Reel Estate: 'Miracle on 34th Street' then and now
After 63 years, “Miracle on 34th Street” is still one of the best-known Christmas movies of all time. Starring classic film stars Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, along with an 8-year-old Natalie Wood, the 1947 movie tells the tale of Kris Kringle, a kind old man who believes he is Santa Claus.
When the director of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Doris Walker (O’Hara), discovers she has an inebriated Santa on her hands, Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) steps in to save the day. He does so well, Walker invites him to play Santa in the department store, asking children what they want for Christmas.
In many ways the movie reflects the bustling nature of the city in post-war New York. With the troops home from World War II, the city was at the forefront of a new consumer culture, where department stores were defining a new way of American life.
“It reflects a certain spirit of New York that Macy’s represents,” said Wally Rubin, district manager of Manhattan Community Board 5 in midtown. “Everybody knew Macy’s then and everybody knows Macy’s now, and that’s why it’s so perfect. Anybody could go see Santa, and that gives people a sense of comfort.”
“That a story was made for it to live for the ages just reinforces that,” Rubin added. “All of these things combined give it historical and personal meaning for so many people.”
Of course much has changed in the landscape of the city since then. Macy’s archrival, Gimbels, no longer exists, while other places and traditions, such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, live on.
REEL VS. REAL
19 E. 61st St.
The movie opens with Kris Kringle politely informing a shop owner he’s mixed up the reindeer in his window display. The window says simply accessories, but inside the walls are lined with ceramics. These days, shoppers hitting 61st Street might expect higher-end merchandise: the Upper East Side row is now home to the iconic crystal handbag maker Judith Leiber and Barneys New York.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
77th Street and Central Park West
The movie famously depicts the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The scenes were shot live at the 1946 event, a stunt that required film crews at three locations. Though many parade-goers may not have known it, Edmund Gwenn played Santa in the actual parade, even addressing the crowd and unveiling Macy’s holiday window displays. In 2010 the balloon show celebrated its 84th year, still running from 77th Street to Herald Square, as it did then.
Broadway and Central Park West
As now, the Macy’s parade heads through Columbus Circle on the southwest tip of Central Park. Though much has changed at the corner since 1947, the landmark’s eponymous monument, marking Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America, still stands at the center of the traffic circle more than a hundred years since its erection in 1892. Since then, some landmarks have come and gone, like the famous New York Coliseum, a convention center that stood for nearly 50 years before the shiny glass towers of the Time Warner Center replaced it .
151 W. 34th St.
In many ways, Miracle on 34th Street is an ode to Macy’s, that classic midtown shopping Mecca that still draws tourists by the droves. The film was shot on location, giving us a peek of what the store was like 60 years ago. Today, the Herald Square flagship still stands where it has since 1902, with 12 floors, over one million square feet of retail space and one of New York’s last operating wooden escalators. Even so, last year Macy’s lost its title as the “World’s Largest Department Store,” when it was dethroned by the behemoth three-million-square-foot Shinsegae department store in Busan, South Korea.
Broadway and 33rd Street
Kringle ruffles Macy’s corporate feathers when he is caught recommending customers shop at its nearby archrival, Gimbels. The Herald Square store may be nothing but a memory today, but then it was the flagship of the largest department store chain in the country. Founded in 1887, Gimbels once owned 53 stores nationwide, including Saks Fifth Avenue, before closing in 1987. Today the Manhattan Mall occupies the former Herald Square location, which boasted 27 acres of shopping space and an underground passage to Penn Station.
New York County Supreme Court
60 Centre St.
Kringle’s claim to be the real Santa Claus lands him in court, where Gailey (John Payne) tries to prevent him from being committed to a mental institution. In the same stately granite building where civil cases are heard today, District Attorney Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan) prosecutes the case, his character based on Thomas Dewey, the Manhattan district attorney who later served as governor of New York and twice failed to win the presidency on the Republican ticket in 1944 and 1948.
WHY THIS MOVIE MATTERS: ASK AN EXPERT
James Sanders, architect and author of Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies, talks about "Miracle on 34th Street."
“This film is important for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it’s the greatest celebration in the movies of such a famous institution that made New York what it was, which was the department store. Of course, we have department stores today, but they don’t possess the same place in the imagination as they once used to. Now department stores have been replaced by malls, which is an outgrowth of suburban culture. I think it’s shown well in the film how the places were like cities in themselves, with cafeterias, dressing rooms and this whole backstage that the customer didn’t see. It beautifully captures that culture, when these places were kind of touchstones in American culture. It’s really a portrait of these block-large institutions and the place they had in the imagination.”
WHAT WOULD "KRIS KRINGLE" DO?
When he’s not in the North Pole, a jolly man like Kris Kringle needs a few good places to get ready for the holiday season. Here are some Midtown locales he might have visited then and now.
