By Steve Novotney
Her eyes didn’t move from side to side, so you really didn’t know when IT would come.
Sometimes you strolled in front of her with your folks, and other times you jumped suddenly in front of the large display window trying to scare her instead of being the victim (yet again) yourself. I considered it payback when I did it because, from what my mother tells me, the first time she said my name without me telling her, it freaked me out.
“What do you want for Christmas this year?” she would say. “Well I hope all your dreams come true!”
We, as kids, totally agreed with her. We loved her.
No matter what child approached the L.S. Good Co.’s Talking Christmas Tree, that voice said your name usually sooner than later. Somehow, the tree just knew. Every. Single. Time.
“Merry Christmas, (fill in the blank),” she would say. And you would freeze. How did she know your name? It must be magic, right? Christmas magic!
Downtown Wheeling’s Talking Christmas Tree was a fixture in the front window of L.S. Good’s along Market Street from 1965 until 1984. During those days carols were broadcast via utility-pole-positioned speakers throughout the retail district, and several stores and restaurants would sit a Santa down to hear your Christmas wishes.
But not Larry Good. He went a different direction.
“My father realized that he had to come up with something different than Santa Claus because everywhere else was doing Santa Claus,” said Jay Good, son of the late co-owner Larry Good. “My father wanted to do something different than what everyone else was doing. And he loved trees, so a Christmas tree made sense to him, and it worked.
“The number one question I get when people realize I’m related to L.S. Good’s is how she always knew every one’s name,” Good said. “And the second question has been, ‘Whatever happened to the Talking Christmas Tree?’ And, to be honest, not until recently did we have any idea what happened to it.”
She Always Knew Your Name.
It wasn’t just my name. The Talking Christmas Tree knew my brother’s and sister’s name, too. Of course, as children, we didn’t pay attention to a few things. Physics didn’t matter much, and neither did technology. Getting our message to Santa was far more important.
“When I get asked about the Talking Christmas Tree, that topic always comes up first,” Good said. “That seems to mean a lot to the people who have memories of that, but the answer is pretty simple.”
There was a hidden microphone on the exterior of L.S. Good’s Market Street storefront, and the female employee inside the tree could hear the audio and see the people in front of the window. Those workers heard the parents address their children; they heard one or both parents suggest asking for a particular present, and she heard that, too.
The Talking Christmas Tree “voices” were asked to be as interactive as possible, and they were encouraged to use the overheard intelligence. “What do you want for Christmas? How about that G.I. Joe with the Kung-Fu grip you told your mother about?”
“My uncle Sidney did the financial side of the business, and my father concentrated more on the customer side of things, and my father was always looking for ways to make the customer’s experience better than the last time,” Good said. “He also wanted to do something that would make downtown Wheeling even better than it already was.
“I know that with the Talking Christmas Tree, he wanted it to be religious enough, and he wanted it to be something that was very Christmassy. He wanted something unique to Wheeling,” he continued. “He wanted L.S. Good’s to look great because Horne’s, Stone & Thomas, and Kaufman’s all looked great. So he came up with what he came up with, and it became just as popular as Santa Claus.”
L.S. Good Co. was founded in Switzerland by Good’s great-great grandfather. The family then immigrated to the New World and expanded the dry-good business model to the region of America very popular with the Swiss – the Upper Ohio Valley. Initially, according to Good, the operation involved one man and his push-cart, and then success led to the establishment of a permanent store. At one time, L.S. Good Co. owned and operated as many as 30 stores, most of which were located in the Mid-Atlantic Region.
“My father and uncle wanted to offer higher-end dry goods in downtown Wheeling and in the other cities,” Good recalled. “They sold the nicer clothes and dresses, and draperies became a very important product for L.S. Good’s because they were made here and were very popular.
“During those days the downtown had Stone & Thomas, Horne’s, and L.S. Good Co., so Wheeling had that fashion feel to it for a while,” he said. “And then the malls became the next trend, and we saw what they did to the downtown. Downtown was suddenly not the place to be to do your shopping at any time of the year because the consumer could get out of the weather and go store-to-store.”
L.S. Good Co. joined the migration west to Belmont County when the Ohio Valley opened in 1978.
