trot rhythms.  He started recording with RCA/Victor in 1929. In a ballroom that could hold thousands, Wayne King sold millions of his records.  During the 1930-40’s decades romance ruled the dance floor;  song titles such as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” – Cole Porter, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – Jerome Kern ,“Night and Day” – Cole Porter , “My Funny Valentine” – Rodgers and Hart“How Deep is the Ocean” – Irving Berlin .  Recorded in 2014 by Barbara Streisand and Michael Boule, a favorite of mine from this time period, “It Had To Be You”.

Radio was the main vehicle to transmit information and entertainment.  Chicago’s own WGN owned by the Tribune featured live broadcasts from the Aragon Ballroom since 1927. Not only were there stars twinkling in the ceiling but many star performers graced the Aragon Ballroom. In 1958, a fire next door to the Aragon closed it down for about 6 months.  When the Ballroom opened its doors again, dance styles and formality were changing. By 1964, the swanky ballroom dance era was over.  Top Hits from 1965 showcased The Beatles singing “Ticket to Ride”, “Help”, The Rolling Stones groaning about “Satisfaction” and the McCoy’s belting out, “Snoopy Hang On” introduced new styles of music entertainment. .

The Aragon hung on trying different venues such as wrestling, roller-skating and disco. Rock concerts lasting for 6 hours were held during the 1970’s.  Zack Snyder‘s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was filmed in 2015.  Eventually the new ownership in the 1970’s linked up with the promoters of Jam Productions. Currently, Aragon has hosted over 1,000 rock concerts in the last few years.  A picture of these events testifies to the ongoing popularity of entertainment.  In August 2019, the Chicago Sun-Times announced Byline Bank sponsors the Aragon, offering a full concert schedule of events that will start performing when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Photo found on Creative Commons “Aragon Ballroom Chicago IL.” by CharmaineZoe’s Marvelous Melange is licensed under CC BY 2.