Revisiting Christmas 1957: A vicarious trip via Atlanta History Center
By Guest Columnist BO HIERS, who recently “semi-retired” from a 35-year career in the reinsurance industry and is a recently minted Atlanta History Center volunteer
Close your eyes and step back in time with me. Imagine an Atlanta without the Falcons, Braves and Hawks. The glitzy Mercedes Benz Stadium and SunTrust Park are nowhere to be found. Think of our town without the Peachtree Plaza, Atlantic Station, IBM Tower and all the other tall buildings that dominate the landscape of Downtown Atlanta and Midtown. We’re in full imagination mode now, so let’s keep going.
Traffic is a breeze in this era, thanks entirely to a drastically smaller metro area population, roughly 85 percent less than it is today. Fewer people meant fewer cars on the road. Speaking of roads, there is no daily backup at the top end of I-285, or, for that matter, the bottom end of Ga. 400. I’m sure you’ve already guessed why – we’ve stepped so far back in time that there is no Ga. 400 or I-285.
We’ve traveled all the way back to Christmas Eve in Atlanta, 1957-style, and somehow we pulled it off without firing up the flux-capacitor DeLorean time machine. There’s no way we can fully grasp what Atlanta was like six decades ago without professional help from our friends at the Kenan Research Center, located on the beautiful 33-acre campus of the Atlanta History Center.
Thanks to these kind folks, I was able to locate the microfilm version of the Dec. 24 Christmas Eve edition of The Atlanta Journal. But before we dive into the Journal, let’s take a quick refresher course on 1957 Atlanta.
Democrat Marvin Griffin was the Georgia governor in 1957. Griffin was a one-term governor, serving from 1955 to 1959. By the way, the Governor’s Mansion was located in Ansley Park at the time, in the former home of Edwin P. Ansley, a rail and real estate magnate. A total of 11 Georgia governors were able to call the Ansley Park mansion home. The new Governor’s Mansion on West Paces Ferry would not make its debut until Jan. 1, 1968.
The legendary William B. Hartsfield was Atlanta’s mayor. The Democratic mayor actually served two stints as Atlanta’s mayor: 1937-‘41, and again from 1942-‘62. Heck, if you serve as mayor that long, all the while performing good deeds while being a pro-business visionary, you’re liable to have the world’s busiest airport named after you!
Of course, there was no Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 1957. Instead, we had Atlanta Municipal Airport. The very first commercial jet landed at Atlanta’s municipal airport on May 13, 1957. The jet was a French Caravelle. The flight originated from Washington D.C. Total trip time was 78 minutes, about twice as fast as a prop plane. The special flight was sponsored by Delta Airlines. Raise your hand high if you think the passengers received more than a bag of peanuts and a small plastic cup of Coke.
Lake Lanier Dam was officially christened in October 1957. The lake was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Chattahoochee River for the purpose of flood control, water supplies and future wild and crazy parties on Cocktail Cove. Okay, I made that last part up.
Having survived the Great Depression and World War II, the country was generally in a very optimistic mood in 1957. Although not everyone was prospering, Atlanta was generally bursting at the seams with new growth. Many families were proudly moving into new homes in new subdivisions, and many were driving new cars. Think Happy Days and Richie Cunningham, and you get the picture.
Personally, I was 3 ½ years old, living large and anxiously awaiting Santa’s arrival on Wayland Circle in Brookhaven. My parents moved to Brookhaven from the University Apartments in Decatur. My Dad actually was so excited about the house that he told the real estate agent he was buying the home before he even walked in the front door.
It was around that time that I managed to fly out of my mom’s used DeSoto four-door sedan onto Briarwood Drive. I’m guessing the DeSoto was traveling at about 30 miles per hour. The last thing I remember my mom saying was to “Sit down and quit playing with the door handle!” In my defense, there were NO SEATBELTS in the back seat.
Hold it! I do have one more DeSoto story, if that’s okay. This wasn’t anywhere near a newer model DeSoto. No sir, this was a 1946 model that my mother somehow managed to get wedged onto a curb on Dresden Drive one afternoon. My father said it was a really tall curb, so there it stayed for about a week, with the back end of the DeSoto sticking out onto Dresden Drive. Those were simpler times, folks.
Lenox Square was still about two years away in 1957, meaning most folks headed Downtown to shop at either of the two large competing department stores – Rich’s and Davison’s. I remember several trips downtown to ride the Pink Pig at Rich’s, one of the all-time terrific traditions in Atlanta history. Live reindeers, sporting red and green harnesses and Christmas bells, could be viewed during the ride. I also remember every rider receiving a satin ribbon acknowledging you actually rode the Pink Pig, and a candy cane.
