Dreaming of Oak Cliff Christmas lights

Back when the Oak Cliff Bank Tower began beaming the building’s iconic, red- and green-lit NOEL, Cliffites knew the Christmas season had arrived.

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.)

A 1963 Camp Fire group comprised of Jefferson Davis Elementary third-graders delivers charity items to the Volk’s department store in Wynnewood. From left to right: Kathy McIlveene, Pat Pomarici, Linda Pearce, Cindy Darden, Holly Rawlings, Julie Pearce, Janet Hafer and Judy Baker. Photo by Bill Edwards.

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.

The Pickett family was invited to the home of the “Santa on Sylvan” for a Christmas party in 1955. The little girl photographed is Becky Pickett Macon (Adamson ’71) whose father, Edwin L. Pickett, moved organs and pianos for Oak Cliff Music Co., which is how he met the man who played Santa.

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.”

The Snuffy Smith house

“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.


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  • Yolanda Brooks

    Thank you so much for this article…My parents purchased the home at 618 Brook Valley Lane in 1975…and the history of this home remains…Amazing!!!

  • Pingback: caption id= align= alignleft width= 563 The… | Honor Dads()

  • Gayla Brooks

     Pat, Someone sent it to me via email. If you want me to research the person who did, I’ll look through all my old emails. Cute photo!

  • pat

    Gayla, how in the world did you find that pic of the Campfire girls??? that’s me, 2nd from the left.
    Pat (Pomarici) Morgan

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    You’re welcome, Fran. My pleasure. It’s such fun–and a great comfort to me, too–to write about Oak Cliff history. There’s a lot to tell!
     
    I appreciate the spectacular lights even still, but somehow the humble single string or two, or a simple lighted tree in a yard means more. People who have little–or perhaps only a  little creativity–can bring the brightest Christmas message with their small efforts. I always think the “dinky” displays mean the most, like the shepherds coming to see the Baby Jesus and just offering their humble worship.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours. Gayla

  • Frances Philllips

    Thanks, Gayla, for bringing back such sweet memories of Christmases long ago!  It was one of our family traditions to pile into our family sedan and “go look at the lights”!  Stevens Park, Kessler, and Glen Oaks were always our favorite areas.  My dad did his part, too, by stringing colored outdoor lights in our mimoso tree in the front yard.  It didn’t draw a big crowd of gawkers, but it was was very special for my brothers and me because it signaled the beginning of the holiday season.

    Frances Phillips

  • Tikitoon17

    Yes, Ann Walling and I Square Danced until the Roosters Crowed. Endlessly.
    Those 7th Grade Teachers were Relentless in making ius do the dance.
    That was our claim to fame. Never really had anything to do with each other the remaining years of school -life except various classes but we always had the “Square Dance”. to look back on. Hee Hee. It was the 7th Grade because I was at Daniel Webster in the 5ht. Ron

  • Jane Little

    Are you the Ronnie Brannon who took my sister, Ann Walling, to the fifth grade dance?

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Thank you to all who have posted this month. I believe I’ve emailed all of you in a personal response, but in case I didn’t: I love your posts! You guys are the best and add so much to both the column and to my attempt to document the history of our wonderful Oak Cliff.

    May each of you have a wonderful Christmas and a great 2012.

    Gayla

  • RedTurkey16

    The article failed to mention the Christmas display @ 965 Sam Dealy Dr. in Kessler Park. The home owner had shot the third largest polar Bear ever taken, had it mounted & placed it in the front window with lights and a sign reading”Beary Christmas”

  • Ccnix

    Great article evoking many fond memories. We lived on Boca Chica near Oak Cliff CC. Dad would park his black 1926 Ford roadster pick-up on the corner, fill the bed with wrapped boxes, and put a life-sized Santa behind the wheel, and light it up like Red Bird airport. Traffic was usually so heave the cars barely moved for hours on end. What a magical time that was.

  • Ron Brannon

      What I remember is on Thanksgiving Night we always drove down to the Sears Building on Jefferson and watched them Light Up the Side of the building facing Jefferson with a large display of lights like Santa and his Reindeer flying across the front of the building.
      After seeing what the new display was for that year we would drive down Zangs Boulevard to these Three Trees directly across from Wynnewood Village in the divided median and they would be decorated in Lights that were just turned on that night too ! Thanksgiving was over and here comes Christmas we always said.
      We always did a trip down Brookvalley to see Toni Smith’s Lights and Car. It was a highlight of the season.

