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Authors: Michael J. Lisicky

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Another time, Pixanne remembers accidentally kicking over a thermos full of hot chocolate and spending the next three hours “freezing cold standing in a puddle of sticky beverage!”

Former Gimbels manager Bob Di Benedetto fondly recalls his involvement in the parade but says, “The parade was never anything special except for the pride of it.” When he joined Gimbels in 1961, Di Benedetto remembers the parade as “little carts with little blow-up balloons with strings to pull it.” The parade did modernize, but it took time. Christian Mattie Jr. was the parade director for many years. Mattie would start planning the following year’s parade “before the feathers cleared from the Christmas turkeys.” Di Benedetto remembers Chris Mattie telling him, “[Gimbels] finally let me buy something!” Mattie purchased “Italian Big Heads” from the famed Viareggio Carnival. The costumes were held in a warehouse due to a labor dispute, until finally the city intervened and the costumes were released.
The year 1969 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Thanksgiving Day Parade. The event had over five thousand participants, thirty bands, 110 units and a huge helium balloon in the shape of a birthday cake. The “Sweetheart of the Parade” was Eileen Fulton, the star of CBS’s
As the World Turns

There was another group of Gimbels employees who were hard at work on Thanksgiving. In keeping with Ellis’s wishes, about one thousand underprivileged children ate Thanksgiving breakfast in the Gimbels Restaurant before the parade started. “Employees would pile the children into the restaurant and then load them in buses and take them to the parade site,” says Bob Di Benedetto. It was hard work, but it was passionate work for the “Gimbelites.” Gerry Wilkinson’s grandfather worked in the Gimbels building. “One of the benefits of having a family member employed there was being able to be inside Gimbels on the day of the parade,” says Wilkinson.

Crowds fill Market Street on Thanksgiving Day 1969 as they await the arrival of Santa Claus at the Philadelphia store. Strawbridge & Clothier and Lit Brothers are seen on the left-hand side of the photograph.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

The queen of the Thanksgiving Day Parade makes her way to Gimbels Toyland in Philadelphia.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Originating in 1920, Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade was the country’s oldest and largest Thanksgiving parade.
Both Macy’s and Detroit’s Hudson’s stores did not start their parades until 1924. For decades, the Gimbels parade was broadcast nationally on television networks such as CBS and ABC. Obviously, Gimbels was Santa’s Philadelphia home. Bob Di Benedetto says, “Philadelphians loved the parade because it was a city parade. It helped make Gimbels a part of the fabric of Philly.” Although the Gimbel name is no longer connected to it, the event still continues as a cherished Philadelphia tradition. It is Philadelphia’s official start to the Christmas season. And it’s all thanks to the vision of Ellis Gimbel. In 1969, the
Philadelphia Bulletin
praised Ellis for inventing this event. The paper stated, “It was one of the legacies that this merchant king and prince of Philadelphia left to his adopted city.”


Under the leadership of Horace Saks and later Adam Gimbel, Saks became synonymous with style. The Gimbels’ creativity, innovation, imaginative foresight and steadfast commitment for exclusive luxury merchandise and extraordinary customer experiences made Saks Fifth Avenue what it is today

—Julia Bentley, senior vice-president of Investor Relations and Communications, Saks Incorporated

Bernard Gimbel and Horace Saks were not just competitors; they were friends. They traveled around the world together, they played golf together, they socialized together and they both had luxurious summer homes in the beach town of Elberon, New Jersey. In 1923, their relationship grew even closer as the two men merged their forces and created a whole new level of shopping. It was the culmination of a dream that had begun with Horace’s father, Andrew.

Andrew Saks was born in Virginia in 1848. At the age of fourteen, he moved to Washington, D.C., and worked in a men’s clothing store. Andrew enjoyed retail, and he opened his own men’s store at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, he expanded his business to Richmond, Virginia, and soon afterward opened a location in Indianapolis. However, Andrew eventually realized that his real dream was in New York City. He left his stores in the hands of his brother, Joseph, and relocated to New York.

In 1892, Andrew Saks became a partner in a clothing manufacturing business in Manhattan’s Lower Broadway district. But he missed the daily routine of working in a retail store, and he wanted to operate a store that catered to the more affluent customer. He set his sights on the Thirty-fourth Street area, where many “carriage trade customers” lived in their opulent mansions.

