Readers share fond memories of Lazarus department store, holiday shopping, displays – The Columbus Dispatch

Although the Lazarus flagship store in Downtown Columbus closed in 2004, memories of its holiday glories remain strong.
When Dispatch readers were asked to contribute remembrances about December visits, dozens shared vivid stories about Santa, the decorated windows, Mr. Tree, holiday jobs and, of course, the storied celery dressing and clown sundaes at the elegant Chintz Room.
“So do we remember?!!” rhetorically asked Nancy Cecutti, 91, of Upper Arlington.
Her sons — now 69 and 70 — “looked soooo forward to seeing Lazarus’ window and, of course, Santa Claus!” she said in a note forwarded by Lori Cecutti, who called her “the world’s greatest mother-in-law and storyteller.” 
Helen Formet, 101, of Dublin, also shared fond memories. “Even though it was in 1950, it seems like yesterday that my best friend and I took our three children on the streetcar down High Street into Downtown from the University District,” she writes.
“There were lots of oohs and aahs from the kids as they viewed all the fabulous decorations, including trees, trains, elves and all the lights. It was breathtaking for us all. Then on to the famous Lazarus Tea Roomfor lunch. While we were waiting for our waitress, the children entertained themselves by dropping sugar cubes in their glasses of water to watch the cubes disappear. They were having great fun. Needless to say, they ate little lunch as they were full of sugar water when the food arrived. My friend and I, however, enjoyed a delicious lunch at one of our favorite lunch spots.”
Dining at Lazarus features in the memories of others, too.
When she was 10, Barbara King, now 68 and living in Battle Creek, Michigan, made the trek to Lazarus with two of her four younger brothers by bus from the South Side.
“At 7 and 8 years old, my brothers didn’t want to hold hands in a crowd. So, I came up with a plan. One would hold on to the shoulder strap of my purse and the other would hold the tail end of my scarf.”
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After admiring the windows and visiting Santa, it was time for lunch in the basement at the Highlander Grill.
“We ordered two grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and one chocolate shake divided three ways,” she wrote. “The waitress served us perfectly. She cut each sandwich in three long sections (cutting the crust off the outer edges) and placed two on each plate with the shake in three small glasses. We feasted like kings.”
Taking the bus to Lazarus was a rite of passage for many.
Dave Van Dyke, 79, now lives south of Lithopolis, but in the ’40s, he lived in Linden. His first visit to Lazarus, in 1948, was a fraught affair.
“While I don’t recall the window display, I do remember being frightened by a strange thing with a clanging bell as we crossed the streetcar tracks on the way to Lazarus,” he writes.
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After a visit with Santa, “I got on the down escalator only to realize my parents weren’t following. Near the bottom, I tried to scramble back up the escalator.”
Fortunately, his parents came to the rescue, and he wasn’t put off by the Lazarus experience. By 1954, his family had moved to Gahanna.
“I took my first bus ride to Downtown and Lazarus with the neighbor boy, who was regularly taking trumpet lessons Downtown, so he knew the ropes.”
Down at Lazarus, he admired the electric trains and “drooled over the stamp and coin displays.”
Many traveled even farther to visit the store.
Diane Cordial, 82, of Powell, grew up near London, Ohio.
“When we were children in the ’50s, our great aunts from Columbus invited us to shop at Lazarus for a new outfit,” she writes.
“As teenagers, my girlfriends and I spent a day in December in Lazarus, admiring the mannequins and Christmas decorations in the store windows, mesmerized by the beauty and music. We carefully spent our savings on gifts for family and friends, leaving enough to visit the Tea Room for lunch. By the end of the day, we farm girls were exhausted, loose, and laughing at anything!”
Other readers got a glimpse behind the scenes.
Kim Bell Baumann, 69, of Gahanna, was one of several readers who remembers becoming a “Santa Belle” for the season.
“I wore a cute little red dress and hat with white fur and high white boots. I helped bring the little ones to Santa and took pictures. What a great job to get everyone in the Christmas spirit!” she writes.
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Marie Haines, 67, of Columbus, worked in the display department at the Downtown store in the ’80s, sprinkling fake snow, decorating the “complex pathway leading shoppers to one of six costumed Santas” and, sometimes fetching toys.
“One year, we did the big corner window with a Toyland theme. I had to go into that window multiple times a day to pull out toys because customers insisted on getting that exact toy,” she said.
Haines also has the inside scoop on Mr. Tree, whose voice was provided by local actors and comics hired to “entertain shoppers and occupy the kids,” she said.
“Inside the tree, the walls were decorated with graffiti and quite a few rude jokes from years of bored occupants.”
Joe Ann Lucas of Groveport also worked at Lazarus, and so did her husband.
Joe Ann writes that Booker Lucas Jr. was the first Black Santa to appear at Lazarus when he started working at the Downtown store in 1970.
The family would plan their visits to Lazarus around Lucas’s work hours.
“My niece Michelle believed in Santa for 14 years,” Joe Ann Lucas writes. “There was no question she could ask Santa about herself that he did not know: Where do I live? What is my favorite animal? Where do I go to school? Who is my teacher? The list went on every year. At her old age of 14, she convinced children around her that yes, he certainly is real.”
As for Joe Ann’s own children, “They were true believers, but not for as long. They became suspicious as they got older.”
Sincere thanks to the dozens of readers who took the time to share their memories and photos. 
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