The Second City has come back to Atlanta, this time during the holidays. Once again, the writing team sent in from Chicago spent four days exploring the city, beginning with Atlanta holiday traditions. The Alliance called on our audience for ideas, anecdotes and memories, and the following are select highlights from a generous group of ideas they submitted. These seeds were the beginnings of tonight’s show, the dramaturgical underpinnings of hilarity. Thank you to everyone who shared their Atlanta holiday stories with us!  Below is a sampling of the material we received:

“The tree on top of Lenox Mall has always been a strange sight — like a 30-ft. tall
Charlie Brown tree.”

“[I saw] a woman dressed in a big holiday sweater with jingle bells go off on an old lady for breaking in line in the bathroom of the Fox Theatre. Thought she was going to cut her (we were all there to see The Rockettes) with the grand finale of the birth of Jesus. Happy holidays one and all!”

“Driving in your car through Magical Night of Lights at Lake Lanier Islands, watching kids hanging out of car windows, roasting marshmallows, drinking hot chocolate, and buying quality tacky ornaments at gift shop at the end.”

“Props story: Theft at the holidays! Every year, random props are stolen off the edge of the [Alliance Theatre] stage [during the annual A Christmas Carol production]. Apparently, a few patrons misunderstand what the phrase “our holiday gift to Atlanta” really means. Some folks think it means help yourself to our [stuff].”

The holiday traditions most cited were from the old Rich’s department store.  Some of these traditions have made their way to Lenox Mall, but the spirit of the old downtown lives on mostly in memory. This excerpt from Dear Store: An Affectionate Portrait of Rich’s by Celestine Sibley celebrates a bygone era:

With the passage of the year the exact origin of this Rich’s spectacular has entered the real of legend . . . Many Atlantans will tell you that an obscure little secretary, no longer at the store, suggested it . . . Whatever the origin, every Christmas since 1948 people approaching Atlanta from any direction have seen high on the skyline the shimmering lighted presence of a real Christmas tree [on top of a bridge between building spanning Forsyth street downtown].

It’s September and still hot when Jimmy starts out on the tree hunt, covering the mountains of north Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and sometimes Kentucky.  The search takes three or four weeks, running up to two thousand miles, and when a tree is finally spotted its dimensions are as carefully checked as those of any Miss America.  The tree — The Great Tree, that is — should be at least sixty feet talle (some have been seventy feet).  It should have a spread of thirty-five feet at its base and taper upward symmetrically . . . Youth is as important to a tree as a beauty queen. It should be twenty-five to thirty years old, to have attained the right size, and still retain the resilience which will keep its branches from breaking under a load of lights and ornaments.

Georgia homemakers digging out ornaments for their home trees sometimes read the statistics on the fixings for Rich’s “Great Tree” and take heart. The star, which tops the big tree, is seven feet tall and has to be sent out to be cleaned and refurbished each year.  There are about 285 ornaments the size of basketballs, each of them containing a 60-watt bulb; 2500 twinkle lights; and 2000 five-inch gold ornaments, which reflect the lights. The housewife’s tangle of electric wire somehow seems easy to cope with when she reads that the crew at Rich’s is stringing four miles of electric wire.

“It takes about two nights to make corrections on the ornaments,” says Mr. Rickerson. “We have somebody on the street with a walkie-talkie to look at the tree from every angle and somebody on the roof with another walkie-talkie to relay the directions for changes.”

Arrangements are made with neighborhood businesses to douse their lights for the hour, between 7 and 8 p.m. Thanksgiving night. Even the streetlights and the traffic lights are off for the crucial period of thirty-two minutes. Needless to say, the store lights are off and store employees use flashlights to conduct the singers, the electrical crews, the sound men to their places, and about 125 of Mr. Rich’s special guests, including the mayor and city officials and the governor, to a vantage point on the Budget Store rooftop to see the proceedings.

Down in the street, the crowd has been assembling for hours. Forsyth Street is roped off to vehicular traffic, and people pour into it from all directions, city people and their country cousins, rich people and poor people, the young, the old, crippled people in wheelchairs, blind people clutching their white-painted canes, clinging to the arms of seeing relatives. There are babies in their mothers’ arms and toddlers riding fathers’ shoulders. They jam the street, making it a vast lane of crowded bodies and uplighted faces.

When the story ends and the last choir has sung, a switch is thrown and the big tree, subject of months of planning, hard work and expense, suddenly blazes with light.

“Silent night, holy night,” sing the choirs. And down in the street the crowd takes up the carol: “All is calm, all is bright. . .”

From the big tree a radiance reflects on the faces of children standing below in the darkness and sometimes it makes prisms of tears on the faces of grownups.

Christmas has officially begun in Atlanta.

Why, ask the merchandise majors, would a big store go to so much trouble when there’s nothing for sale?

The answer was a hundred years a-building.