488 Eighth Ave.
If Kringle decided to eat out, surely he would have picked a place where he could sup modestly. In 1947, that would have been Bickford’s, an inexpensive chain of “lunchrooms” that served wholesome meals for as little as 25 or 30 cents. In later years, famous beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg made Bickford’s their late night haunts, decades before the last New York City outpost closed in 1982. If you want to spot a Bickford’s today, you can still see the name carved at the top of this three-story stone building at 488 Eighth Ave., next door to a new low-priced dining icon, McDonald’s.
1031 Lexington Ave.
Even Santa needs some R & R now and then, and what better way to do it than with a nice beard trimming? A half century ago, Kringle could have dropped by this Upper East Side barbershop, founded in 1913 and still thriving today. Kringle might not decide to take it all off, but Paul Molé is renowned for its hot towel shave, as well as some of its former clients, among them Joe DiMaggio, William F. Buckley and John F. Kennedy Jr.
767 Fifth Ave.
Elves looking a little tired? No problem when there’s FAO Schwarz around the corner. The chain, founded in 1862 and first opened in New York in 1870, claims the title of oldest operating toy retailer in North America. The flagship Fifth Avenue location is a destination in itself, with two floors and 40,000 square feet filled with stuffed animals, Legos, style-your-own Barbie stations and of course, the famous floor piano from the Tom Hanks film "Big."
Creative Costume Company
242 W. 36th St., 8th fl.
When Santa needs a new suit, he need look no further than this mammoth garment district costume shop, where partners Linda Carcaci and Susan Handler have been creating custom designs for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for four years running. The owners churn out myriad adult-sized rentals for prices ranging from $50 to $350, and there’s no need to worry a big belly will get in the way: alterations are included.
Eddie's Shoe Repair
30 Rockefeller Plaza
Where to go when Santa needs those black boots gleaming? Eddie’s Shoe Repair has your fix. Located in the Rockefeller Center Concourse, this shop has a team of shiners ready to work your scuffed clods until they gleam. Complete with newspapers and a TV for your entertainment, the 10-minute sessions are a bargain at $2.50 a pop.
Herald Square might be best known for shopping, but a handful of apartments dot central midtown as well. Be prepared for sticker shock if you want to live at the center of it all: the prices in this neighborhood can reach as high as the surrounding skyscrapers.
$699,000 for a two-bedroom, one-bath pre-war co-op with a chef’s kitchen and Park Avenue views (16 Park Ave.)
$2,175,000 for a two-bedroom, 2.5-bath condo with floor to ceiling windows
24-hour doorman, concierge, fitness center and children's playroom, 1,601 square feet. (11 E. 29th St.)
$1,649,900 for a one-bedroom, two-bath condo with 10-foot ceilings, Italian marble bathrooms and home office, 1,211 square feet. (225 Fifth Ave.)
$ 3, 0 0 0 for a two-bedroom apartment with a free gym and roof deck, 900 square feet. (West 33rd Street and Sixth Avenue)
$2,450 for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with an elevator and laundry in building, 700 square feet. (West 35th Street near Fifth Avenue)
$4,690 for a two-bedroom renovated duplex with two private entrances and two full marble baths, 24-hour doorman, concierge, sundeck, fitness center and children’s playroom, 1,000 square feet. (39th Street and Fifth Avenue)
Sources: Trulia.com and Craigslist.org
THEN AND NOW
Then: William O'Dwyer
Now: Michael Bloomberg
Cost of a Hot Dog
Then: 5 cents
Then: 15 cents
Then: Lindy Hop
Sam Anfang owned Gentree, a men’s clothing store in midtown, from 1933 to 1978. He turns 100 years old Dec. 31.
Did you see “Miracle on 34th Street?”
I remember seeing it. I liked it. I remember the lead actor, his face, but I don’t remember his name.
What was midtown like in 1947?
By then we had already moved to 46th Street. We were right near Fifth Avenue on Avenue of the Americas. It was a very quiet street. There were quite a few empty stores, and then a shoe store and a little hardware shop. We brought that street to life.
What kind of customers did you have?
I had very high-class clientele. They were people that were well off. The store was at that time probably one of the most beautiful clothing stores in New York City.
Who was your most famous customer?
Arthur Miller was a customer of mine for his whole life. Then Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller and it was a great fuss all over the country. So Life magazine called me up one day and said they would like to have Marilyn Monroe come over to the store to shop there, and they wanted to take pictures. I used to call up to find out what’s doing down at the store, and my partner says to me, ‘The store is closed.’ I said, ‘What do you mean it’s closed?’ He says, ‘Marilyn Monroe is here, they spotted her, they had cops in front of the store and everything.’ I asked, ‘Well, what does she look like?’ He says, ‘Sam, she’s got a dress on with nothing underneath, she’s absolutely fabulous!’
Did people live in the area too?
There were probably a few people living there. There was a house where Irving Berlin, the Broadway composer, lived there with his wife right across the street.
How has the neighborhood changed over the years?
When we moved in it wasn’t very fashionable but it got to be a very expensive area. When we started rent was $25,000 a year. Now the building there today probably rents for half a million dollars.
Do you think the changes are good?
I’d say it’s for the better. A lot of these old buildings are all torn down and new buildings are going up. That’s the trend of the whole city.