Willoughby: Christmas 1934, a community celebration
Legends & Legacies
The nation got into the Christmas spirit in late November 1934 with the introduction of Fred J. Coots and Haven Gillespie’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” The song premiered on Eddie Cantor’s show, one of the most popular radio programs in the country.
An early recording by George Hall and his Orchestra sold 30,000 copies within the first hour. Sheet music commonly outsold recordings, and the song sold half a million copies. Cantor wrote several of the most popular songs of the time, including “Makin’ Whoopie” and one of my father’s favorites, “If You Knew Suzie (Like I Know Susie!).”
Aspen went for the song, but the big lead-up to Christmas featured a local product, silver. Dr. George Sullivan, a silversmith living in Gunnison, owned some native Aspen silver that he had mined as a younger man. He asked Aspen’s sheriff to send some more. From that stock he fashioned silver cuff links, given to President Roosevelt. The town hoped the gift might stir talk about Aspen’s mines when the operations struggled to remain open. Roosevelt had raised the price of silver to stimulate commodities prices. He believed the price would stimulate production. The move had made him one of the most popular presidents for Aspen’s residents.
Aspen’s American Legion hosted a children’s Christmas party at Fraternal Hall, the building that now houses City Hall. The party provided the only chance for Aspen’s children to see Santa. The merry old elf distributed a present for every tot who attended. The Aspen Concert Band and a chorus entertained the adults. In addition to Christmas music, the Legion event included sing-along songs, “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Elks Lodge invited every child younger than high school age to the Isis Theater for “Peck’s Bad Boy,” a movie that starred Jackie Cooper. Three years before, Cooper had been nominated for an Oscar for best actor in the movie Skippy. Nine years old, he was the youngest actor up to that time to be nominated for an Oscar.
The Aspen Times published a short piece, “The Christmas Spirit,” about shopping at local businesses. It began, “The Christmas Spirit has cast over the Aspen business men and women and each day some new evidence to this effect may be found in town.” The evidence showed in stores’ display windows. Even the grocery stores offered displays “that tempt the appetite and provide many suggestions for the busy housekeeper on her shopping rounds preparing for the family dinner.”
During the 1930s, Brand’s Garage offered shopping options. In one ad they suggested that you buy your car a gift. At the garage you could buy an electric tree lighting set for $.90 ($14.75 in today’s dollars.) They also featured Magic-Brain RCA radios. The “brain” provided an advance in station tuning. The radios ranged in price between $19.95 ($327) and $99.75 ($1,635). The high-end table model allowed you to tune in to the police radio band. The innovation did not work in Aspen because we did not have a police signal. A side note: Although David Hyman built that Galena Street building, and DRC Brown moved his bank into the edifice, we still call it the Brand Building.
In the spirit of Aspen Times’s promotions to shopping locally, they suggested a gift subscription to the newspaper. Newspapers’ circulations continue to shrink and disappear, so a subscription is as good an idea now as it was in 1934. The moral to the Times’s story remains the same, “shop early and shop in Aspen.”
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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