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CBS Radio actress Ona Munson (wearing fur coat) goes Christmas shopping in Hollywood in 1941.
CBS via Getty Images

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When department stores decked the halls

Before next-day shipping, the department store reigned supreme at Christmastime in Los Angeles

On November 16, 1950, the city’s tallest elevator—at seven stories—debuted at the Robinson’s department store in Downtown LA. According to the Los Angeles Times, thousands of people lined the street in front of the store to view windows that told the story of “The Littlest Angel” by Charles Tazewell. “So large was the crowd, that for a time traffic was slowed almost to a standstill in the vicinity of the store,” the Times reported.

Those lucky enough to muscle their way inside to the main floor found vested boy choristers singing carols as a pageant of fashions featuring 50 models played out on a dozen stages. At the “Crystal Aisle of Gifts” on the sixth floor, “gift secretaries wearing uniform dresses of vivid chartreuse accented with corsages of holly” aided shoppers. But the biggest draw was Saint Nicholas, who “received his own special domain on the fifth floor.”

Now the year is 2019 and most shopping malls sit empty, while once-mighty retailers like Sears and Barney’s shutter stores with reckless abandon. It wasn’t always this way. Long before Amazon Prime, residents of Los Angeles, and the United States at large, spent countless tired hours during the holiday season pushing through crowded department stores searching for gifts and the occasional bargain. There were also luxurious holiday experiences to be had.

One of the fastest-growing cities on the West Coast in the 20th century heyday of the department store, Los Angeles was home to legions of towering shopping complexes that competed fiercely for customers, particularly during the last weeks of the year.

As early as 1908, the LA Times was reporting on the December crush of shoppers in the Downtown retail district: “Broadway, Spring Street and all the other thoroughfares on which holiday goods are sold surged with the mob that was scrambling to fill stockings; the big stores were jammed.”

Stores like Bullock’s, Coulter’s, Robinson’s, and May Co. attracted flocks of holiday shoppers with elaborate window displays, towering Christmas trees, and the chance to speak to jolly Old Saint Nick himself. It was a tradition that would carry on through the 1980s.

“Christmas was mind-blowing,” author and historian Julia Bricklin recalls of the Bullock’s in Torrance. “Carolers everywhere, Santa Claus, white lights and decorations, the exquisite free wrapping rooms, and free (I think) hot chocolate at the various eating rooms.”

Desmond’s window
A Christmas display at Desmond’s. As early as 1911, window displays were a major event throughout LA.
Los Angeles Public Library

The march of a capitalistic Christmas began a century earlier. On December 28, 1888, the Hamburgers store in Downtown LA (then known as the People’s Store) explained in the LA Times that the holiday season had been such a busy one that no one at the company had found the time to place ads in the paper the week before. The store’s daily barrage of column-length advertisements continued as usual after that.

By the mid-1920s, the unveiling of windows in Downtown LA was a major, coordinated event that ended in a holiday parade. “Originality is shown in the arrangement of long plumes of silver tinsel, garlands of foliage that throw back a million sparkling lights, [and] globes and pendants of brilliant colors swinging gaily from arch and pillar,” the LA Times reported in 1926.

By this decade of lavish overspending, overcrowding at the large department stores during the holidays was becoming a major problem. The same year, G.S. Rinker of the May Co. begged in the LA Times for women to shop outside of peak shopping hours.

The sidewalk is packed with crowds shopping on Broadway at Christmas, circa 1937.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
Department stores on Broadway competed for customers with elaborate window displays accompanied by music played over loudspeakers.
Photo by Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images

Towering Christmas trees could be found in the ornate lobby of Downtown’s Barker Bros. furniture store in 1929. That year, the store’s elaborate windows featured Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall surrounded by his men and a modernistic circus scene featuring a trained seal statue balancing a glass ball on its nose. Most disturbingly, there was a window featuring the racist story “Black Sambo and the Tiger,” with electronic figures that were shockingly lifelike.

Wilshire Boulevard’s stately I. Magnin exhibited a bejeweled Christmas tree in 1955 that the store claimed was worth $1.5 million. Once in place, the tree was given its own security detail. Extravagant trees seem to have been a tradition for the upscale department store. In 1953, the Wilshire location featured a 20-foot Christmas tree made up of 500 mink pelts.

Like Bullock’s, I. Magnin had a reputation for classiness. “I remember I. Magnin being flawless with everything color coordinated and neatly folded,” native Angeleno Stephanie Young recalls of the store’s Pasadena location. “I remember it not having the clutter that our department stores have now.”

