Olde Richmond’s Christmas of Yesteryear … Miller & Rhoads, Thalhimer’s, Holiday Windows, and the ‘Real’ Santa
[Originally published in December 2009.]
I miss the department stores of downtown Richmond from years past. The Nordstroms and Macys of the day were Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimer’s, multi-story buildings that faced Broad and Grace Streets and sold clothing, toys, household items, and much more.
Every year at Christmas, those stores became magical as they transformed into winter wonderlands. They were destinations for thousands of visitors who traveled to Richmond and stared in awe as they stood on the sidewalks outside the stores admiring animated displays inside the huge plate-glass windows, and then visiting inside for shopping, dining, and the most important mission of all — to visit with Santa.
It was an annual event as my mother would dress my sister and me in our Christmas dresses that she had made, usually matching miniature versions of hers, and usually velvet. She bundled us in our coats, white furry muffs, and hats, and off we would go along with our Aunt Ruth, traveling from our home in nearby Chesterfield County for a special day in downtown Richmond.
Once downtown, we joined the crowds standing on the sidewalk and watched, awe-struck, as the animated moving soldiers, woodland bears, miniature trains, animated dolls, and busy workshop elves moved and twirled. Each window had a different theme. Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimer’s would compete with one another for the most entertaining and elegant windows … and the public was the richer for it.
Entering each department store was a holiday wonder because everything was so huge … the ceilings, the bright lights, the Christmas decorations, the escalators that took us up, up, up to the floors above. My sister and I had two stops on our agenda: the toy department and Santa Claus.
Miller & Rhoads had the “real” Santa who looked so much like the jolly elf from the North Pole that many of us grew up thinking he was the real deal. His whiskers were real, his Santa Land was perfect, his Snow Queen was one of the most beautiful ladies I had ever seen and, best of all, Santa remembered our names every year!
We would try to get there in time to see him coming down the large chimney that was behind his velvet throne-like chair. The noisy crowd would shush when the snow queen or his elf alerted everyone that it was almost time for Santa and instructed us to listen for his sleigh bells.
We would all strain our ears as we leaned in closer … and ever so faintly, then growing louder, sleigh bells could be heard and we would all be wide-eyed as Santa dropped down the chimney with a thud and emerged with a huge, “HO, HO HO! Hellooooo, boys and girls!” Oh my goodness … we were in the presence of the man who knew everything we had done, good and bad.
The line crawled because Santa took his time with each and every child, and he had a microphone that was hooked up to speakers around the room so those waiting in line could be entertained by each conversation between the jolly elf from the North Pole and the kids who were sitting on his lap and sharing their wants. Mothers fussed with their children’s appearances, brushing hair, smoothing dresses, tucking in shirt tails, and a last plumping of hair bows.
When my sister and I were finally at the front of the line — anxious, excited, and a little scared all at the same time — and as Santa talked with the child currently on his knee — the Snow Queen would chat with us and ask our names. Unbeknownst to us kids, she had a microphone and Santa had an earpiece — we’re talking a long time ago — and when it was our turn and we walked across the stage to his chair, she would whisper our names into his ear piece.
“Well, hello, Gail and Lynn!” he would boom out as we approached his chair after our long wait in line. We were always in awe. “He remembered our names!” I would say to my mother afterward and that, in and of itself, was the main reason I believed he was the real Santa. Who else would know our names!
It was always a wonderful experience and we have photos from those years sitting on Santa’s lap and sharing our Christmas wishes.
A visit with Santa was followed by lunch with him in the Miller & Rhoads Tea Room on the 5th floor, courtesy of my Aunt Ruth who had no children of her own so delighted in sharing Christmas with us. Santa’s table was set up on the elevated stage so all could see and, as moms and children from across Virginia enjoyed their meals, long-time Richmond entertainer Eddie Weaver would play Christmas carols on the piano.
The Snow Queen and elves would sit at Santa’s table, and Santa — again wired for all to hear — would ho-ho-ho and talk from the stage with the children sitting at tables with their parents in the packed dining room. Afterward, everyone received a piece of Rudolph cake. Santa would always explain that Rudolph made it himself, mixing it with his paws (demonstrating as he talked), and it never occurred to me to wonder if Rudolph had washed those paws before mixing up that cake.
The memories are rich of those years but they are those of a child so a few years ago I asked my mother to fill in my memories with her own. They are in the next post.
I took my own children to visit the “real” Santa before Miller & Rhoads ceased to exist. The photos are priceless, showing them sitting on the knee of the same Santa I visited as a child.
Christmas in Olde Richmond … it provided wonderful childhood memories.
Mom shares her memories….
Mom’s Memories of the Miller & Rhoads Christmas Windows and the “Real” Santa
[Editor’s note: My previous post was a remembrance as a child of the Christmas windows of downtown Richmond in years past and visits to Miller & Rhoads to see Santa. A few Christmases ago I asked my mother, who was in her 80s, to fill in the memories for me and this is what she wrote. Originally published in 2010.]
Mom’s response to my request for her memories….
The “real Santa” was at Miller & Rhoads and their 7th floor was Santa Land. Do you remember that the line of children moved up and waited for Santa by the Snow Queen who sat to Santa’s right? She greeted every boy and girl and chatted with them – and always asked each one his or her name. Santa had an earpiece on and as a child was leaving him, the Snow Queen would say the next child’s name and tell each one to go over and talk with Santa … so the name of each child was passed on to Santa by her.
