Lacking street-front department stores and nighttime walking habits, Wichitans in 2012 don’t have the opportunity to stroll too many busy city sidewalks dressed in holiday style, meeting smile after smile, where above all the bustle you hear silver bells.
But we can smile with childlike pleasure as we take in, at 35 mph, smaller displays in shop windows in uptown Wichita. Several shops and other businesses on East Douglas, starting at about Hydraulic and spilling into College Hill, are alight with festive, sometimes nostalgic, lighted displays.
“For Christmas we have decorated our front window with a number of 1950s and 1960s Santa and elf automatons from the old department stores,” said Juliana Greenberg, owner of Juliana Daniel Antiques at 3224 E. Douglas. Every night from 6:30 to 8:30, the four Santas and the two elves can be seen in motion, the elves bending over their work benches, making toys. Greenberg was told that one of the Santas came from the old Steel-Lewis Hardware and Supply Co., which was located in the Dockum Building at the end of the same block of 3200 East Douglas.
Greenberg had the mechanical workings refurbished this summer by Richmond Electric.
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“People younger than me have no memory of them,” Greenberg said of the department-store windows of yore. When malls started being built, taking the bustle away from downtowns, much of the tradition of the window displays was lost.
“That was back when everybody dressed up to go shopping,” said Jim Newhouse of M&M Insurance Associates at 1700 E. Douglas, The building at Douglas and Hydraulic, which used to be Lancelot’s, has big glass windows on two levels where Newhouse has placed Christmas displays for 10 years.
“When I bought the building I had it in mind to do that. I remember back in the ’30s Innes’s Walker’s, all those department stores had big window displays, and it used to be a good thing to go and see that.
“When we first started – we moved in in 2001 – I went up there dressed in a Santa suit and at 4 I’d stand and wave at people,” Newhouse said. He’d get a kick out of it when passengers would catch sight of him out their car windows and would nudge the driver to look up.
He did that for about two or three years, he said, “but it was so darn hard and so darn hot I couldn’t do it anymore.”
It’s still hard work to put up the Christmas displays, Newhouse said, and the size of them has shrunk as various parts wear out. But the rewards continue, especially over the nativity scene that is in the center window on the second floor.
“I get letters and notes from people – always women – and they say, ‘We thank you for having the nativity scene.’ A couple in Greensburg came to Wichita to look at the lights, and they said ours was the only nativity scene they had seen. Can you believe that? That’s what it (Christmas) is about.”
Strings of street lights, even stoplights, blink a bright red and green as the shoppers rush home with their treasures. Now all we need is someone to provide the sound of the silver bells.