Saturday, December 25, 2010

Santa's Rocket Sleigh

During the Space Race '60s, Santa's Rocket Sleigh made several stops at Dixie Manor Shopping Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Though Dixie Manor is now rather forlorn, in those days was a bustling, popular hive of commerce, the largest shopping center in the region. I only rode the ship once, when my mother entrusted me with my three year old brother, Todd. I was about twelve, so I had no delusions about blasting off for the North Pole. It was fairly clear it had been an old streamlined city bus in a previous life, but its transformation to rocket sleigh was rather impressive. Inside, it was fully upholstered: seats, walls and ceiling, in the sort of sparkling vinyl typically seen in 1950s diner booths. Christmas music blared through speakers and Christmas lights twinkled overhead. During our journey at least, it was suffocatingly hot inside. A cheerful hostess in a fur trimmed miniskirt instructed us to take our seats then started up the bus -- er, rocket -- as she herself piloted the ship into a slow orbit around the parking lot. Meanwhile, Santa interviewed each kid via microphone as he made his way slowly up the aisle. I was shocked at the lack of discretion; the whole bus was in on what is supposed to be a very intimate, personal consultation. When he got to me, I dismissively replied I was simply there to accompany my brother, who, utterly bewildered, simply looked at the microphone. In the years following, I'd occasionally spot the rocket in city traffic, but eventually the landings ceased. Perhaps rocket ships in general had become too matter-of-fact.

I took these pictures of Dixie Manor in 1983. Originally, it had two local department stores -- Kaufman-Strauss and Ben Snyder's. My personal favorites were Woolworth's, G. C. Murphy's, Shakleton's elegant music store, and Fischer's, a delightful hobby store. Sadly, most of those names have vanished off the face of the earth, but I have great memories of Dixie Manor in its prime, including that one brief tour on the Rocket Sleigh forty-five years ago.
Many thanks to Dave Conover, who is preparing a book about Louisville shopping centers, for hunting down actual rocket sleigh posters and sending me one of my own. This is one of the several variations of the Rocket Sleigh. If you search google images for Santa's Rocket, you'll find a photograph of the version shown here. Apparently one sleigh has found its way to Alaska, which is certainly appropriate. Viktor Kuprin of Bloomington has written more extensively about the history of the Rocket Sleighs on his blog, Kosmosflot. A few miles south on Dixie Highway was the misbegotten Westland Mall, an ill-conceived venture that sat partially unfinished for years, connected to the pre-existing Consolidated Sales anchor with a narrowing trapezoidal corridor that looked as if it had been designed by the Monroe brothers from Green Acres. When it finally opened in the early 70s, it was a sad little place with drop ceilings and a bare cement concourse floor. Here are two pictures of the exterior, taken the same day as the Dixie Manor photos. Given its dreary history, Westland Mall actually still exists, albeit de-malled, and has been renamed Park Place.

9 comments:

Jeff said...

Thank you so much for posting the Santa's Rocket ship info!! I was a passenger on Santa's Super Rocket in either 1962 or 63 and it is one of my earliest memories. At my age at the time it was a little confusing and I was waiting for takeoff at any moment. Another thing about that trip was I learned a new word. "Gimmick" I'd never heard it before and when the pretty lady came up the isle with pictures of the Super Rocket Sleigh I wanted one real bad. And then my dad said no, After the pretty lady in her costume passed our row he told me it was a gimmick and cost lotsa money. A few minutes later we pulled back up to the Sears and Roebuck store and got off the bus but I just stood and stared as the next load of kids pulled off.
It confused me because I had learned Santa had sleigh, and I held on so tight but the rocket never took off !!
But even at that young age, I will never forget the sweet pretty lady in the helpers costume! Never knew one day that eye candy would confuse me for the rest of my life!

Anonymous said...

This rocket was part of a fleet of 5 rockets built and run by Lloyd Laster, of Tyler Texas. They eventually made it to Wisconsin where they were run until it was no longer economically feasible to run them. Two of them are still missing and are rumored to have been part of Bill Siros, of Siros Auto Stunts, car collection. One is located in a salvage yard in southern Wisconsin. One is in Tok, Alaska and is restored and still used at Christmas. The other one has, unfortunately met with the crusher. It was the twin to the Ship in Tok, Alaska and resided in a salvage yard for many years. When the Salvage yard closed it was the last vehicle crushed. The owner tried to find a new home for it but had no luck.

If anyone has knowledge of the Rockets that are rumored to be part of Siros Auto collection, please contact me at bjhepler@frontier.com. They are the last ones that are missing.

DMD said...

I am from Western Kentucky. I think I was taken to Dixie Manor in the 1970's when I was very young as the sign looks so familiar and I distinctly remember the name Dixie. Walgreens looks very familiar. Does anyone know if this center had a Stewart's in it back then? Thanks.

Scott Santoro said...

Kaufman-Strauss, a local department store chain, opened at Dixie Manor around 1960. When Kaufman's went out of business in 1969, it was replaced with Stewart's. Later, it became an Ayre's. The building now houses the Dixie Dozen theatres.

DMD said...

Thanks for the info, Scott. I was pretty sure I remembered a Stewart's being at that mall. Do you know if Dixie Manor was ever closed down or partially closed, or if there was a nearby boarded up shopping center. I was on Dixie Highway in 1991 and came upon a boarded up shopping center but I don't know what it was called.

Scott Santoro said...

I moved away from Louisville in the late 1970s so my history is a little foggy as far as exact dates. I do know, however, that Dixie Manor has been in constant use since the mid 1950s and never closed, though its halcyon days are certainly far behind it. The shopping center you're thinking of is almost certainly Westland Mall (a misbegotten mall if there ever was one), located a few miles south. It limped along for years. At one point the entire center section shut down though the anchor stores never closed. By some miracle it was revamped, de-malled, and today is still in use as Park Place. If you search Westland Mall Louisville, you'll find some more information (including a comment by yours truly) as well as its sister mall, Raceland Mall, on Bardstown Road. Both were cheap, terrible shopping centers that never really looked finished and certainly never took off.

Bev said...

I so enjoyed your writings about the Santa Sleigh. I do not remember it. But I do remember Fisher's hobby shop, which I had not thought about in forever! Funny, how parochial we were about our shopping. We lived near Iroquois Park so we always went to Iroquois Manor. Had a similar sign, but Dixie's was so much more fancy. They had a piece goods shop called The Fabric Shop. My mom and I made about 80% of my clothes. I can still remember the smell. The only time we went to Dixie Manor was to go to Ben Snyder's. It was our Bed, Bath, and Beyond - always bought our linens there, but never clothes. Not sure why - too pricey? I have no idea....

MrHillbippie said...

I just found a ticket for a free ride in a basement from Lexington KY,,,I WANT MY FREE RIDE DAMMIT!

grandma said...

Yes it did have a Stewarts back in the day after kaufmans closed . Stewarts was a great store.