Chester Martin Remembers Some Amazing Displays And Their Creators

Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Stefano Giuliano
Stefano Giuliano

Every New Years Eve when I turn our TV on to watch the famous big ball drop in Times Square, I ponder how much that event means to the people of America - and across the world. It bodes well-being and a sense of satisfaction, hard to describe, but very real.

Many of us have visited Times Square in New York - a magnet for all tourists from around the world, and a place in which we can lose all our grudges and politics for at least a few moments. Our elation with that place stems from the lights, the color, and the glorious confusion of the masses of people who have gathered there to enjoy the same experience.

We can thank all those nameless and hidden Display men who have assembled all the many parts so skilfully behind the scenes, putting them seamlessly together to create those senses for us.

The same is true for every city in the world, actually: London, Paris, Moscow,  - and even Chattanooga! Such "Displays" are an integral part of all our international cultures, seeming to fulfill our collective needs for something beyond our everyday lives and "bring us together". Bright lights and color fulfill at least some of those needs. People tend to congregate in places where the best displays are, and you find yourself rating them, subconsciously, in your head, as to which is good, better, or best.

In Chattanooga, many years ago, before urban spread - when everything important was located downtown - there was a list everyone carried in their minds as to which Christmas display, for example, should be seen first. Many people headed for the drive up 6th Street from Market to view the Power Board windows which were always animated with numerous moving characters. You were lucky if you could get your car into that slow-moving queue. Those display windows were mesmerizing to the many, while demonstrating graphically what electricity could do.

The Coca Cola distributors' large property at 2nd Street and Broad, through to Chestnut, always featured a life-size display of the Three Wise Men on their camels, which added a religious note to the downtown grouping of Christmas displays. These figures, although not animated, were kept lighted at night, enclosed by an iron bar fence which protected the Coca Cola trucks all year, except for Christmas. Then the trucks suddenly all disappeared to parts unknown so the Wise Men could ride in for a few days' stay. I think there were appropriate Christmas carols to accompany this scene. This excellent annual display certainly appealed to many.

Millers and Lovemans department stores always had great windows at Christmas - but I was especially partial to Miller's as their windows were larger in all directions: left to right, top to bottom. No doubt these decorated windows have pulled many a shut-in person out of their homes for a quick look, and more people have probably gotten "in the Christmas spirit" by seeing these displays than through any other means. Once the Chattanooga Times reported that one of the main windows showed a very large Santa who did nothing but sit and laugh while his body shook in rhythm to his laughter. A rather large lady, the paper said, became so amused at this that she joined in the laugh-fest causing all the bystanders to start laughing at HER - as well as at Santa! It seems to have been a very funny scene.

Although very pleasing to the eye, these displays represented a LOT of sweat and hard work for many skilled people - all year 'round. I fortunately got to meet the gentleman behind the Power Board's highly successful windows. I regret that I cannot recall his name, and no longer have connections where I could find out at this late date. But he was good. Everyone liked his work, and he was totally devoted to it. When I met him it was already after-hours. He was sitting at a desk and I could only peep into his darkened work area and saw very little of it. But his Christmas windows were all he worked on year-round.

Probably our best display company was on Cherry Street between 8th and 9th Street (now MLK). The large shop was on the second floor, with a small, simple sign over the sidewalk which said "Bagby Display Company". You could pass it a thousand times without ever noticing it. Bill Farley, of Crisman Hardware's display department, introduced me to it.The rather grungy stairway up to the work area was wide and dark. A small monorail lift ran beside the stairs, indicating that heavy and unwieldy equipment needed to be moved either up or down. After walking up the dark steps, however, it was something like when Dorothy opened the black-and-white door and the colorful "Land of Oz" suddenly appeared! Fantastic colors from both old and new displays were everywhere. Fuschia glitter and brightly colored gauze ruled! The good smell of fresh paint and of special glues were in the air. Porters wearing long work aprons were moving large displays from one room to the next, and there was a smaller, but adequately spacious, work area for a show-card writer or film cutter for the silk-screen process. The latter were  fortunate, as they got to sit near an open window which provided light and air. Mr. Earl Bagby, owner of all this, was a very helpful and friendly man who seemed glad to welcome visitors to his domain. He always wore a work apron, and frequently had an artist's brush in his hand. He would delight you with a preview of next Christmas's keynote display for Miller's, or a special display for a downtown furrier. A visit to Leonardo da Vinci's workshop would have not been much more thrilling than a visit to Mr. Bagby's place on Cherry Street!

I have understood that the big companies that make the displays for Times Square in New York have been in business for 100 years and longer. Only those companies have the expertise to design and execute the immense displays there which must cling securely to the sides of buildings, so as not to menace the crowds below. The designers of these huge displays must all have sensibilities as to what will be "right" for the public. The advertising agencies may create the concept, but only the display people can say whether the concept will work, and then make it successful.

Our display people in Chattanooga do not have the problems of a Times Square, but they must be able to create something new very fast to fit a fast-changing public mood or event - such as a sudden change of price. Check this: One November day in 1964 I was working for a poster company on Amnicola Highway. The radio was on in our art department relating all the drama and horror of the Kennedy assassination. Kennedy was not yet confirmed dead when I left work to keep an un-breakable appointment downtown. I drove hurriedly into town and parked the car in the first space available - several blocks away from the appointment, then was forced to walk to the James Building. When I hurried past Miller Brothers' corner window on Market Street at Seventh I was agape at what I saw. The good people of Millers' display department had very quickly cleared the existing display out of that window and replaced it with a large, framed portrait of Kennedy surrounded by tasteful and beautifully arranged black bunting. And there was an exquisitely hand-lettered quotation of some sort on a curving sheet of expensive white paper - perhaps with a small touch of red, white and blue - which complemented the severity of the picture frame and other elements. I will always regret that I never got back to study that marvelous creation, although the event remains one of my greatest memories ever. I remain amazed at how fast Miller's display staff created such a beautiful example of the Displayman's craft.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )




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