See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. - James 5:7

Monday, December 22, 2008

A shorter Christmas Carol



Part One: Remembering Christmas past.

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My desk in the garden room has a glass top supported by two stainless steel sawhorses. As I was meditating this morning, I noticed the trees outside reflected in the glass. The trunks were laden with snow, on one side only, while the other side seemed to be outlined with a faint frost. The sight reminded me of one of my first jobs in the art department of Dayton's, a local department store that is now Macy's. I started in Downtown St. Paul, considered a "Downtown" store equal to the Minneapolis flagship store, although Minneapolis was the only store referred to as "Downtown". In addition, all display people were considered Downtown, or Minneapolis employees. It all sounds rather trivial today, but it was an important status thing back then - which display people took very seriously, thus educating me on how to be a snob before my time I'm afraid.
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It was the store's design department, not the display dept. that was responsible for the auditorium Christmas display and Santa-fantasy-land, as well as the animated window displays. Department differentiation and titles were very important in those days. Len Shimota was the man responsible for design, and he hired Tommie Rowland (sp?), an artist specializing in animated figures from Staten Island, to do the art and backgrounds. She earned her reputation with her windows created for Saks, Lord and Taylor, Bergdorf's and other stores in Manhattan. She was very little and rather craggy looking from chain smoking, and while working, she looked down right elfin, her bed-hair standing up in a little peak. She scared me to death. She seemed coarse and a bit shady to me, unaccustomed as I was to what seemed an abrasive New York accent and Keith Richard's style laugh. Although when she was dressed up, she was a tad more lovely, always wearing stiletto heels to increase her height.
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Anyway, my first job involved painting the background for the auditorium. As I said, in the late 1960's Dayton's had two downtown stores, each with their own auditorium, and these were turned into a Santa-land-fantasy-land. That year the theme was Dickens village. I painted the snow-laden trees, taught by another expert, Bobbie Mackin. Bobbie was a set designer turned display woman. Now deceased, she was an extraordinary talent and very kind to me, a naive high school kid working amidst the other rather earthy art majors from the University, who were hired to paint the free-standing buildings for the display. Bobbie started me off, demonstrating how to paint a snow laden tree, and to my surprise, I finished the entire background by myself. Bobbie liked my work so much she took me to Gorden Display in Roseville, and taught me how to do touch up work on the figures and actual sets. That is where I met Tommie and got to know the University students.
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After installation, I was kept on to work in the display department. I was part-watchman, part grunt man. The animated windows needed to be checked regularly until 10PM - when the lights went off - because the constantly running motors sometimes stalled and presented a fire danger. In between window checks, I covered felt panels for spring displays, and made props such as painted hangers with women's faces - copies of similar things seen in London's Carnaby St. boutiques. If there was nothing at all to do, I smoked in the display offices, pouring over News and Reviews, a display weekly, studying details of the window displays from NYC. I also studied the home and fashion magazines, educating myself in interior design and fashion. For a senior in high school, I thought I had hit the big time. I was the envy of all my friends, especially my classmates from studio arts. That was 1966, I wish I knew then what I know now; status, sophistication, snobism, - it is nothing but an illusion - a fleeting fantasy.

2 comments:

  1. When I was a girl (in the 1950's) we always drove over to downtown Mpls to see the Dayton's windows after Thanksgiving. Dinner was at John's Chinese Restaurant.

    ReplyDelete
  2. go Lenny....you influenced my career and my life.
    it's been many years but I think of you and Rita often.

    ReplyDelete


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