101 Imaginary Nights At The Movies
Twelfth in a series of 101 imaginary movies, Cinema of Forgotten Dreams is my attempt to dramatize film history by creating and commenting on a repository of imaginative film viewing. From the earliest days of cinema to the era of blockbusters, my century (plus one) of Movies I Made Up will proceed chronologically through an alternate dimension of films. Will it be allowed? Will anyone read? Though I have no answer to either question, I’m doing it anyway: fortunately, there are no rules in the land of dreams.
SANTA’S HOUSE OF COMMERCE
(dir[s]. Iberoff & Basil, 1912)
NOTE: Although several entries in this series feature a mixture of historical and fictional personalities, the people, situations, and references of this entry are – in their entirety – made-up.
Chicagoland! A cold gust of December wind blows off Lake Michigan toward a bustling commercial thoroughfare, cutting through noonday shoppers like tinsel. Up from seventeen copper-plated, coal-burning furnaces, however, three stories beneath Lake Shore Drive’s squat-shaped Ayan-Bee Complex, rises a veritable hellfire of hot air across a city-block length of open grates, providing an unseen lateral barrier of impenetrable warmth equal to the visible impassivity of a fifty-foot high iron-arched gate. Resembling on a clear North Indiana day’s view nothing less than a giant toad swallowing the better part of a marsh, the imposing façade little hints at the seasonal cheer of mechanical marvels whirring wondrously within.
Or so it appeared 106 years ago in the self-proclaimed Midwestern Toy Palace on America’s Great Lakes. The past century-plus Christmas display of Atlantic-Pacific train models, crisscrossing seven separate red & green-leading locomotives over a complete geographical recreation of America’s railways, makes countless round-trips per business day around a three-story tall Douglas Fir. Transported annually across actual cross-country by the equally real yet decidedly less romantic Seattle-Pacific railway, this mighty Tannenbaum extends to a sun-streaming glass ceiling and stands festively festooned with sparkling ice-crystals and mouth-watering treats comprising a comprehensive evergreen expression of its decorative traditions.
From its candy apples hanging tantalizingly from its lower boughs (replaced daily) to its hanging knickknackery of painted toy figures, wood-carved animals, multi-colored globes etc. etc. – on up to the canvas-inflated gold parachute billowing on the tree-top like a flag-rippling star – Ayan-Bee’s commercial efforts are undoubtedly well-rewarded by the constant procession of jostling gift-buyers filing past to any of its well-provisioned departments over, around, or under this towering monument to the season. Equally anticipated by wealthy Chicago shoppers of the era was Ayan-Bee’s annual Christmas “commercial”, a form of advertising the firm pioneered with a traditional persistence possibly exceeding even its giant Christmas Tree. Held over at the Pantages Theater on North Round Way no less than seven days before and after the 25th of that 1912 December, the following is a scrupulously accurate rendering of the frenzy of commerce it directly inspired.
An establishing view of Ayan-Bee’s main merchandising area – its pyramid stacks of 1912 models of Betty Blue dolls and Tommy True soldiers framing the image on either side – greets shoppers (and viewers) with an asbestos-piled snow mountain upon which a ten-foot tall and wide statue of the robed, bearded, and bell-top hatted Christmas King, Santa Claus himself, sits rosacea-cheeked on his Christmas Throne. Diminishing to human dimensions with three dissolving shots, Santa springs to life from his high-backed chair and tumbles off his royal perch to the sales floor below. As His Jolliness approaches the camera, glowing with an almost overwhelming cheer, the animated words MERRY CHRISTMAS! flicker over the lobster-faced spirit of the season in a motion-visual rendering of a holiday greeting card.
Following Santa past a gawk-eyed gaggle of children milling in gendered division between the displays of dolls and soldiers — a flick of his sleigh-whip in-hand magically transforming the diminutive crowd into gnarled, sharp-eared elves now laboring in their construction — the Toys Foyer extends to further leisure and imaginative delights, including sales segregated rows of playing cards, board games, sports equipment, inflatable balloons, and a floor-length marbles-and-dominoes arena. At the back of this panoply of play, a twin mountain to the asbestos snow in front, a smoking stack of school-books – discarded remnants of the previous semester of study – inaugurates the two-week Christmas vacation by fueling a diorama dissection of spectacles-wearing, stiff-collared educator-automatons being repeatedly struck with their own model-scale rulers wielded mercilessly by happy children in smock-overalls and pinafore dresses.
Santa next gestures to a striped-spiraling slide descending to a licorice lair of chocolate and peppermint beneath. The camera whirls down Santa’s side to this blur-montage of all-sugary succulence, revealing in a succession of whipping imagery the entire edible catalogue of seasonal challenges to one’s healthy digestion. Candy Canes! Taffy Pulls! Frosted Cookies! Lemon Drops! A peach cobbler pie constructed in the shape of that year’s Model-T Ford tracks rapidly forward in Santa’s view, revealing another flock of fine-fettled urchins dismantling the stationary non-vehicle in a gooey mock-automotive orgy of fruit filling and cream.
Santa whisks past the bakery in back, where an even more grotesque assortment of misshapen elves slave ceaselessly in its steam-shrouded kitchens, towards the out-of-doors Winter Amusement Park behind. Santa’s heavy-furred gauntlet pushes through double-doors, swinging out upon a winter wonderland of rolling sleighs, revolving reindeer, sledding toboggans, and hurling snowballs. Parents are encouraged to ride the Giant Tilt-a-Wheel, where coin purses, wallets, and bill-clips are gravitationally separated from their erstwhile keepers, funneling directly into a merry reservoir of Christmas commerce beneath.
Ending precisely where it began, Santa sits once again on his Christmas Throne, crowning his asbestos mountain of unabashed jollity with a knowing wink of his eye and a hearty wine-flush of his cheek. Three alternately dissolving shots again expands the Christmas King to his statue-towering proportions, the entire staff of Ayan-Bee Department Store, a star-twinkling legend assures us, extending “to one and all, a joyful observance of this Season of Giving (TM, A&B Co.)”.
And with that retail reverent invocation, faithfully discharged by the artistically anonymous, paid representatives of Ayan-Bee’s titular co-founders, the Christmas Shopping Season properly commenced in the register-ringing spirit of the age. And! (And!) the dreamlike phantasmagoria in which the firm commercially specialized soon extended itself well beyond its humble, midland, lake-locked origins, when a tax write-off in Southern California orange groves provided a new studio location for Ayan-Bee’s annually cinematic self-celebration.
The rest, shall we say, is history. In the meanwhile, let us linger on this amphibious assault on mid-American fresh waters – the dark-hued tendrils of coal smoke rising to black clouds hovering ominously above – and closely consider a still, silent night a century and six ago when a hard-scrabble descendant of pillaging Cossacks (“Ay” – Iberoff) and the patina of prestige provided by a twenty-year assumed mantle of aristocratically-assumed Englishness (“an-Bee” — & Basil) liquidated its assets and bequeathed the largest, untaxed profit margin in American history – derived entirely from Toys! Candy! Fun! – to its coin-clinking, bill-folding, check-writing board of legatees. A Christmas gift that has kept giving these many seasons past, we are receiving it still in all its gift-wrapped, red-ribboned, and green-bowed glory.