By Arthur H. Gunther III
MANHATTAN -- The proverbial fly on the wall would, if it could, reveal many a story about the humans who move through any place or that. Perhaps the same can be said about something as inanimate as the well-worn banister rails on the Macy’s 34th Street escalators, in the department store’s 1902 New York City building.
Located off Broadway in Herald Square, with a Seventh Avenue building attached in 1927, Macy’s is recalled as the subject of the famous 1947 movie, “Miracle On 34th Street,” in which Santa Claus is made real for non-believing adults but who was scarcely doubted by little Natalie Wood. There are interior Macy’s location shots in that movie, but whether the escalator banisters were in one I do not recall.
Most of the escalators in the original Macy’s building have wooden treads and rolling banisters, a marvel of engineering considering that they have been running for so many decades. Compare them to some of the modern, computer-assisted escalators you see in malls. One 1997 shopping plaza in West Nyack, N.Y., always has several that are not operating -- overheated, perhaps, and a dangerous climb or descent for customers.
I was in Gotham a while back, and that is always exciting, for the sounds and sights are “only in New York.” A short time in Manhattan is always an eye-opener on humanity -- you see so many, varied people. What really made the day was the walk to Macy’s through the canyon-like winds that New York offers, a brisk challenge that rewards you in its completion, sort of like climbing a mountain.
Macy’s, with its old-style woodwork, plaster effects and wooden escalators, is almost a national treasure, and visiting it is like seeing Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building. I was there in accompaniment, to observe people and things, to savor something old and true, a place where my parents took me as a little boy, where my father went as a child, too.
Perhaps a well-worn banister has my dad’s fingerprint under years of varnish; mine, too and maybe those of the less fortunate in the Great Depression who could only look at Macy’s goods in respite from despair. Maybe the bannisters carry the marks of soldiers and other military on leave before they shipped out for the theaters of World War II.
How many young children rode to see Santa Claus on these wooden escalators, nervously and in excitement as they held onto the banisters? How many brides-to-be rode up to try on gowns? How many ordinary people, off on a Saturday shopping tour, took the escalators to the coffee shop for reaffirming treat?
It is a tribute to Macy’s that the wooden escalators, so long in service, have not been scrapped, that no modern spectaculars have been installed, with plastic banisters and shiny aluminum treads. Yes, youngsters can take such moving stairs to see Santa and so can brides-to-be, but aluminum and plastic don’t show wear and tear with character, and so also the joys and hopes and millions of moments of small excitement. Varnished oak does. Every inch of those continuous loop wooden banisters at Macy’s has thousand stories to tell, at least.
The writer is a retired newspaperman.