An early view of the Saks & Co. store at New York’s Herald Square. The store was commonly referred to as Saks–Thirty-fourth Street.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Saks & Co. opened its doors at Thirty-fourth Street and Broadway in September 1902. The 240,000-square-foot store was intended to be the “non plus ultra” of specialty stores. Six weeks later, R.H. Macy opened its enormous store directly across the street from Saks. The once quiet area was soon crowded with value-conscious shoppers. Within a few years, Andrew saw his upper-crust customers moving even farther north than Thirty-fourth Street, and he wanted to follow them with his upper-end business. However, Andrew died suddenly in 1912, and the store’s future fell into the hands of his son Horace and his brother Isador.

Horace Saks, the company’s secretary, found the perfect location for a new store on Fifth Avenue, between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets. The neighborhood was home to New York’s wealthier residents, and the spot offered incredible potential. Barbara Gimbel, the widow of Bruce A. Gimbel, credits Horace for this move. Gimbel says, “Horace Saks bought that property before Radio City and Rockefeller Center went in. Horace wanted to move uptown. He was really persistent and actually right, of course. The location was what made Saks so unique.”

The Fifth Avenue real estate was partially occupied by the Democratic Club, which demanded a steep price for its building. In an attempt to avoid purchasing that very expensive property, the Saks family considered constructing a store that would wrap around it, but it was an equally expensive venture. It would also disrupt the proposed store’s frontage on Fifth Avenue. A solution had to be found quickly, as the lease on the Thirty-fourth Street store was running out and the landlord had announced that the rent would be doubled.

One morning in 1923, Bernard Gimbel and Horace Saks boarded a commuter train from their shore homes in Elberon, New Jersey. Horace explained to Bernard his plight with the Fifth Avenue location and the costs involved with the project. The two men left their seats and moved to a baggage car to further discuss the situation. Legend has it that the two men sat on a coffin while they talked. By the time the train reached New York, the two men had negotiated a merger.

Bernard Gimbel announced that he was acquiring Saks & Co. for $8.1 million. Gimbel agreed to purchase the Democratic Club building and take the Thirty-fourth Street store off Saks’ hands. Both families immediately objected to the merger, but after pleading and prodding, the merger was signed. Saks & Co. became part of Gimbel Brothers, but Horace remained as Saks’ president. On April 24, 1923, the merger was announced. Gimbel Brothers declared that all stores would remain open and the Fifth Avenue construction would continue forward.

On September 15, 1924, Saks Fifth Avenue opened its doors to large, curious crowds. It was “a specialty store on a scale never before attempted in the selling of wearing apparel of the finer grade.” The grand opening announcement stated, “[The new Saks store contained] eleven floors laden with wearables from every mart in the world where good merchandise is made. Stocks which speak good style, good taste and good value, at prices undeniably low.”
Saks Fifth Avenue was an immediate success.

Under the ownership of Gimbels, Bernard Gimbel operated the Saks at Thirty-fourth Street and continued to carry “apparel for men, women, and children and kindred lines such as jewelry, leather goods and toilet articles.” Saks–Thirty-fourth Street was still a specialty store. Barbara Gimbel remembers, “It was a little more up market than Gimbels.” It also helped serve as a buffer between Macy’s and Gimbels.

A stately view of the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship store alongside St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Just one year after Saks Fifth Avenue opened, Horace Saks died of septic poisoning. The company brought in Adam Gimbel to run the store. Only thirty-two years old, Adam was the grandson of Adam, founder of Gimbels. Adam’s goal was to “sell luxury on a volume basis.” In 1926, he remodeled the Fifth Avenue store with more modern décor. He followed the store’s customers and opened branch stores in Palm Beach and Miami Beach, Florida; Southampton, New York; Chicago; and countless resort and college towns. He also introduced the luxury world to his wife, Sophie.

Sophie Rossbach Gimbel came to work at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1931. “Sophie of Saks” was charged with bringing haute couture to the store. Although criticized as “the boss’s wife,” Sophie was a top American designer and made her mark by dressing high-society women in custom-made outfits. For decades, Sophie was a well-respected fixture at Saks Fifth Avenue. Barbara Gimbel says, “Sophie Gimbel made beautiful clothes. She had a very solid following of people that wanted couture. Sophie had a lot of clients, a lot of beautifully dressed women that were willing to pay for couture clothes. She was very assertive, very sure of herself and had good reasons to be.”

BOOK: Gimbels Has It!
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