The year 1957 was a banner year for classic movies, with the likes of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Old Yeller, An Affair to Remember, 12 Angry Men, and The Three Faces of Eve all making their debut. Top television shows included Gunsmoke, Dragnet, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett, The Ed Sullivan Show and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
The top billboard hits during Christmas Week included April Love, by Pat Boone, Chances Are, by Johnny Mathis, You Send Me, by Sam Cooke, Wake Up Little Susie, by the Everly Brothers and Jailhouse Rock by some guy named Elvis.
Now that we’re somewhat caught up on Atlanta in the Fifties, let’s take a quick review of the Dec. 24, 1957 issue of The Atlanta Journal. Believe me, it won’t take long – the Christmas Eve issue was a scant 20 pages, and almost completely devoid of advertisements. But, hey, what can we expect when the cost of the paper was only a nickel, or $6.50 for three months?
The front page of The Atlanta Journal’s Christmas Eve edition was a balanced mix of potentially scary news, hard news, and two truly uplifting news stories. The Cold War was very much a frightening part of 1957, as evidenced by a story about President Dwight Eisenhower’s growing frustration with Moscow not making an effort to, “reduce world tensions.” Ike went on to say that he was looking for true, “deeds, not words,” from Moscow.
The hard news story dealt with a “sick strike” by conductors and ticket-takers working for the Long Island Railroad. The strike impacted thousands of New York commuters. The strikers were upset over holiday train schedules. “Hey! Wait a minute! You want me to work a full-shift on Christmas?!”
The two front page, feel good articles were truly uplifting. A Christmas wish came through for 10-year-old Holly Dickinson of College Park. Holly’s open-heart surgery to fix a hole in her heart, “the size of a half-dollar,” was 100 percent successful. Even though Holly would spend the holidays at St. Joseph’s Infirmary, it didn’t matter one bit to Holly, who said it best: “That doesn’t matter because it worked.”
A total of 28 dogs at the Fulton County Dog Pound fared equally as well. As the deadline approached, officials feared the worst for the remaining dogs at the pound. Generous last-minute donations from several benefactors saved the dogs from the gas chamber. Can I get a Hallelujah?
A regular front-page feature of yesteryear’s Atlanta Journal was Street Scenes, an eyewitness account of various things seen and heard throughout the city. In what had to be one of the top Street Scenes of the entire year, a gentlemen, who was clearly struggling to survive the night-before party, said, “This may the shortest day of the year, but it has been the longest morning.”
More national news stories were featured on the next few pages of the Christmas Eve edition. The one truly noteworthy story dealt with the U.S. government bringing charges against James R. Hoffa and two other defendants in a wiretap conspiracy.
Hoffa and the two co-defendants were charged with wiretapping teamsters union offices in Detroit to “eavesdrop on subordinates who might have been called upon to testify before investigating groups.” Hoffa went on to become president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, but also continued to run afoul of the law, resulting in jail time.
Hoffa also clearly irritated one person too many. Let’s just say Hoffa had a rotten 1975, and go ahead and cue Robert Stack and his creepy but popular television show Unsolved Mysteries.
Who knew there was a Burned and Mutilated Division of the U. S. Treasury? An article by Martha Roundtree described how, “several highly-skilled women who are true geniuses working with only pins, needles, lights and magnifying glasses,” are often able to restore paper money as close to its original value as possible. Full value of the money was created when you could restore three-fifths of the whole bill.
The article featured a story about a woman in Baltimore who, “trusted $800 to the ash box of her cook stove.” I bet you can guess what happened. Her life savings “were reduced to char” when she casually lit the stove the next day. On a wing and a prayer, she took the remains to the Treasury Department. Miraculously, the talented women in the Burn and Mutilated Division were able to piece together the bills and fully refund the lucky woman’s life savings!
On the local front, The Atlanta Journal ran a story with the title, The Bloomingest Tree in Town. The honor went to Mrs. C.L. Dilcher of 3150 Verdun Road. Mrs. Dilcher had taken up the habit of collecting unique tree ornaments for the past 27 years. Her showcase 1957 Christmas tree was 12 feet high and, “was displayed to all who drove or walked by as the tree stood proudly in front of a huge picture window.”
While very proud of her tree, Mrs. Dilcher did have one observation to share with the readers: “It’s funny about getting the tree up and down. Everybody wants to help put it up, but NOBODY wants to help take it down!”
