Looking Back at Holidays in Omaha's Brandeis BuildingNov 18, 2021 05:11PM ● By Jeff Lacey
In the film A Christmas Story, in perhaps one of the most hilarious examples of rising action put on film, protagonist Ralphie Parker visits a department store Santa Claus. Parker is hoping to procure a verbal commitment from the Scarlet Saint to leave him a Red Ryder BB gun on Christmas morning. Tragically, Santa denies Parker’s request, sealing the rejection with a gentle boot tap to Parker’s forehead that sends him down a great red exit slide. Although Parker never obtained a commitment from Kris Kringle, the audience was treated to gorgeous scenes of midcentury department store holiday magic, complete with lights, huge drifts of synthetic snow, and elaborate window displays.
The Brandeis Department store that once stood at 17th and Douglas streets in downtown Omaha was such a wonderland. At one point in the early 20th century, Brandeis stores comprised one of the biggest retail chains in the U.S., and the Brandeis name was internationally renowned. Their flagship building in Omaha, built in 1906, eventually came to include 10 stories of shopping, restaurants, offices, and even a post office facility. Although it closed in 1980, the store and its restaurants were popular holidays destinations for Omahans for a large portion of the 20th century.
Omaha native Mickie Olsen remembers the heyday of the Brandeis holiday season, and the store in general. As a child, Olsen loved The Tea Room, a restaurant on the main floor of the building. “I remember there would be a hostess walking around with a basket of porcelain figurines, and children could pick out a souvenir,” she recalled. Olsen’s aunt Mary Baratta worked in the women’s coat department. Olsen, now 72, lived around 49th and Pine streets when she was a child. She and her family would ride the city bus right down to the front door of the Brandeis building, where they would be met by a visual wonderland, complete with trees sparkling with tinsel, great golden bells, and massive ropes of garland. “The whole thing was decorated,” Olsen explained. “I loved going downtown to Brandeis at Christmas time. All the windows were decorated, and the entire store was lit up. It was gorgeous.”
Once inside the building, Olsen and her family would navigate the teeming holiday shoppers, taking in the restaurants and various departments along the way. A particular favorite event was traveling by elevator. Olsen recalled that, “the elevator had an operator, and it was a really jerky ride. The operator would announce what floor you were heading to, and the floor you were on, in kind of a canned voice that you hear automated in some elevators nowadays.”
They often stopped at the eighth floor, the location of the toy department.
Olsen recalled the thrill of that place, one especially acute in childhood. “There were wonderful toys,” Olsen said with a smile. According to Reader’s Digest, the most popular toys in 1957—the year Olsen was 8 years old—were Easy Bake Ovens, Etch-a-Sketches, Silly Putty, pogo sticks, and Barbie Dolls. “I liked dolls, and puzzles, and stilts. Dolls were my favorite.”
Olsen would also visit the in-store Santa Claus, and, while she never got flushed down a great red exit slide, she didn’t exactly look forward to visiting with the Jolly Red One. “I always thought Santa was kind of creepy,” Olsen says with a chuckle. “I do remember seeing Santa, and I have a handicapped brother...I never really loved it, and he absolutely never wanted to sit on Santa’s lap. I remember standing in line a long time, though.” Perhaps today’s mode of teleconferencing with the jolly elf would have relieved some of the anxiety for Olsen and her brother. The International Council of Shopping Centers estimates that, while around one in four mall visitors took a picture with a Santa in 2019, Zoom calls with Santa became more popular in 2020. The Wall Street Journal reported that websites like talktosanta.com rose in popularity, which charged around $35 for a Facetime call with the North Pole last year.
The Brandeis store is no longer there, and spaces of its kind are on the wane. According to the National Retail Federation and Statista.com, while Americans spent $789.4 billion during the holiday season last year, it was increasingly spent online; mall vacancy rates grew to more than 6%. However, for many, the wild hope of childhood and the crimson pageantry of Christmas that spaces like Brandeis building can conjure from memory will undoubtedly be occupied for a long time to come.
Some memories are their own species of mistletoe; when stepped beneath, they ask people, with a mischievous wink, to sidle up to joy.
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.