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.