Wednesday, December 7, 2011
(Darwin and Opal Brown) - Kalamazoo Gazette photo from 1975
-Dave Hager, LOOKING BACK, Kalamazoo Gazette, December 18, 2005
Gilmore Brothers Department Store (est. 1881) was the centerpiece of downtown
retail in Kalamazoo for over 100 years. It was located on South Burdick Street in
the heart of the shopping district, and always had an air of big-city sophistication
about it. At Christmas, the tall storefront windows were done up with mechanical
mannequins and delightful winter scenes reminiscent of department store windows
in Chicago or New York.
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a trip downtown to shop at Gilmores.
Once inside the front door, your nose caught the intoxicating blend of Paris perfumes
emanating from the nearby fragrance counters. You said hello to the oh so perfectly
powdered and coifed sales ladies-- faithful employees of long standing.
The conversations on the expansive main floor echoed off the high ceilings of exposed
duct work, and the muffled ding ding ding of the store paging system was heard in the
background. The Christmas decorations festooning the pillars had a large-scale
theatricality about them-- oversized toys, trumpets and drums, balls, ribbon, bows and
packages were displayed at every turn.
Owner and proprietor Irving Gilmore, an elegant silver-haired gentleman in a pinstripe
suit would appear out of nowhere to greet his customers, and ask about their purchases.
His brisk, business-like air made him a formidable character, and his rapier wit revealed
a sense of fun. You had to be on your toes if you found yourself in Irving's orbit.
The Gilmore Brothers Santa and Mrs. Claus were simply the best. Darwin Brown
and his wife Opal were Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus at Gilmores for decades, starting
in the 1950s. Darwin was a retired clown, who went by the professional name of
"Brownie the Clown" during his circus days.
Santa and the Mrs. held court in Gilmore's Basement, not far from the lunch
counter/soda fountain. The sat on red velvet chairs, trimmed with gold. Tall
nutcracker and soldier statues stood guard nearby. Mrs. Claus passed out candy
canes from a large basket she carried, while Santa sat in his red chair, waiting to
receive the next child behind the rope line. The stage was set for making Christmas
memories, 1950s-style, at Gilmore Brothers in downtown Kalamazoo.
St. Nicholas (270-343), according to legend, did many acts of anonymous charity
throughout his lifetime. Nicholas helped out a poor man with three daughters by
leaving each of them a small purse containing gold coins without revealing his
identity. In another version of the story, he dropped a purse down the chimney
that landed in one of their stockings that was hanging up to dry near the fireplace.
Nicholas is the Patron Saint of children, students and merchants, among others.
Irving S. Gilmore (1900-1986), is well-known in Kalamazoo for his many contributions
to the arts and to social causes, but little is known about his own anonymous acts of charity.
"Irving was a dear friend to people in all walks of life. Much of his
philanthropy during his lifetime was always behind the scenes...
In his own quiet way, Irving helped hundreds and hundreds of
people in this town... many times they didn't even know it was
Irving who was helping them."
-Irving Gilmore's good friend Al Connable, from his book entitled
A MICHIGAN MAN: The Life & Times of Kalamazoo's Al Connable
as Told to Tom Thinnes, 1998, p. 256.
Irving bought musical instruments and paid for private lessons or school tuition
for many a promising student over the years. He even purchased a concert grand
piano for a gifted composer. Irving Gilmore made dreams come true for many
people, but did not seek recognition for having played a part. He was Kalamazoo's
very own St. Nicholas.
In honor of Irving Gilmore's generosity, and in the spirit of the Christmas season,
Alice's Archivist offers up this paean to Irving Gilmore-- with apologies to Clement
NOTE: This ode is a work of fiction, but Irving's beneficence was very real indeed.
KALAMAZOO'S OWN ST. NICHOLAS ~ IRVING GILMORE
The Place: Gilmore Brothers Department Store, downtown Kalamazoo
The Time: Christmas Eve, long ago
'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the store,
Walked Kalamazoo's own Santa, Irving Gilmore.
The stockings were hung in Lingerie with care,
Stylish young ladies liked to shop there.
There were piles of kerchiefs and warm woolen caps,
And perfume and jewelry to purchase, perhaps.
Dresses on Second Floor, Shoes up on Four,
Shoppers went to and fro, looking for more.
Irving stood by and greeted the crowd,
His family business made Kalamazoo proud.
At 9 o'clock closing he bid staff "Good Night!
I'll lock up myself and turn out the light."
As he sat in his office and counted the till,
A noise from outside so sweet and so shrill
Made him go to the window, he flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the crest of the new fallen snow
Showed one tiny figure with a fiddle and bow.
He was covered all over with snowflakes galore,
Irving said "Come on in and get warm in my store!"
"Do you study with anyone?" Mr. Gilmore inquired,
"You play violin like an artist inspired!"
"No sir, no money for lessons..." What a shame
Thought Irving, I know a teacher by name.
Ah ha thought Irving, an idea came to mind--
Pay for the boy's lessons, but not let him find
The name of his benefactor-- that is best,
To keep acts of charity close to the vest,
That is the way we can all feel blessed.
-Alice's Archivist, December 6, 2011
Saint Nicholas Day