  • Donna Lackey

    Jane, all those animated sights were moved to DeSoto off Cockrell Hill and Pleasant Run.  We took our kids to the Lover’s Lane location and happened on this on years later to find out some other relative had taken on the chore — an don’t you know it’s a chore to move all those creatures in and out every night.  I don’t know if they still live there or moved, again.

  • Jane Little

    I absolutely LOVE this article.  These Christmases are so well and fondly remembered.  It’s nice to know the name of the little organist after all these years.  The only comparative xmas used to be one street north of me on Lovers Lane.  And what a coincident, it was the home of a car dealer!  He had a red Stutz Bearcat in the front yard steered by Santa, and so many old store window robotic santas, elves, reindeer, etc., that he had to borrow a blocks’ worth of electricity from the neighbors every night for several weeks.  That’s gone now, too, sadly…

  • Txkirtley

    Great article as Oak Cliff was a land of magic and special times like Christmas were always something special. Jefferson Blvd with Sears and Roebuck and the Christmas decorated windows. thanks Gala for unforgetable memories.

  • Linda Shipp Moon

    How great was Christmas time in the late 50’s and 60’s in Oak Cliff (especially in Glen Oaks and Wynnewood Hills!!) We grew up during the best time and best place ANYWHERE and thanks to Gayla those memories are constantly being revisited! Thank you Gayla and Oak Cliff!!

  • Shirley

    We ALWAYS took an evening to go look at lights.  Wasn’t Glen Oaks the sub-division that  held a contest each year?  As a child, it was like entering fairyland.  I remember a house one year decorated all across the front with giant pink clouds.  In the clouds and on the lawn were jumbo pieces of candy – peppermint sticks, colored life savers, ribbon candy, etc.  The music exploding out of the clouds was the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” from “The Nutcracker.”  I hope it won the prize that year.    Fifty years ago and I still vividly remember the “awww” effect..

    Shirley McCann Gee – Adamson ’64

  • Donna Lackey

    Gayla, thanks for such a good article.  It was a magical time in Oak Cliff during the 1950’s around Christmas.   The Kiest Park neighborhood just south of Kiest and Rugged was always big, too.  Houses built back then had huge picture windows and almost every house had a big decorated tree, but some extended the decor to the lawn.  I remember that car.  I remember a lady on Nantucket, I think, who also played Christmas music on the organ in the front window and piped the music outside.  We never went north of the Trinity because there was plenty to see in Oak Cliff. 

    Another house I well remember was across the street from Margret B. Henderson — a fairy tale  of lights, creatures, and reindeer heads placed on the garage like they were inside looking out!  Lights, lights and more lights as a Cinderella doll was close to her coach.  Rumor was their daughter had died and they decorated the house in her  memory every year. 

    There isn’t a kid in Oak Cliff during the 50’s who doesn’t recall the Sears store corner window on Jefferson and Llewellyn back then with an animated Santa, trains, gifts, tree and pure joy as a child to look forward to each year.  It was the living room every kid wanted on Christmas morning.    Great memories, but….

    Many are making new memories.  Kessler is still a place to see during the season, and Winnetka Heights has a home tour and house decorating contest.  The neighborhood near the OC Country Club still gets involved.  Some people in Oak Cliff get so excited about Christmas, they had their lights on the week before Thanksgiving.  They still bring joy and a smile to many in the community. 

    Donna Bee Lackey (Kimball 67)

  • Gayla, as usual, you hit the nail on the head and told the story just like it was!!  Good job. 

  • Billmelton37

    The Santa organist on Sylvan was Accountant Ed Thompson, a Past President of the Oak Cliff
    Lions Club.  He and his Family always had a great show!

    In the 1950’s Canterbury Court in Kessler Park was an exciting place for Christmas decorations as was the Colorado, Mayflower, Old Orchard area.

    What a great time to grow up in Oak Cliff!

    Bill Melton

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Everyone needs to view the classic “home movie” footage of the Snuffy Smith house, narrated by Toni Smith Ross. (link above) Merry Christmas to everyone, and thanks to all of you for faithfully reading Oak Cliff BACKSTORY for the past two and a half years. May 2012 be a wonderful year for you and those you love.