He would hold his arms out and say something like, “Ho, ho, ho, if it isn’t Lynn & Gail!” The children could not believe Santa remembered all of their names! Even the parents were enamored with how well it all was done. That was one of the things that made Miller & Rhoads’ Santa so special and no other store could ever compete with it. The expressions on the faces of the children when Santa called out their names was priceless and even we parents were thrilled.
After we visited with Santa, we went to the Tea Room on the 5th floor and stood in another long line to be able to eat lunch with Santa and the Snow Queen (and elves). They had a special table up on the runway that the models used for their fashion shows — so all of the children could see them while they were eating.
The children could hardly eat for waiting on Santa. Then, everyone had a piece of Rudolph’s cake for dessert. All the while, Eddie Weaver was playing Christmas songs on the organ. It was a very festive time and they always had crowds of people. Ruth [my mother’s sister who passed away in 1997; she never had children of her own so this was a treat for her, too] and I looked forward to going to see Santa every year, just as much as any child. We went before you all were born and watched the children talking with Santa.
Ruth loved Christmas as much as I did and and she never missed a single time going with us. It really was a special occasion for all of us. Ruth always bought the pictures of you all with Santa because they were so expensive we could never have bought them. Besides, you had to pay for them at the time, without seeing them, and they mailed them to you so you never knew what they would look like.
Ruth also paid for us all to have lunch in the Tea Room. If she was talking with someone in the lines near us and they asked the ages of her children, she would tell them – without batting an eye – so they thought you all belonged to her. She used to say she appreciated it when I let her claim you all because it made her feel like a mother, too.
The “Legendary Santa” from 1957 to 1966 was Hansford Rowe II, who graduated from John Marshall High School with Cal [my step-dad]. He later married Ales Rowe, who graduated from Thomas Dale High School a year later with me. They had two sons, Hansford III, called “Hanny” and Blake. I just talked with Ales to be sure I have my facts right before I answered your email.
She said Blake was 6 or 7 when he figured out that his dad was Santa. They were standing in the line and could hear Hansford talking to the children when Blake told Ales, “I believe Santa is Daddy because it sounds like his voice.” Ales told him all children thought Santa sounded like their fathers. Later, when they were closer, Blake had her lean down and told her he was sure it was Daddy. She admitted it was but told him not to say a word. When he got up to Hansford and was sitting on his lap, Hansford (who, of course, did not know that Blake had figured it all out) asked him what kind of boy he had been that year and Blake said, “PERFECT!”
Hansford Rowe II became an actor and played at Barksdale Theatre, Virginia Museum Theatre, Swift Creek Mill, etc, before going to New York where he had some off-Broadway parts. He later went to California, and Cal and I have seen him in several movies. He is bald headed, not terribly tall, and usually played the part of the butler. Son, Hanny, also was in New York with his father because he wanted to be an actor, too. When Hansford stopped playing the Santa part at Miller & Rhoads, his older brother Dan took over as the Legendary Santa and he STILL does it – at the Children’s Museum in Richmond.
Miller & Rhoads had the most beautiful windows at Christmas, and Thalhimers was next. Other shops along the streets decorated their windows but they never came close to the two big stores. On the Grace Street side of the stores, people would spend hours on a nice day standing at the windows and walking up and down the streets.
Christmas music was piped out onto the streets around M&R and Thalhimer’s. Some of the windows were full of animated people and things, especially M&R’s windows. Their big window at the corner of 6th and Grace, which faced both streets, always had Santa’s workshop and it was beautiful. It truly looked like the North Pole and was a beehive of activity. There was so much to see and such continuous activity one could stand there for an hour. Elves were making toys, painting, carrying, … all kinds of activities going on and continuous movement.
It was absolutely fascinating because at that time not many people had seen that sort of thing. M&R’s window facing 5th Street and Grace Street was full of trains and that, too, was wonderful! We loved watching all of those trains going in every direction – and I still love trains.
Downtown Richmond was beautiful in those days and was absolutely fantastic at Christmas time! Before you all came along, Ruth and I would dress up, with our hats and gloves, and go downtown on Saturdays. We would spend the whole day shopping and lunch, then would head home about 4 o’clock. Those were fun times and I have such wonderful memories of them and of times after you three came along when we would all go with Ruth to do things and see the sights. We are all so fortunate to have had her in our lives. We did not have much money but those were the best years of my life!
The importance of family comes out in our remembrances. Thanks, Mom, for the memories.
Update – December 9, 2019: Mom passed away on July 18, 2019, at the age of 91 (three weeks shy of her 92nd birthday). As her body failed, her mind remained sharp until the end. Our family has lost that wealth of information along with family history and memories that she willingly shared whenever anyone asked. When I asked if she could share her memories of Santa and downtown Richmond at Christmas, she was eager to do so. She was a very Christmasy person so we will miss her holiday cheer as we carry on many of her traditions.
Update: One of Santa’s Snow Queens for 20 years has written a book about her experience in Santaland … Christmas at Miller & Rhoads: Memoirs of a Snow Queen.