Marshall Field’s Reigns Over Yule Season

From United Press International

It’s Christmas time in the city, and Marshall Field’s, sprawling across 2 million square feet of downtown Chicago, is again the grand duchess of the season. At 118, she deserves the title.

Generation after generation of Midwesterners come to the State Street store for the animated windows, a chat with Santa Claus in his Cozy Cloud Cottage, Frango Mint pie in the Walnut Room and to gawk at the towering tree--this year a 45-footer sprinkled with 12,000 white lights and 5,000 handmade ornaments.

Marshall Field’s Christmas 1986 rekindles the spirit of 19th-Century England with life-size mannequins dressed in plus fours and bonnets surrounding Tudor-style houses and shops.


Merry Old England also comes alive in the 11 windows.

“We did the typical British stage with swag drapes taken from the tradition in Great Britain to attend the theater on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas,” explains Homer Sharp, vice president of the design division.

The stars are motorized figures acting out fairy tale pantomimes such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel.

Marilyn Wind and her grown daughter made the trip from St. Louis to see the store.

Huge Gold Bells

“Oh yeah, we come every year,” she says, oblivious to the swarm of shoppers elbowing past her. Instead she is fixated on the huge gold bells dangling from the stained-glass ceiling of the 14-floor store.

Sue Martin came from suburban Evanston with two toddlers in tow. “We waited two hours to see Santa,” she said, as her blond daughters pulled her toward the toy department. “When I was little, my parents used to take me here to see Santa, too.”

The Hildebrand family came from the western suburb of Glen Ellyn for the two small boys’ first Marshall Field’s Christmas.

“I loved it when I was a child, and I wanted my kids to have the same kind of memories,” says Diana Hildebrand, adding with a laugh, “but it all seems a lot smaller to me now.”


Michael Billinger toted his brood from the South Side of Chicago, as did his mother and father before him: “It’s a habit to come to Marshall Field’s.”

What gives at the great-grandmotherly department store that mesmerizes modern revelers year after year, despite thick lines in front of the windows, the Walnut Room, the Cozy Cloud Cottage and the cashiers?


Frango Mint Pie

“My best friend asked his wife to marry him under the tree 10 years ago, and they come back every year,” says Rod Fenson, a store manager.

And good eats.

“Frango mint pie--it’s that simple,” says Don Ryman, who drove in from Springfield, Ohio, and faces an hour-and-a-half wait in a line the length of three city blocks before he sinks his teeth in the chocolate dessert.

Washington editor Judy Dugan, revisiting the Chicago hometown she left four years ago, says she winces every holiday season now that Field’s is missing from her life.

“When I was in Chicago, it wasn’t Christmas unless I had lunch in the Walnut Room,” she recalls. “I did that from age 4 until I left in my late 30s. They served these wonderful ice cream snowmen.”


“People are willing to wait hours to see tradition--it reminds me of people waiting in line to see the White House,” says company spokesman Paul Costello.

Planning goes on for nearly a year for the monthlong Christmas celebration that starts the day after Thanksgiving. All 25 stores in the Marshall Field’s fleet--16 in Chicago, six in Wisconsin and three in Texas--go all out for Christmas, but the flagship on State Street is decked as the crown jewel.

“When people are lying out on the Chicago beaches along Lake Michigan in July, the staff of Marshall Field’s are literally designing the Christmas tree,” says Costello.

Season’s Volume Is High

Making a big fuss is worth it to Field’s. About 22% of its annual volume is taken in during the holiday season.

“All of it starts the first of the year with the planning for the theme. Then we actually get into production by summer and work diligently right on until installation,” says Homer Sharp, vice president of visual design who started working at Field’s 41 years ago as a window trimmer.