Organ-playing Santas and rooftop cars marked past Oak Cliff Christmases
In the ’50s and ’60s, when the Oak Cliff Bank Tower (now the Bank of America on Twelfth and Zang) began beaming the building’s iconic, red- and green-lit NOEL message, Cliffites knew the Christmas season had arrived. But the real holiday tradition happened after that, when Oak Cliff families piled into their Fords, Studebakers and Pontiacs and cruised our side of the river … to view the different neighborhoods’ Christmas lights!
And the two best places around? Kessler-Stevens and later Glen Oaks, further south off Polk.
In the ’50s, Kessler-Stevens was famous for then-new “luminaries” — sand-in-the-bottom paper sacks holding small candles — lining sidewalks and walkways throughout the neighborhood. In those days they were dazzling, modern, ahead of the times!
Through the use of outdoor speakers, some houses piped Christmas music out to their front yards, and in those days neighboring homes tolerated the noise — in the “Christmas spirit,” it seems. (As long as the music didn’t continue too far into the night, I assume.)
One house in particular became a drive-by magnet. It was magical. Well, at least we thought so.
This home, on Sylvan, amazed everyone with an electric organ perched in its large front picture window … with Santa at the console! Cars piled up along the street, as children (and adults alike) stretched their ears to hear Santa playing Christmas tunes. If a slot became available, dads parked their cars, and everyone jumped out for a better view of the “show.”
But, after its development in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Glen Oaks was the Christmastime place to be.
Sidewalks, walkways and rooflines were trimmed with strings of the newer, smaller lights, and yard after yard featured seasonal figures and Nativity scenes — anything “holiday.” Family sedans trailed each other like a modern-day wagon train through the subdivision’s illuminated wonderland.
Not every house on every street participated, but certain blocks were spectacular. But the Glen Oaks house that topped them all was 618 Brook Valley — the home of Snuffy Smith.
The owner of several car dealerships around Dallas, Smith used his inventory to his advantage. Every year, along with his light-trimmed home and yard, Smith placed an actual automobile on top of his house, positioning reindeer figures in front that appeared to be pulling the vehicle — just like Santa’s sleigh.
“He loved doing it,” says Smith’s daughter, Toni Smith Ross (Kimball ’67). “We have old videos of the children’s faces seeing Santa and getting candy canes — priceless!” As to the “sleigh” make and model, “it was a Renault Caravelle,” she says, “and it was put on the house every year with a crane. And it wasn’t Daddy as Santa, but an off-duty police officer/friend.”
Cheri Toogood (Carter ’71) recalls “fond memories of freezing and passing out candy canes, dressed as elves with my best friend, Gayle Fleming Lemmons [Kimball ’71], who lived across the street [from Smith] and got us the gig. The entire street was a showcase. It was the early Interlochen.”
“Toni’s dad let some of the neighbor kids be elves,” Lemmons explains. “We had little hats and, I think, a shirt. I just remember how much fun we had!”
Toogood also points out that Glen Oaks had its own organist-in-the-window, young Kathy Meier, playing holiday music on an organ atop a rotating platform at her family’s home on Meadow Heath Lane.
“Cars were lined up everywhere,” says Sondra Lawrence Hay (Kimball ‘68). “I lived on Oak Trail, exactly between Snuffy Smith’s house and the girl playing the organ (just two blocks apart). The traffic was amazing. I thought I lived in Disneyland.”
These days, luminaries, though nice, are now considered old-school. And neither organists playing Christmas music behind large picture windows nor cars on top of houses seem that exciting these days. To me, however, the memories of Oak Cliff Christmases in the ’50s and ’60s remain sweet.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Oak Cliff.