Release Date: Friday, October 23rd 2015
Miracle on Grant Street? Macy's holiday tradition to continue despite Downtown closure
By Mark Belko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When the doors slammed shut on the Downtown Macy’s store this fall, it appeared to put an end to visits with Santa at Santaland — a cherished holiday tradition for generations of Pittsburghers.
But in a saga worthy of its own feel-good Christmas movie, six former employees of the department store have joined to re-create Santaland — Mondays through Saturdays at One Oxford Centre and on Sundays in the Theater Square box office in the Cultural District during the holiday season.
“The city needs it. That’s the only way I can put it. [Santa] and the elves through the years have felt so close to customers and the children. So many things have been taken away. This didn’t need to go, too,” said Gene Stapleton, the group’s spokeswoman.
Ms. Stapleton has managed to procure a vintage Santa’s chair dating to the days of Kaufmann’s; two reindeer — Comet and Dancer, to be exact; the large wreath that sat behind Santa’s chair and the red carpet that went under it; boxes tied with ribbons; a bear from the Santaland forest; a booth; and trees that had been part of the annual tradition in the past.
Children and their parents will be able to experience Santaland and, of course, visit jolly old St. Nick himself starting on Light Up Night Nov. 20 in Oxford Centre on Grant Street.
“We want to support this effort because it’s been such a great tradition in Downtown Pittsburgh for so many years. We didn’t want to see it die,” said Megan Stearman, an Oxford spokeswoman.
As part of the effort, Ms. Stapleton’s group will be bringing back two Santaland favorites that Macy’s discontinued about five years ago — the wreath photo ornament and the “Santa and me” photo folder. They also will offer photos for sale.
Ms. Stapleton has worked at Santaland for 15 years and the other group members — Amy Miller, John Bacha, Nancy Brody, Francis Hynds and Robert Hogg — from two to 13 years.
The idea to save Santaland came to them when they learned this summer that Macy’s would be closing the Downtown store, which had been a favorite holiday stop for decades because of its display windows and Santa visits.
They couldn’t bear to see the holiday tradition go. “We thought we had to do something,” Ms. Stapleton said.
But the key to pulling it off hinged on securing Santa’s throne-like chair, three of which had been used by Macy’s in the past.
Ms. Stapleton started scouring Macy’s for a chair the day store fixtures went on sale. She spotted one being hauled through the store on a dolly and chased it down, only to learn it would be going to the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
A couple of weeks later, Ms. Stapleton again was at the store when she spotted another chair, grabbed it, and negotiated the price down from $1,000 to $700.
Next up was location. With an assist from the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the group got a spot at Oxford Centre, only a block from Macy’s, which closed last month. Not long after that, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust called with the offer of Theater Square.
To this point, Ms. Stapleton has spent about $7,000 out of her own pocket and the other members have chipped in as well. The group has formed its own limited liability company — The Original Downtown Santa-Land Co. — and has set up a GoFundMe page to try to raise money to defray expenses.
The goal is to pay employees and other expenses through the money raised from photos.
Santaland hours at Oxford Centre will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday from Light Up Night to Christmas Eve. Theater Square hours will be noon to 6 p.m. on Nov. 29, Dec. 6, Dec. 13 and Dec. 20.
Ms. Stapleton and her five colleagues will be doing the lion’s share of the work — not that they’re complaining after the outpouring of support they have received.
“Everybody has been wonderful,” Ms. Stapleton said. “It’s just been like it’s supposed to happen. It’s like the miracle in Downtown Pittsburgh.”