The holiday season 50 years ago started as a very solemn time. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination a month earlier numbed the nation and somewhat darkened what should have been a joy-filled celebration.
But looking back on that bleak December many still remember how the holidays arrived, lifting people’s spirits and creating the usual seasonal glow for this community. Hanukkah began on Monday, Dec. 16. Christmas in 1963 was on a Thursday. People seemed to welcome the diversion from a very painful period of national mourning.
Many villagers have fond memories of the pre-holiday weeks at a time when Oak Park was a booming shopping district. Before the popularity of outlying suburban malls, shoppers came here from very far away.
“Nobody had to beg people to shop in Oak Park in 1963,” recalls Donna Stephens. “There was no incentive program needed to get shoppers to spend their money. There were huge popular stores, wonderful decorations, and lots to see. It was a magnet that attracted hordes of people from all over. Stores stayed open late during the pre-holiday season.”
“It was unbelievable to see,” says Beth McBride. “Extra policemen were posted at all the corners and would step out into traffic blowing their whistles. All the cars would stop and shoppers would quickly cross from all directions.”
“Coming out to Oak Park at Christmas was every Westsider’s dream,” remembers Bob Keller. “The big stores — like Wieboldt’s and Marshall Field’s — had these spectacular animated windows. You cannot imagine the crowds of people that came to see the moving, decorative displays all lit up. They now say there’s not enough parking here but my family would park way over on Bonnie Brae or even further west and walk over. It was so exciting.”
The big stores gave their animated windows a new theme each year, such as “The Night Before Christmas” or “A Christmas Carol.”
Gilmore’s and Walker’s
“There was a definitive holiday atmosphere when you arrived in Oak Park at Christmas,” recalls Kathleen Greco. “There was so much to see, all decorated so festively. The streets were crowded in the early ’60s. There were lots of popular stores like Lytton’s and Gilmore’s.”
Wm. Y. Gilmore & Sons, on the southwest corner of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue, marketed Christmas like an in-store event. The interior pillars were wrapped with pine, and dazzling decorations hung throughout the store.
Nancy Greco, Kathleen’s daughter, remembers Gilmore’s fondly. “It was a local, family-run store,” she says. “Gilmore’s was located in the big 1900s building where Winberie’s is now situated in the north end. There were escalators and all the usual departments like Millinery and Linens and even a Beauty Parlor. We loved the Tea Room on the second floor. The food was terrific and if you sat by the window looking out on Scoville Park it was so beautiful — like a Christmas card. You could see the big tree lit up on the hill.”
“You would get your photo taken with Santa Claus for free at Gilmore’s. This was a gift from Oak Park Camera,” Nancy recalls. “A store employee, all dressed up fancy, would bring you over to Santa on his throne and present you to him.”
That Santa picture — a complimentary reminder of a child’s visit to the huge store — became a very popular draw at holiday time.
Gilmore’s offered a special all-male shopping evening that many referred to as “Stag Night.” As many as 1,000 men showed up in 1963 to participate. There were no female shoppers in the store that night, the Thursday before Christmas. There were store “hostesses” serving hors d’oeuvres, models roaming around wearing the latest fashions, passing out perfume samples, and the entire staff was reportedly “dressed to the nines.”
“Knowledgeable, discerning clerks,” the ads promised, would help the men select gifts for their wives.
In Gilmore’s Lingerie & Corset Department in December 1963, a Romance Bra cost $2.39 and a Goddess Hi-Stepper long-legged panty girdle was $7.50. The latter, according to the ad, promised to “whittle your waist and hips down to new, youthful contours.” Neumode Seamless Stockings cost 55 cents a pair or 2 pair for a dollar.
“Gilmore’s was right across from Walker’s,” notes Marcia Palazzolo. “There was a lot of heavy shopping going on at the Lake-Oak Park Ave. intersection in the early ’60s. Cannon’s Bookstore, for instance, and Peck & Peck on the corner where the bread store is now. Walker’s was an Oak Park institution. In the basement you could pay your electric bills and get your free light bulbs.”
“Nowhere was the cheerful, traditional aura of Oak Park more visible than at Gilmore’s and Walker’s,” observes Kathleen Greco. “Both locally run stores had a vested interest in our village. Quality merchandise and service were their hallmarks, which accounts for their prosperity and longevity. Walker’s was essentially a furniture store, offering lamps, dishes, and silver with hardware items in the basement. The two stores were never in competition but complemented each other. They referred customers back and forth. There were very genteel sales people.”
At Walker’s, 126 N. Oak Park Ave., a 1963 holiday sale featured smoking stands “for father” in bronze or chrome with glass ashtray liners for $8.95. A Mitsubishi “shirt-pocket size” transistor radio with earphone and battery cost $8.47. A 6½-foot aluminum Christmas tree with a rotating color wheel and a 6-foot cord was $9.44.
Stamps and Green Stamps
Though postage had gone up from 4 cents to a nickel per stamp during 1963, Oak Park Postmaster Charles J. Murphy predicted a record year for holiday mail in the village. Walgreens and Woolworth’s were sold out of Christmas cards a week before the holiday.
Wieboldt’s, 7201 W. Lake St., the huge 1937 Art Moderne department store on the River Forest side of Harlem Avenue, had a vast “Toyteria” in the lower level, chock full of tricycles, electric train sets, roller skates, erector sets, dolls and furnished doll houses, tea sets, and board games. The budget basement was also where the S&H Green Stamp Redemption Center was located. (For every dime spent at Wieboldt’s, a shopper received a Green Stamp to be pasted into a booklet. “Incentive gifts” like an ice bucket, a chafing dish, or a set of steak knives could be earned by saving, then redeeming one’s S&H stamps.)
