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Ghostly mall memories of Christmases past

When security guard Vernon May first started patrolling Metcalf South more than 30 years ago, there were 169 stores, he says. Now he watches over an almost abandoned mall.
When security guard Vernon May first started patrolling Metcalf South more than 30 years ago, there were 169 stores, he says. Now he watches over an almost abandoned mall. The Kansas City Star

People remember the brutal competition to park close. They remember Santa’s little village and the trains for tykes at center court.

They remember walking from shop to shop for hours this time of year but are hard-pressed to recall whether Topsy’s was on the first floor or the second.

Two local shopping malls that closed in 2014 — Metcalf South in Overland Park and Metro North off Barry Road — were both at one time massive magnets for holiday shoppers.

Memories can blur, though, when taxed to recall just how those seasons were spent from the 1970s through the 1990s, an age in which Americans browsed and bought at hardly any other place but the mall. (Nobody knew then what online meant.)

Metcalf South and Metro North were at opposite poles of the metroplex, but they felt much the same. That was by design: few windows or clocks to remind people how much time had passed since they left coats in the car and stepped in.

Anchor stores at the ends. Food courts that allowed you to spend all day. The escalators got so packed in December, “sometimes they’d stall from the weight of shoppers,” said Vernon May, longtime director of security at Metcalf South.

At both malls after Thanksgiving, “you’d look down a long corridor and see wall-to-wall people,” said Gary Mayerle of Boyle and Mayerle Architect in Overland Park, formerly Boyle and Wilson, designer of both malls.

The climate-controlled convenience may have come at a social cost, he said.

“For better or worse, the mall era probably marked the beginning of Christmas shopping feeling hectic.”

The indoor malls surviving around Kansas City still draw crowds. Holiday bustle at Oak Park Mall, Independence Center and Ward Parkway Shopping Center can’t help but make one wonder how so many others failed.

Indian Springs. Bannister. Blue Ridge Mall. Mission Mall.

“Let’s face it, we overbuilt,” Mayerle said.

When malls were just a few miles apart, each requiring costly power plants and upkeep, he said, developers should have asked themselves: “How many Spencer gift shops do we really need?”

But back to those yuletide memories.

At Metcalf South, Santa Claus would arrive just before Thanksgiving to park an RV trailer in an up-close corner of the lot.

This would be his dressing room and break area; nobody wanted to see a mall Santa taking a breather at Orange Julius.

At Metro North, “I remember the Santa being young, thinner,” said Kansas City Councilman Ed Ford.

“He really didn’t sound like Santa,” Ford said. “We preferred the Santa at Antioch Mall,” which also would close. It has been repurposed into an outdoor shopping area.

Store Santas

Malls changed the Santa business in a big way.

Half a century ago, when everyone drove downtown to shop for Christmas, the major department stores competed with one another to hire the best St. Nick and hang the most lavish decorations.

“The stores themselves would invest in things like a great Santa in order to draw kids,” said Monroe Dodd, author of “Christmastime in Kansas City.”

But when indoor malls sprouted, redirecting nearly all shoppers to the suburbs, mall management negotiated the Santa deals and hung the decorations.

So at Metro North, it was no skin off the nose of Penney’s or now-defunct Montgomery Ward if the Santa down the concourse was 30 and sporting a polyester beard.

What did please Metro North’s crowds were the year-round floating balloons.

Hot air propelled them on lines that stretched to the ceiling.

“My kids would want to sit there and wonder which balloon might make it all the way to the top,” said Ric Nyman, a volunteer for the Clay County Historical Society.

“You could guess by looking at whether the balloon was wobbling up the line,” he said. “A little catch or friction with the wire would keep it from hitting the ceiling.”

Beyond the bobbing balloons and the anchor department stores, Nyman struggled a bit recalling all that Metro North offered. The sequence of shops? The holiday decorations?

There was a Helzberg’s jewelry store, he knows, but where?

“I do remember how my kids wouldn’t let me walk past the Cookie Factory downstairs without stopping to buy them cookies,” Nyman said.

“Come to think of it, I’m not sure it was called the Cookie Factory. It was something like that.”

What councilman Ford recalled about Metro North most vividly was the afternoon sometime in the 1980s when his 4-year-old son bolted from Penney’s.

It terrified Ford. “I was shopping for a shirt and let go of him for a minute … and he was gone.”

Ford notified security, and the mall announced over loudspeakers that a boy was missing.

Turned out the kid trotted from Penney’s right to his mother on the concourse. But for more than an hour Mom, shopping separately, didn’t hear the announcement or relay that the youngster was safe.

This being before cellphones.

Still gleams

The interior of Metcalf South still glistens.

Though visitors can’t venture past Sears or the Glenwood Arts Theater into the rest of the building, the signage for County Seat, Hobby Haven and Mr. Bulky’s remain.

The property group Lane4 is weighing its options, whether to raze or revitalize the 800,000 square feet of retail that opened in 1967.

Security guard May, of Titan Protection, has walked these halls 32 years. “I had 169 stores here when I started,” he said. “That’s how busy this place was.”

Metcalf South, among the first indoor malls anywhere around, “was absolutely a game changer” for Johnson County, said Overland Park Historical Society member Florent Wagner.

The mall at 95th Street rose from the pastures where Realtor Scott Lane, 62, and childhood chums had dug a fort and covered it with plywood.

And then …

“You’d go to Metcalf South and sit on Santa’s lap with all that decor around. The music and pomp and circumstance,” Lane said. “It would be really hard for someone to go into that environment without spending a lot of money.

“It may have led to more abundance, more impulse buys. Look, we were spoiled” by the convenience.

Those many indoor malls were embraced by a certain generation, the boomers, who spent entire days at places such as Metcalf South and Metro North, said Shelly McVay, marketing professor at William Jewell College.

“They were designed similar to how casinos are designed today,” she said. “The lighting always bright, you couldn’t really see what’s going on outside. The shopkeepers didn’t want you to know the passage of time.”

Watch a movie, eat food-court fries and hang out near the black-light posters at Spencer’s. Buy wherever, whenever.

“Younger generations view it differently,” McVay said. “My children, in their 20s, don’t buy into the whole stuff mentality. The big word with millennials is ‘authenticity.’”

She said that today’s successful malls know that.

They incorporate niche-type retailers such as the Apple Store, American Girl and chic clothiers who fold items on shelves, above hardwood floors, rather than drape shirts from round racks.

Metcalf South and Metro North had round racks, right?

It’s hard to remember, especially since the photographs taken at these malls, as far as The Star’s archives reveal, were pretty much of the children on Santa’s lap.

“Why would you take pictures inside a mall?” asked area architect Brad Moore, a fan of Metcalf South. “We sort of took these places for granted.

“Nobody at the time would’ve thought that something so big, with so many stores, could ever fail.”

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or email rmontgomery@kcstar.com.

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