Excerpted from The Akron Anthology from Belt Publishing.
By Joanna Wilson
I wasn’t having any of it. My mother brought my older sister and me to Chapel Hill Mall each year to visit with Archie the Talking Snowman. But I wasn’t fooled. Snowmen don’t talk, and I didn’t trust the disembodied voice that floated from above. Not even when my older sister enjoyed talking with Archie. Not even for a piece of candy.
Nearly everybody from Akron knows that Archie is a twenty-foot-tall snowman that stands in the center of Chapel Hill Mall at Christmas-time. He talks to children about their Christmas wishes. Although Archie’s eyes are now blue, when I was a child in the 1970s, his eyes were red and the lights inside his eyes flashed when he spoke. The floor-to-ceiling Christmas attraction made me feel wary even if every other child knew Archie was Santa Claus’ best friend.
Yeah, I wasn’t having any of it.
But tens of thousands of children each year during the 1970s and ‘80s at Chapel Hill Mall were having it, and loving it. Archie is and was Akron’s Christmas celebrity.
Archie looks like your typical three-ball snowman with buttons down his midsection. He wears a scarf and a top hat, and clasps a straw broom in his mittened hand. He is usually surrounded by an elaborate display. The Snow Village — or Archie Land, as people call it — is an arctic vision of pine trees, oversized candy canes, and twinkling lights strung between holiday boughs. Animatronic deer and forest creatures live here, along with Eskimos and their igloos, penguins, smaller snowmen, and elves.
Inside a little cottage in Archie Land, an adult uses a speaker and microphone to talk with children brave enough to step up to the two-story snowman. The person working as the voice of Archie presses a button to light up his eyes as he speaks. This interactive dialogue is Archie’s real charm; it’s what has made him such a fixture in the lives of generations of Akron children.
Even if I didn’t have the fortitude to step up to the wooden platform and speak with Archie when I was a child, I didn’t forget about him, either. When I left town for college in the 1980s, I told my new friends about the giant mall snowman from my hometown. In the ‘90s, “Archie the Talking Snowman” was one of my first image searches on the Internet, in order to verify my childhood memories. Leaving Akron made me realize just how much Archie defined Christmas in my hometown.
It turned out I wasn’t the only one who thought so. In 2011 Tommy Uplinger returned to Akron after living several years in Florida, and was disappointed to find that Chapel Hill Mall had retired Archie in 2004. Looking to change what he thought was a mistake, Tommy started a Facebook group in November 2011 to try to rally his friends to bring the snowman back. Soon after, Tommy enlisted his friend David Burkett to help him revive their favorite local Christmas attraction for their growing families. Ra’ul Umaña, a former mall employee who worked as the voice of Archie and helped to re-install the snowman and his display in the mall’s center court for years, also joined the effort.
What started as a modest campaign, though, clearly struck a nerve: within a few weeks, more than 10,000 people had joined the “Bring Archie Back to Chapel Hill Mall” Facebook group. The earliest discussions in that group included questions about why Chapel Hill Mall had abandoned Archie, where Archie was now, and what could be done to bring Archie back. For some new members, the group was the first news that Archie hadn’t been at the mall in seven years. What everyone in the group shared was a strong memory of the talking snowman and a passion for changing the state of things. People began sharing their childhood memories of Archie, Archie’s importance to their holiday celebrations, and concerns that the next generation of Akron’s children would lack access to a cherished, community holiday tradition. People who had moved away from Akron over the years also found the group, expanding its reach far beyond Akron residents. Hard-to-find photos began surfacing as family after family began uploading old snapshots of children standing in front of the twenty-foot icon during his 36 years of life at the mall.
What happened next surprised everyone. During the first week of December 2011, press releases about the history of Archie the Talking Snowman, his retirement, and the Facebook group of thousands of members went viral. Not only did local journalists pick up the story, but the Associated Press circulated the odd tale about the twenty-foot snowman and his admirers. The story ran around the country.
To the Akronites who wanted to bring Archie back, the snowman was more than just a quirky element of the past that made for an odd news story. Like many Rust Belt cities, Akron had seen decades of decline. Uplinger and his group felt they had endured one too many losses. But here was one piece of Akron culture they thought they could save.