There was also a full grocery store, Hillman Foods, in the rear of Wieboldt’s with a large parking lot on the roof. If shoppers parked atop the building they arrived via the store’s rear entrance, passing through the candy department.
“We would get so exhausted doing all our shopping,” remembers Nancy Greco, “so then we’d get a cup of hot chocolate at Woolworth’s counter. That big dime store was wonderful.”
Woolworth’s was America’s original discount store. It was here that many children discovered they could purchase gifts for their family members with their very own limited funds — a Tangee Lipstick for big sister, Evening in Paris perfume for mom, and a package of handkerchiefs or a Paper Mate pen set for dad. Located at 1136 Lake, the huge dime store opened at both the front and the rear. Many still recall the pungent balsam pine incense smoking up from the chimneys of tiny wooden cabins on sale at the front counter of Woolworth’s. “Balsam Pine/Smells So Fine,” the clerk would chant to shoppers as they entered the store.
Holiday shoppers especially flocked to Woolworth’s to purchase their Christmas tree decorations, ornaments, and strings of Noma lights. Tinsel is now made of shiny lightweight plastic like Saran Wrap. But in 1963 tinsel was made of thin strips of “silver” lead — lovely but highly hazardous. Many people saved it from year to year, ironing it each time their tinsel came out of storage.
The Fair, another large department store, was located at 1100 Lake (now the Shaker Building). “My first job in high school,” Marcia Palazzolo says, “was being an itinerant clerk during the holidays at The Fair. This was a very classy-looking store with fancy carpeting and chandeliers. From the mezzanine you could look out over the entire store. Later on in the ’60s when it became Montgomery Wards, they stripped down the old opulence and made the store more stark and utilitarian.”
“The Fair store was really something,” Greg Krisco recalls. “It was always busy and I remember they had pneumatic tubes where the clerks would place your money and shoot it up to the central cashier upstairs. Then it would return with your change and receipt. This was incredibly fascinating for a child to witness.”
“I also remember that they’d flood the parks around holiday time,” Krisco adds. “I loved ice skating on the big tennis court at Scoville Park before Ridgeland Common opened.”
At Cannon’s Book Store, 728 Lake, a Pillsbury Cookbook for mom cost $3.95 and 1963 best-sellers like The Clocks by Agatha Christie and Caravans by James Michener were prominently displayed in the window.
Many people also did holiday shopping at their neighborhood drug stores in 1963. At the Belz Rexall Pharmacy [now Poor Phil’s], South Marion & Pleasant streets, the staff recommended “featured gifts” like billfolds, shaving sets, a Kodak Brownie Starflash camera, or a cosmetic set. Two-pound fruit cakes cost 99 cents. A 3-piece Old Spice gift set for dad was $3.
For more extravagant shoppers, at Maple Furriers, 126 N. Marion, a mink jacket cost $750 and a mink stole was $450.
During the holidays in 1963, when all Hollywood films were G-rated, families enjoyed attending a movie together at one of the many local movie theaters. At the Lake Theater, 1136 Lake, there was a comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad. Mad, Mad World. At the Mercury on North Avenue, just west of Harlem, a double feature was playing: McClintock! with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and Jason and the Argonauts. The Lamar, 120 S. Marion, was showing Move Over, Darling with Doris Day and James Garner. At the Rockne, 5825 Division St. in Chicago, there was a double feature of The Nutty Professor, starring Jerry Lewis and Son of Flubber with Fred MacMurray.
Oak Park was known for its stores rather than its restaurants in 1963. If folks wanted a drink with dinner they had to leave the “dry” village. At “Topper’s On the Boulevard,” a combo nightclub and restaurant at 333 N. Austin (on the “wet” Chicago side), a complete turkey dinner from soup to ice cream, cost $2.95 during the holidays. A draft beer cost 35 cents and a mixed drink cost half a dollar.
In 1963, just like now, people struggled during the holidays to not let the stress of day-to-day life distract them from the magic of the season.
Before computers, video games, texting, DVDs, and such, parents developed inventive strategies to distract and occupy their offspring as Christmas drew closer. Families often piled into the car and drove around looking at the lights decorating yards and houses while they listened to carols playing on their car radio. There were a couple of new songs on the air like Burl Ives’ “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
A popular Christmas tree in 1963 was the flocked tree. Through the miracle of chemistry, people could enjoy a lush, thick tree covered with “snow” in any color imaginable. Amling’s Flowerland, at 8900 W. North Ave., offered a variety of flocked trees in assorted pastel colors priced at $12.
Between the dozen or so car dealers along Madison Street, known as “Auto Row,” and the booming downtown stores, Oak Park enjoyed the second largest chunk of sales tax in the northern part of the state.
But though many people still fondly recall that the business districts were swollen with shoppers in 1963 and everything was all lit up and decorated “like a life-sized Christmas card,” the holidays here were not just about shopping. Then as now the season was about family and friends.
The 1960s were becoming a time of conflict and controversy as the adjacent Austin neighborhood experienced rapid racial change. It was predicted that Oak Park too was “doomed” to white flight and re-segregation. But at the end of the year in 1963, villagers paused to enjoy the beauty and excitement of the season.
“It was truly a lovely setting for the holidays,” recalls Kathleen Greco. “We all felt special to be here.”