For every baby boomer who lived in Columbus, the holiday season was epitomized by the Downtown Lazarus department store.

For every baby boomer who lived in Columbus, the holiday season was epitomized by the Downtown Lazarus department store.

A trip to Downtown in the 1950s and 1960s was an event for many families. You dressed up to go Downtown for the holidays. Then, while you were still many blocks away, you caught the first glimpse of that glowing tree of lights that draped the iconic Lazarus rooftop water tower. After parking in the Lazarus garage, you filed out into the winter's chill, joining a crowd briskly walking down Town Street to High, where they gathered outside, clustered in front of the large street-level display windows filled with mechanical drummer boys, elves or just about anything else, acting out their holiday storylines in herky-jerky movements in scenes of winter wonderlands or cozy stocking-covered fireplaces.

Walking into the store, a big whoosh of warm air-the so-called Wall of Air-blew up through the floor vents, beckoning holiday shoppers inside with that immediate Lazarus smell of clothes, perfume, roasted peanuts and caramel corn.

For kids, nothing mattered but getting to the sixth floor, where Santaland was located. Even the ride up was exciting, listening to the chit-chat of the friendly elevator operator as it rose past floor after floor, each visible through the glass doors, to the the sixth. And there, as the doors opened, a North Pole fantasy. Kids posed for pictures in front of white picket fences and big, billowy cotton rolls of snow. They stood in line to sit on the lap of the best Santa in town-the only "real" Santa as far as most were concerned. Or maybe they ran over to converse with the Talking Tree standing guard nearby.

Eventually kids made their way to the makeshift building with the small kid-sized door that led into Secret Santa's Workshop. Inside, children ventured with envelopes pinned to their jackets, filled with dollar bills with which to buy presents. Adult helpers guided the kids past displays of low-cost trinkets-scented soaps and little jewelry boxes for mom, or an ashtray or tie clip for dad. The gifts would then be wrapped by the helpers and carted home to be tucked under the tree.

It was Columbus' primary holiday ritual for more than 70 years, but nothing lasts forever. The lights that had adorned the roof since 1963 were no longer strung after 1989, the year that the glitzy new City Center mall opened across the street. And 1994 was the last year that Santa visited the Downtown Lazarus. More than 50,000 kids had annually claimed a perch on Santa's lap in Santaland, but a Lazarus spokesman told the Dispatch that attendance was starting to dwindle, and some parents were expressing concerns about having to explain why there were Santas at both Lazarus and the City Center mall.

The late Mike Harden, a former Dispatch columnist, had been the in-store Santa at the Downtown Lazarus in his day. "No store took more pains to assure that the North Pole tableau was indisputably authentic," Harden wrote. From the plush Santa suit, to the beard and hair that at one point was made from real human hair, to the Santa Belles who served as Santa's helpers (and escorted one Santa out and another in, through a series of baffles during a shift change to ensure that no child ever saw two Santas at once).

Shifts were an hour on, an hour off. And an hour was plenty, wrote Harden, who would announce, "Santa has to feed his reindeer," to begin the shift-change transition. "To this day," Harden would later write, "shopping Lazarus at Christmas after three cups of coffee, I'm always tempted to confide to an associate, 'Santa has to feed his reindeer.'"

The flagship store closed its doors for good in 2004.

A conversation with a Talking Tree

David Dennison was simply looking for a job after high school graduation when he applied at the Special Events department at Downtown Lazarus in 1975. When the interviewer noticed he'd had some drama experience, acting at the Park Playhouse at the Whetstone Recreation Center as a teen, it was suggested, "Why don't you try out to be the Talking Tree?"

The Talking Tree was an iconic part of Santaland on the sixth floor of the Downtown Lazarus store-not to be confused with Mr. Tree, the talking tree on the local television show Luci's Toyshop (see pg. 47). Even though the big, wooden tree looked slightly intimidating, with big eyes and brows and a big, red tongue wagging out of its slightly frowning mouth, Dennison says, "Kids were never afraid of the Talking Tree. We had more visitors than Santa."

The tree was a half-cylinder, open but concealed in the back so the actors could enter and exit without notice during their two-hours-on, two-hours-off shifts. "It was pretty big inside," says Dennison, a Powell resident who now manages the Reynoldsburg branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. "There was a stool in there, so you could sit, and you could see a little through the eyes. I'd banter with kids, or sing, sticking that tongue out, which was a red stocking that I slipped over my hand and arm. More than once, a kid tried to pull the tongue right off."

Dennison says his signature number was an adaptation of a song from the musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" called "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid." Instead, Dennison would sing, "Everybody ought to have a tree. Everybody ought to have a talking tree." Dennison says he "learned that one from a much wiser tree."

"It was a fun job," Dennison says. "The children were having a wonderful time, and the parents were clearly happy to be there with their kids."

And now? Do people still remember the Talking Tree when he mentions it? Are there Talking Tree groupies? "Oh yeah," Dennison says. "I have to beat them off with a stick."