An Omaha Christmas StoryDec 23, 2014 08:00AM ● By Judy Horan
Just like Ralphie in the classic holiday movie, Bill Eustice as a child was enthralled by a department store at Christmas. His store was Brandeis in downtown Omaha in the 1950s.
The anticipation of seeing Brandeis store windows light up for the holidays kept Eustice and his mother anxiously driving up and down 16th Street.
They were waiting. And waiting. Hoping to see the beautiful window displays finally appear. It was a major event in Omaha at the time.
“We drove around weekends until the day they were revealed,“ he says. “Brandeis was so secretive about it.”
Finally the day arrived. Eustice thinks it may have been right before Thanksgiving. Crowds formed to see inside the five windows. The brightly lit displays were left burning all night.
Eustice remembers mechanical Santas and reindeer in motion in the window displays. He became wide-eyed seeing a toy train run around and around.
“All the time, kids would be in front of the store, looking at the windows, gawking,” he says. “The windows got more elaborate as time went on over the years.”
Even today when he walks by the windows of the downtown Brandeis building just a few blocks from the law office where he is an attorney, memories come rushing back.
“It was a magical childhood. Everything was still new,” says Eustice. A visit to Santa Claus and his elves was another highlight. “It was kind of scary. Some kids cried.”
He says it’s an era that no longer exists. “Today you go to a shopping center, it’s just a small segment of the mall. Whereas with Brandeis, the whole store was magical.”
He remembers that his first ride on an escalator was at Brandeis. Escalators were something of a novelty at the time.
Now when he visits the Brandeis building—which closed as a department store in 1980—he spots the same Romanesque pillars that fascinated him when he was a boy. “And the Art Deco elevators haven’t changed.”
There was Toyland, a wonderland. “I used to hang around the toy department while my mom shopped,” he says.
And restaurants. “The basement had a restaurant called Hamburger Heaven. I thought it was a great name and still is for a kid.”
At times, he would go with his mother to her favorite Brandeis restaurant, The Tea Room, the “place to be” at the time. With six restaurants in the building, Brandeis fed 10,000 people a day and most likely more during the holiday season.
The wonderland that was Brandeis at Christmastime is a memory Eustice will never forget. “As a kid, you were seeing everything in black and white on TV,” he says. “Then you went downtown and saw those colorful displays.“Life was simpler back then. Everything looked like Leave it to Beaver.”