By the middle of 2012, Akron’s then-deputy mayor David Lieberth offered Uplinger and his team the opportunity to rebuild the talking snowman at Lock 3, to be a part of the city’s annual holiday festivities. Umaña, who had carpentry experience and the background in installing Archie at the mall, was enlisted to lead the reconstruction, and he organized dozens of volunteers to create the surrounding display space called “The Archie Encounter.” One year after Tommy’s movement began, Archie the Talking Snowman had returned.
And all was right again for Christmastime in Akron.
I was inspired by the compelling story of Archie’s return, and decided to write a local history book about it. My research led me to discover much more.
Archie the Talking Snowman’s history begins not with his start in 1968 at Chapel Hill Mall but with the start of Christmas attractions developed by downtown retailers as early as the 1910s and ‘20s. Christmas attractions were created by retailers to lure shoppers to their stores for holiday buying. As crass as it sounds, these attractions, when repeated year after year, often grew to become beloved holiday traditions. As Akron’s rubber industry developed during the early part of the twentieth century, the industry’s workers provided a stable flow of cash to the city’s economy. Downtown retailers such as O’Neil’s, Polsky’s, and Yeager’s competed for shoppers’ loyalty, especially during the Christmas boom each year.
In those days, nearly every department store already offered children the opportunity to meet Santa Claus during Christmas. By the 1920s, storefront windows were filled with eye-catching toy displays. In the 1930s the retailers added walk-through attractions to bring shoppers through the doors.
Anchoring the downtown shopping district were the gigantic department stores O’Neil’s and Polsky’s, which faced each other on Main Street for 50 years. The stores’ rivalry peaked each year at Christmastime, when they tried to outdo each other with expressions of holiday splendor. The history of these competitive Christmas displays is dizzying with details of breathtaking sights and what seems like limitless budgets. By mid-century, the competition and escalation in eye-catching holiday attractions between downtown retailers challenged the suburban plaza owners and mall developers to create their own attractions to bring Christmas shoppers to their locations.
To give you an idea of what I mean, here are just a few outstanding examples of the Christmas attractions in Akron over the past one hundred years. In 1917, during World War I, patriotism joined the Christmas spirit at O’Neil’s, where children visited Uncle Sam along with Santa Claus. In 1933, O’Neil’s offered a walk-through zeppelin “ride” to the North Pole. A giant, metal structure allowed children to walk through the aircraft that featured cabin windows through which they could follow the zeppelin’s journey past fairy castles, Eskimo villages, and passing aircraft. Exiting at the other end of the zeppelin, the children arrived at the fairyland of the North Pole, otherwise known as O’Neil’s toy department. In a city long known as a research and manufacturing center for airships like blimps and zeppelins, the walk-through zeppelin must have been a can’t-miss experience.
O’Neil’s followed up that effort in 1934 with Disney-character mechanical figures filling its windows. Inside the store, children were entertained with marionette shows and a Mickey Mouse Castle display.
Holiday-themed puppet shows became so popular that they were staged each year in the storefront windows at both O’Neil’s and Polsky’s during World War II. Celebrity guests appeared, including beauty pageant winners and local TV kiddie show hosts such as Barnaby, Captain Penny, Franz the Toymaker, Miss Barbara from Romper Room, and even the irreverent horror movie host Ghoulardi. Stores began to kick off the holiday shopping season with such fanfare that the arrival of Santa Claus became a spectacle not to be missed. Would you believe that St. Nick arrived downtown by helicopter in 1954, riding a space satellite up Main Street in 1957, driving a Conestoga wagon in 1959, and seated atop a live elephant at Chapel Hill Mall in 1967? Both Polsky’s and O’Neil’s established traditions of Nativity displays to appeal to those interested in the more sacred and reverent sentiments of the holiday season, too.
And Archie the Snowman was not the only talking Christmas attraction in Akron. There were at least six other talking Christmas figures over the decades. Polsky’s department store trotted out Tom the Talking Horse throughout the 1940s. A more traditional Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer replaced him for a few years in the early 1950s, until the very popular Tom made a comeback. Across Main Street, O’Neil’s eventually followed suit in 1965, with a talking Christmas tree. These Christmas characters so solidified their place in Akron tradition that any new mall felt obliged to compete. Chapel Hill Mall opened in 1966, and in 1968 brought Archie to life. Summit Mall offered its own competitor the same year, a talking Christmas tree in its center court. In 1972, O’Neil’s upgraded its talking tree to a more unique giant Raggedy Ann doll.