Yet another feel good story featured college students from Georgia Tech, Emory University, Agnes Scott College, Ogelthorpe University, and Georgia State College of Business Administration banding together to hang, “gaily colored ornaments and strings of glowing lights on 40 Christmas trees placed throughout Grady Memorial Hospital. In the Children’s Wards, the young patients looked on with wonder as the tall green trees blossomed forth into glittering emblems of the holiday season.” Best of all, after the decorations were hung, the students gave the children a huge Christmas party. Can I get a second Hallelujah?
Another regular feature of the 1957 Atlanta Journal was Olin Miller’s Dixie Dew Drops, a compilation of wild and crazy stories that drifted across the news wires. In other words, these were stories you simply couldn’t make up. My guess is the Dec. 24th edition had a Top Ten offering for the entire year: “Some men have a streak of cowardice – A Wisconsin man charged with deserting his wife told the court he did it because she had fallen into the habit of shooting at him sometimes.”
I’m not sure why, but television listings from decades ago fascinate me. There truly were only three television stations in Atlanta in 1957, and I know for a fact there was no such thing as a remote control in the Hiers’ household, much less HBO, Netflix or Hulu. As mentioned earlier, these truly were simpler, less complicated times.
Channel 2’s lineup included Amos n’ Andy, Eddie Fischer, and Christmas Eve with Dave Garroway. Channel 5 had arguably the top lineup with Name That Tune, Sgt. Bilko, To Tell the Truth, Red Skelton and Studio 57. Channel 11 went all in with Westerns – Kit Carson, Sugarfoot, Wyatt Earp and Broken Arrow. Trivia tip: Dave Garroway was the founding host of The Today Show.
The Downtown movie theatres offered a wide variety of choices. The Roxy was showing Around the World in Eighty Days. The Fox was featuring a Jerry Lewis movie, Sad Sack. Loew’s was showing Legend of the Lost, starring true legends John Wayne and Sophia Loren. Your best option, though, might have been to wait until Christmas afternoon to see the debut of Old Yeller at the Rialto. Here’s hoping The Rialto offered enough extra tissues to go around for Old Yeller.
I’m equally as fascinated by the sports sections of long ago in the Atlanta newspapers. Sports writer Norm Carlson’s Christmas Eve feature article dealt with Georgia’s Best Male and Female Athletes of 1957. The winners were Frances King, by far the greatest trap-shooting expert of the decade, and Georgia Tech’s Buddy Blemeker, a two-sport star in baseball and basketball.
King’s impressive victories in 1957 included the ladies’ high gun trophies at the Tennessee, Mississippi and South Carolina state shoots. She was one of two women to ever compete in the men’s division of the Grand American Tournament.
Not only did Buddy Blemeker earn the starting point guard position on the Yellow Jackets basketball team, but Blemeker was also the star pitcher on the Jackets 1957 Southeastern Conference baseball championship team, posting a perfect 9-0 record. That’s right, everyone. The Yellow Jackets were actually in the SEC until the mid-‘60s, when apparently they had massive brain freeze and decided to leave the conference (this coming from a Georgia Tech football season-ticket holder).
It was interesting to see the front page of the sports section feature stories on sport fishing on St. Catherine’s Sound, as well as an article on Atlanta’s first Junior Christmas Bowling Tournament. Keep in mind, though, Atlanta was not a professional sports town in 1957. This meant we were far less angry because they were no Braves, Falcons or Hawks to break our hearts and agonize over.
The Christmas Eve edition did feature several notices from local churches about Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. For instance, St. Luke’s Episcopal at 435 Peachtree St. was offering a Christmas Eve service at 10:00 p.m. entitled, Festival of Carols. The Rev. Wilson Sneed was presiding. No worries if you could not make it in person. The service was to be broadcast over radio station WAGA, on both AM and FM frequencies.
I sure wish I knew how things turned out for 10-year old Holly Dickinson, and the 28 lucky dogs at the Atlanta Pound during Christmas Week. We can only hope Holly had many healthy days ahead of her with her fully healed heart, and that all 28 dogs found a happy home to live out their days. I also hope that the angry housewife in Wisconsin never took shooting lessons from Mrs. Frances King. Otherwise, her unlucky husband might have been facing far worse than desertion charges.
I can think of no better way to wrap up this article than by sharing the words from Rich’s full page Christmas Eve advertisement for the readers of The Atlanta Journal:
- “The new-born Christmas day is nearing … lights soon will stream through stain-glass windows, shedding a glory around the season and the people gathered there. Voices lift in song and story to the star that shone brightly on that night so long ago. May the lights of Christmas shine on you and yours this Christmas Day.”
Happy Holidays, everyone!