From Santamobiles to copters

Baltimore Glimpses

November 20, 1990|By GILBERT SANDLER

ON FRIDAY, Nov. 27, 1953, shoppers at Edmondson Village Shopping Center saw on the parking lot a weird and unfamiliar sight. It was Friday after Thanksgiving, and what they saw was historic: Santa "arriving" would come to be known as "the biggest shopping day of the year," beginning a cultural phenomenon that knows no end.

But this was 1953, the Model T version of this phenomenon, and this Santa was seated on a throne in the back of a old Ford pick-up truck. The Santa was a young man named Arnold Miller, a University of Baltimore student.

"I had personally trained him to be Santa," Gordon Becker recalls. (Becker is president of the Becker Group, the shopping center display business that started modestly in Baltimore and now operates nationwide. This Friday Becker has planned the arrivals of 400 Santas across the country.) "How to greet kids, how to tell them stories, how to listen to their request for presents. I called that old rig a 'Santamobile.' It was the first of the Santa 'arrival' promotions that would happen on the day after Thanksgiving in Baltimore forever after!"

It has been 37 years since that first, quaint arrival. Since that time Santa's arrivals have changed, keeping up a racing, breathless pace with the times.

Becker can trace the evolution. "Every year through the 1950s and into the 1960s, in such early Baltimore shopping centers as Northwood, Ritchie, Hillendale and Middlesex -- tiny by today's standards -- Santa would arrive in a new and different way.

"Sitting on a throne in the back of a pick-up truck got to be old stuff. So we met the challenge. We had Santa arrive in a sleigh, with wheels of course, and drawn by horses. It wasn't long before that got to be old hat too."

Next came the era when Santa would arrive in a fire engine -- which was bright red and worked well with both the season and his suit. The engine could also hype the arrival with the deafening shrieking of sirens.

The fire engine arrival idea led to other arrivals where Santa would be sitting in an open car, often an antique one, and usually at the end of a marching band or a drum and bugle corps.

"One year, it may have been in the Loch Raven shopping center," Becker recalls, "there was a magician who made Santa appear out of a puff of smoke. And another year, I can't remember the mall, Santa actually dropped from a small plane and parachuted to the parking lot. That stunt was never repeated."

In the 1980s, the challenge got tougher: how to get Santa from the North Pole to your local shopping center in a way that would excite television-jaded kids? The answer: have Santa arrive by helicopter!

And so, "little boys and girls," that is exactly what happened: Santa (every one of them) coptered all the way from his workshop at the North Pole to your shopping center, where he landed with his bag of toys.

That's the way it still is. On Friday, Santa will be arriving by horse-drawn sleigh or in a puff of smoke or following a band at the end of a parade and sitting in an antique car or in a fire engine or in a helicopter. Who knows?

One way he is not going to arrive -- bet your turkey dinner on it -- is in the back of a Ford pick-up.

Farewell to Gordon Becker's Santamobile. Vintage 1951.

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