Monday, December 19, 2005

19. Miracle on Market Street

No one sends customers to Gimbel's anymore--because there is no more Gimbel's. The 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street always reminds me of this; I can remember Gimbel's in Philadelphia--and later, in the malls of South Jersey. When I was a kid the economy of the Delaware Valley could support a startling number of department stores (all gone now, of course; for a quick eulogy for Philadelphia's past retail glory, go here): not just the King, John Wanamaker--with its giant eagle, the standard Center City meeting-place--but also Strawbridge and Clothier, Lit Brothers (with its impossible wrought iron facade on Market Street), Bamberger's (Macy's South, more or less) and of course Gimbel's. These were big fellows, filled with not just clothes but furniture and pharmaceuticals, fine china and pets--I can remember going up the escalator in Wanamaker's and hearing the distant "cheep" of canaries and Australian finches, and smelling the cedar chips for the hamsters. My mother was a bargain hound, always able to find that magic number: 75% off! We maneuvered through those stores like special forces on a search-and-purchase mission.

We'd troll Market Street, passing street-corner Santas, peeking at the department store versions--perched amid the greenery and dazzle of the toy floors--yes, entire floors of toys, with a monorail, I kid you not--circling one of them (Lit Brothers?). My confusion over all these Kringles became a Family Story, how I asked my Mom which one was the real Santa Claus, and she answered, "They're his helpers," allowing her forever after to affirm that she told the truth, that they did keep Christmas moving along--and also providing me with a pretty impressive image of elves, big strapping fellows dressed like the Big Man among us, but back in their toy-making togs at the Pole. Everybody was happy, not the least of which the proprietors of all those city-within-a-city establishments.

I was particularly fond of Wanamaker's. Aside from the pets and toy floor, it also boasted a dual-level book store--the lower level was for paperbacks, in the '60s adding some posters. I remember it was adjacent to the beauty parlor, so for me paperback SF books always bring with them the whiff of hair sizzling under dryers. I still have most of those Ace Specials, Dells, and Bantams, as well as a number of other bargain finds: two massive coffee table books, one on Edward Hopper and the other a complete collection of the newspaper strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ("with an introduction by Ray Bradbury"), as well as a number of film-related books, including paperback scripts of Monkey Business, Greed and A Clockwork Orange; I shopped there all the way through college. I've been currently re-reading another Wanamaker find, David Curtis' Experimental Cinema: A Fifty-Year Evolution, published in 1971. I got it on sale--the price sticker is still on it--fifty-nine cents!--so I must've bought it a few years later, maybe when I was a senior in high school or starting college. Old friends, together forever.

So I have a special fondness for Miracle on 34th Street, with its comforting black and white glimpses of the Lost World of my childhood. But more than that, I get suckered in every year by Edmund Gwenn's and Natalie Wood's performances. When Gwenn lifts the little war orphan to his lap and speaks Dutch with her, ending with a song--about himself, of course, soft and yet affirmative, I fall apart. That right jolly old elf knew what he was doing; jeez, he even kept me from panicking during Them! (1954), calmly laying out the giant-ant apocalypse scenario, and how best to avoid it. A man of many talents, all of them directed toward the innocent--there's a little traumatized girl in Them! who, for my purposes, looks a bit like Natalie Wood.

And of course there's Wood's little jaw-jutting, scowling, puzzled, finally--I think with some relief on her part--widely smiling face, as the reasonable world slips away and Christmas asks her, and her startled mother--ah, Maureen O'Hara; somebody give that casting director a raise--to say Yes, like reformed Blue Meanies, and accept a fond dream. While It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story achieve perfection, there is more than enough room at the table for Miracle on 34th Street. Just ask Thelma Ritter, whose befuddled shopper is slow to follow Kris' lead, but agrees to play along, if only because it means her kid's happy.

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