Growing up in the country made anywhere with a lot of stores and houses and traffic and noise and air that doesn't smell like a barnyard a city. When I was growing up, Lancaster was my city.
Lancaster was never new to me. Mother took me to movies starting at a very young age, and Lancaster was where the movie theaters were. Three theaters were on the same block: The Capitol, The Grand, and The Colonial (which became The Boyd). A fourth was built several blocks from downtown. The King was built in the early 1950s with CinemaScope and stereo in mind.
North Prince Street, West King Street, East and West Chestnut Street, and North Queen Street were the center of my universe. (This included East Orange Street.) Downtown Lancaster was always both reliable and exciting. There was always a newsboy on the square shouting, "Pay-PERRrrrr." I can't say I envied him his job, but it was a reliable part of every visit, as were hot soft pretzels and the diesel fuel smell of the buses.
My interest in music has been lifelong. Lancaster had two music stores. One was a small one on East Orange Street, near the gorgeous if spooky Episcopalian Church. The other was Troup's Music Store. Composer and jazz musician Bobby Troup was from Harrisburg; his family owned the original store on Market Square in Harrisburg; the one in Lancaster was the branch. (He lived on the West Coast. Julie London was his wife. It was always news when he'd come back for a visit, especially if he visited the Lancaster store.)
I loved Troup's. They had a huge selection of popular sheet music. They also had books of "serious" music. Sometimes they had complete scores of musicals. Instruments were always on view and, under the watchful eye of a clerk, could be touched and even handled. I don't know when I first became aware of Handel's Messiah, but I owned the recording with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting, and vocal powerhouses soprano Eileen Farrell and bass William Warfield. I wanted a copy of it so I could follow along. I sent them the right amount of money and a little more so they could send it to me. It didn't come and it didn't come, so next trip downtown, I went to the store to ask about it. They couldn't find the letter or a record of the cash. I was bummed. The clerk walked over to the rack with all kinds of scores, picked up a Messiah, and put it in a bag. "A young man can't be without his copy of Messiah," he said as he handed it to me. I loved Troup's.
Uphill from Troup's (literally) was where the newspapers came from. Lancaster had three...The Intelligencer Journal in the morning, The New Era in the afternoon, and The Sunday News. We got the afternoon paper, the Republican paper, and the Sunday paper. The building had large store windows on the street. They had pictures of events and what we now call flip chart paper with the latest headlines hand-printed on them. I wasn't entirely sure what went on in there, but I knew it was filled with typewriters and people were being paid to write.
Across from that was (to me) the lesser of the two department stores, Hager's. I don't remember it well, but I seem to remember there were different levels on the first floor. It was all right, but it never particularly captured my imagination.
The real department store was Watt & Shand's on the southeast corner of the square. For this gayling, it was fabulous. The store windows showed excellent men's clothes, gorgeous women's dresses and gowns, furniture, candies, toys...windows that put all other stores to shame. I can't say that I felt a gay vibe when I went in there...I wouldn't have known what that meant. I knew, however, that it was an excellent store, beautiful merchandise of all kinds, Plus, it had escalators. And then there was Christmas.
Watt & Shand's and Christmas went hand-in-hand. Watt & Shand's was our Wanamaker's and Macy's. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, a single engine airplane flew over Lancaster County. It's flight path and flyover times were well-known. Santa was the passenger. It landed at Lancaster's airport and Santa arrived downtown at the end of a parade on board a hook and ladder fire truck. The fire truck positioned itself, erected the ladder, and a far braver than I Santa climbed up to the top floor, sack on back, and entered Santa-land through a window.
We always waved at the airplane but never saw the parade. Not live, anyway. WGAL-TV televised it, and watching Santa climb the ladder was a nerve-wracking experience. However, since this was the era before urban flight and countless shopping centers on what was once farmland, we'd go Christmas shopping in downtown Lancaster. I was always awestruck by Watt & Shand's windows. They were worth a trip to the city all by themselves. Lancaster was open Friday evenings, so we'd get to see the windows with lights, not just daylight. Watt & Shand's windows had figures that moved, lots of trains, dolls and stuffed animals and I can't remember what. Lancaster was my city, and Watt & Shand's, especially at Christmas, was paradise.
We had our choice of two record stores. One was Stan's Record Bar on North Prince Street, near the Fulton Opera House. Stan's had albums and 45s everywhere. Something about it gave the illusion of dirty...absurd, I'm sure, but I didn't like going there.
The better was Darmstadter's. Darmstadter's was a dry goods store. It was all right and nice to walk through. I walked through it because the record department was at the rear of the store, and it was magnificent. For one thing, they had somewhat sound-proof listening booths. This was before plastic shrink wrap. All of the people who worked that department seemed incredibly knowledgeable, and I had two favorites, a man and a woman. Apparently I came in often enough and had memorably odd tastes in music, so they knew me. It was there I bought the Goddard Lieberson-produced Porgy and Bess. I bought the D'Oyly Carte recording of HMS Pinafore (and many of the other London G&S recordings). More than likely, Darmstadter's was where I bought the album of Messiah. I bought all my Original Broadway Cast recordings there. And that's where I bought Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as described in another blog.
No doubt I'll come back to Lancaster again. The theaters deserve to be mentioned, since none of them survived the century. Downtown Lancaster no longer exists, I'm told. The buildings are the same, but they've been re-purposed and the businesses don't sound nearly as interesting. I didn't mention the markets, Woolworth's, the Greist Building, or the dangerous underground bathrooms. Someday, perhaps.