A few years later, Akron’s third mall, Rolling Acres, created a fifteen-foot-tall talking giant named RA (pronounced “Ray”) as the personification of the mall’s new logo. This weird plethora begs the question–what giant Christmas object were Akron’s children NOT talking with?
All of these talking attractions were brought out for at least several Christmas seasons; Archie, however, lasted the longest. He was a popular feature at Chapel Hill Mall for thirty-six holidays, from 1968-2003. His retirement was due, at least in part, to the mall’s new out-of-state owners’ desire to update by moving away from using an old-fashioned promotion each holiday season.
Another reason for the retirement — and not a small one — was the fact that consumer habits changed between 1968 and the beginning of the 21st century. The rubber industry that fueled downtown retail competition and much of the city’s economy was decimated. Not only had rubber fled, but residents no longer shopped downtown, preferring to spend their money at area plazas and malls. In the 1960s, Yeager’s closed after 55 years of business downtown. O’Neil’s and Polsky’s had ended their elaborate Christmas attractions and shuttered their doors completely by the end of the 1980s. By the 2000s, Christmas attractions were gone from the city because shoppers were buying more and more online, and looking for deep discounts at Black Friday sales rather than seeking entertainment during the holidays. Archie seemed a relic of the past.
Fortunately, like any classic Christmas tale, this one has a happy ending. After two years at Lock 3, Archie was reinstalled at Chapel Hill Mall in 2014, much to the delight of the new mall management company and Akron residents.
Archie the Talking Snowman was and is special because he isn’t concerned with judging naughty or nice but welcomes all for a pleasant conversation. Archie doesn’t usually ask what children want for Christmas — that’s Santa’s job. He’s more concerned with how children feel, the friends and family they are shopping for, and offering them an opportunity to express their holiday joy.
But children aren’t Archie’s biggest fans; rather, it’s the adults who grew up with him as a Christmas tradition who want to share Archie with their own children and grandchildren. Archie’s biggest supporters have been the adults who built him, worked as his voice over the years, and petitioned for his return after he was retired.
Spending time at the mall during the holiday season in 2015 gave me the opportunity to watch as children continue to enact the decades-long tradition of speaking with Archie the Talking Snowman. Even if adults look at Archie and see an imperfectly handmade, dusty snowman that everyone cynically swears was much taller when they were children, I can attest that today’s youth still see Archie with the same excitement and magic that originally drew us all in. Standing next to Archie Land, you can watch youngsters approach the microphone, wide-eyed. Many children are overwhelmed with excitement as they wait in line or rattle off a long list of things they want Archie to tell Santa they want for Christmas. One child I saw this past year stepped up to the microphone and simply screamed. It was a sustained howl that lasted long enough to frighten every shopper and store employee at the one end of the mall – all of us looking around for the person who must be dying. But we all began gently giggling once we laid eyes on the toddler, standing in front of Archie, expressing his Christmas joy at the top of his lungs. On another day at the mall, I overheard Archie respond to a child, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Immediately recognizing the line as a quote from the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, I looked over to see the eight-year-old boy at the microphone laughing and grabbing at his little brother, while a parent nearby also chuckled. Archie continued, “What do you want with a BB gun?” and without hearing the child’s half of the conversation, all the on-lookers were in on the joke too.
Archie continues to be important to me because I see that this story is very much an Akron story. Although internet shopping may have made retail Christmas attractions like Archie seem obsolete, it is also the Internet and the successful use of social media that brought our city’s favorite holiday tradition back to life. Archie is Akron, as we all continue to persevere and redefine ourselves in the ever-changing world while holding traditions close to our hearts. Even if I wasn’t open to Archie as a child, I feel like we’ve grown to be very good friends now.
Excerpted from The Akron Anthology.
Joanna Wilson is the author of The Story of Archie the Talking Snowman & Akron’s History of Christmas Attractions (2015), and the co-author of A is For Akron (2014). She earns her living as a Christmas entertainment writer. In 2010, she wrote Tis the Season TV: The Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials and Made-for-TV Movies, an 800-page reference book with over 3000 listings which earned her national attention. Although she grew up in Cuyahoga Falls, she now lives in Highland Square where she counts herself as one of the area’s many memorable characters.