Next door at Bullock’s Pasadena, Young remembers “festive but not overdone” Christmas decorations.

But the gold standard was the iconic Bullock’s Wilshire, one of LA’s most important Art Deco architectural landmarks designed by John and Donald Parkinson. Author Catherine Kurland remembers her childhood trips to the luxurious flagship store in the late ’50s and early ’60s fondly.

A white feather Christmas tree on lighted display at Bullock’s Wilshire in the 1980s.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Kurland remembers waking up early before each visit, excited like it was Christmas morning. Her mother would take her three times a year to get a cotton summer outfit, new school dress, and a party dress for Christmas. Donning their Sunday best, they would be there right when the store opened at 10 a.m.

“We would drive up to the porte-cochere at the back of the store, where a valet whisked our car away. I remember the thrill of entering the store, with its high ceilings, crystal chandeliers, towering marble columns, and glass counters covered in sparkling perfume bottles,” she remembers. “The liveried elevator operator would pull open the great bronze doors and transport us up to my floor. After an hour or so, mother and I would select my new dress. Then came the highlight of the day: lunch in the tearoom. While enjoying our lunch—for me, a club sandwich and an ice cream sundae—elegant ladies would stroll through the dining room modeling the latest fashions.”

In 1963, Bullock’s outfitted its new location at Sherman Oaks Fashion Square with a large holiday attraction called Santa’s Castle. Actress and teacher Holly Gagnier recalls that for San Fernando teenagers, the malls were the place to be for Valley teens in the ’60s and ’70s. Most exciting of all was the ice skating rink at Laurel Plaza.

“It had all the little shops and a huge ice skating rink and that was like the place to hang out on weekends,” Gagnier says. “It’s where my brother met his now wife. They met there when they were 13 years old!”

For Bricklin, a trip to the Bullock’s at the Del Amo Mall in Torrance, was a mixed bag of awe and boredom. “It was huge, obviously, and there were mannequins everywhere and saleswomen were plentiful and helpful,” she says. “I remember lots of fur coats! In California! It was sort of ‘an experience’ rather than just a place to grab a sweater.”

People’s Store
The Hamburgers store in Downtown LA (then known as the People’s Store) photographed in 1890.
Los Angeles Public Library

On the other side of the coin were more plebeian department stores like Sears. Reliable and dependable, but lacking the glamour of a Bullock’s or I. Magnin, Sears still pulled out all the stops during the holiday season.

In 1960, the North Hollywood Sears set up phone stations where kids could call the North Pole. The store’s resident Santa answered the phone from a nook behind the wall. Services like this were offered at department stores across the Southland. During the 1960s and ’70s, malls were built across the San Fernando Valley, usually anchored by department stores like May Co. and Bullock’s.

In the 1980s, Downtown LA’s Broadway Plaza struggled to attract holiday buyers. Despite the Broadway’s bumpy sales record, longtime Angeleno Gilvanete Mentzer recalls how much she loved listening to Christmas songs in front of the Broadway Plaza. The shopping center became Macy’s Plaza in 1996 and The Bloc in 2016.

Santa at May Co.
An enormous Santa Claus greets shoppers at the May Co. department store in North Hollywood in 1964.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

According to Bricklin, who worked at May Co. in Rancho Palos Verdes in the late 1980s, the decline of the department store was already beginning during her tenure. “The store tried desperately to mimic fads that were increasingly spearheaded by stand-alone stores or niche stores, like Contempo Casuals,” she recalls. “Young people were increasingly thinking it was embarrassing to purchase clothing or accessories at a department store like May Co. or Bullock’s—it was becoming ‘my mother or grandmother’s store.’”

Even as the traditional department store became less exciting for most, some customers just couldn’t shake the nostalgia they felt for the old ways of commerce.

For Maria Wessnauer, shopping for gifts at the midcentury May Co. in North Hollywood— the anchor store of Laurel Plaza—was a cherished part of the holiday season up until it closed in 2016, as a Macy’s.

“Just pulling in to the parking lot gave you that holiday spirit,” she remembers. “The parking lot was decorated with garland and bells hung from the parking lamp posts. The exterior of the building would be adorned with lights in the formation of Christmas trees that lit up the front entrance. A giant Santa Claus sat on top of the roof. The entire store was decorated and a huge Christmas tree by the escalator was the main attraction.”

With the announcement that the store, once one of the largest in the country, was shuttering to make way for a mixed-use development, Wessnauer made sure to make one more pilgrimage back. “When I heard it was closing I made one last nostalgic journey to the store and made sure to take my last ride down the Otis escalator. For me, the closing of the store truly signified the end of an era.”

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