Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

My granddaughter Caroline, age 4, who lives a block away, will soon experience her first Christmas from which joyful memories are likely to stick.

She inspired me to delve back to Arlington Christmas scenes that unfolded when I was her age.

My own sketchy memories are limited to spreading baking flour on the hearth on Christmas Eve in Cherrydale, and waking up astonished to see boot prints (suspiciously the same size as my father’s).

So I went to the microfilm: old Northern Virginia Sun newspapers at Central Library’s Center for Local History. I time-traveled through 1957 front-page reporting (for grownups) on Eisenhower’s health, Sputnik and the selling of bonds to build my future Yorktown High School.

The Arlington Council of Churches was deploring grocery stores open on Sundays. A teen advice column titled “Help Unpopular Girls When They Cling” was published alongside a puzzling comic strip called “Scorchy Smith.”

Ads touted “Exciting new rambler and split-level” homes for $14,250 and 1957 Ford sedans for $239.50.

But it was the feature coverage between Thanksgiving and Christmas that refreshed my sentimental recall. “Santa Makes Arlington Landing,” read one headline about the rooftop display at Virginia Square’s Kann’s Department Store. It featured a life-size Santa’s sleigh and reindeer on wires and pulleys, “a landmark in the county.”

The Kiddie Corner shop at 4581 Columbia Pike pitched in so that “Kids Discover a New World of Toys for Christmas.” Boys my age were photographed on toy horses and other goodies “educational and instructive.” Cub Scout Pack 60 at St. Thomas More Church was shown packing clothing for the bishop’s drive for Catholic Charities.

Many advertisements were Proustian memory jogs. Alexandria Dairy offered holiday eggnog “golden cream rich.” Penny’s in Clarendon promised “More for a MERRIER Christmas for Everyone” (men’s shirts for $2.98, bedroom slippers and women’s slips for $3.98). Robert Hall clothing on Route 50 boasted of “girls beautiful holiday dresses” for $4.95 and men’s “zip coats” of imported British Tweed for $29.95. People’s Drugs offered soft, plush “Hug ‘n Bears” almost 3 feet tall for $4.99.

On Dec. 2, the Sun warned shoppers “only 22 days to go.” It reporting the “long line of cars on Wilson Blvd. in the Clarendon District.” Parkington (now Ballston Quarter) boasted it can accommodate 12,000 cars.

The women’s Chamber of Commerce offered a chance to party at the “sumptuous, brightly lighted” mansion of home-builder M.T. Broyhill. Less fancy grownups could “Celebrate New Year’s Eve Dancing 9 til ?” to the music of Billy Johnson and orchestra at Arlington Towers Terrace.

On Dec. 10, editors warned that “Christmas Presents Should Be Mailed Now.” Sears and Penny’s sales forces were getting off to “a good start.” A girl named Beth was photographed “trying to look as sophisticated as the Seven Corners mannikin.” On Dec. 12 a four-year-old Guatemalan girl got “a special Christmas” by becoming a U.S. citizen.

The Dec. 19 issue profiled an Arlington training class for department-store Santas. John Ayers, “The Mayor of Westover,” “spread cheer” by posting letters from kids from Stewart School. Dec. 22 brought a joint ad for poinsettias from Arlington Florist, Conklin’s or Johnson’s Flowers.

On Dec. 24, the Sun’s editorial led with verse: “Holiday Greetings, Falls Church, Fairfax, and Arlington; Merry Christmas from the Sun; One of our peculiar flaws is, we believe in Santa Clauses.”

Looks like we must bid farewell to the Clarendon Ballroom. In a mysterious Instagram announcement last week, the owners said that in January they will shut the doors of that Art Deco building built in the 1930s as a furniture store and Woolworths.

The owners declined to tell ArlNow — or me — the reason.
I enjoyed a few private parties in the ballroom after it opened for music and libations in 2000. The owners plan to go out partying, inviting patrons to ring in the New Year before auctioning their equipment.