“The store was the original anchor store at the mall, and it was a move that was made that had nothing to do with downtown Wheeling other than the trends changed,” Good continued. “The ‘everything-under-one-roof’ concept caught on around the country, and now we are seeing a new trend take hold with retail developments like The Highlands along the interstate.
“As far as L.S. Good’s moving to the mall, that was a business decision, and for a few years they operated in the downtown and at the mall,” he said. “But my parents’ love for Wheeling continued, and that’s why we have the Good Zoo at Oglebay and the Good Lake at Wheeling Park.”
The Voice of an Angel.
Only females, according to Good, were employed by L.S. Good Co. to perform as the voice of the Talking Christmas Tree. Depending on store hours, two or three young ladies would work shifts. They earned minimum wage, had a one-hour lunch, and were permitted 15-minute breaks whenever it necessary.
“Working that job had nothing to do with the money for me,” said Dawn Dean, who worked as the voice of the Talking Christmas Tree from 1980-1982. “It was more about the gig or the Christmas season in downtown Wheeling. I wanted to be a part of it, so when a former boyfriend of mine who worked there suggested I apply, I did immediately.
“I remember being a young girl when I first visited the Talking Christmas Tree, and I knew what it had meant to me, so to be able to do that for a few years meant very much to me, and it still does,” she said. “And the experience and the memories are something I would not trade for anything in the world.”
Dean enjoys recalling those days and evenings, and she chokes up from time to time when conjuring up the details.
“The one thing I have realized since those days is that the Talking Christmas Tree is a legend of Wheeling,” she said. “We didn’t know it at the time, but as soon as someone realized I was one of the voices, that’s all they want to talk about for the rest of the time.
“At the time L.S. Good’s had the tree in the front window, downtown Wheeling was the center of everything for the entire valley,” Dean said. “So everyone I talk to has a memory or a story to tell about the Talking Christmas Tree.”
Secrecy was part of the process when Dean was employed by L.S. Good’s. There was a way to get into the unit, and a way to get out, and it all was hidden away from the patrons.
“There was a curtain over the exterior, and that curtain hid us getting in and getting out of the tree so the customers didn’t see it taking place,” explained Dean. “And I usually wore black pants and a black turtleneck so it was impossible to see me inside from the front window.
“We had to dress as comfortably as possible because once you were in there, you couldn’t stand up or stretch much,” she recalled. “I remember just concentrating on the people and that usually made the time fly by.”
But it wasn’t as easy as it may have sounded. Each woman inside the tree had to concentrate on several factors: Whom they recognized, whether or not the parents were addressing their children by name, and which passersby should be engaged.
“Wheeling was a lot like it is now as far as everyone knowing everyone, so when the people we know would walk by, we would call out to them,” Dean said. “We always tried to use a person’s name, and we were encouraged to do that by Mr. Good .
“They believed engaging the people as much as possible was the way to go about it, so that’s what we all did whenever we could,” she admitted. “If we didn’t already know their name, we would listen, and the kids or the parents usually told us who they were.”
Some children, however, wanted nothing to do with the animated sapling.
“You would see many different personalities, and it was easy to see the children who didn’t want to be engaged for whatever reasons,” Dean remembered. “They would put their hands up to block their face, and that’s when I would just be very gentle and say, ‘Merry Christmas.’
“Some of the kids would freak out too because the tree would startle them. They would see my mouth move or they would hear their name, and the kids had all kinds of different reactions,” she said. “Some parents had children who would get so drawn in that they wouldn’t leave the window. Some of the parents had to actually pry them away, and they would literally cry because the family had to move on.”
The adults, too, seemed touched by the Talking Christmas Tree, according to Dean.
“I think most people would be surprised to realize how much Christmas spirit was expressed by the parents and by the older members of our community. They seemed very interested in the tree and what the tree would say back to them. They were very engaging,” she said.
“I will always remember one older woman who seemed very touched by the experience, and I remember her because it was a Saturday, and it was snowing,” Dean explained. “She made her way to the front window with a group of people, and then she passed by me.
“But then she came back, and she stood there and watched me engaging people for some time,” she said. “So I waited for an opportunity to say something to her. When I got the chance I said, ‘Merry Christmas, ma’am,’ and she said, ‘Merry Christmas to you … you have the voice of an angel.’ I’ll never forget that. It was a ‘God Incident’ for me.”
Dean was unaware a plan had been orchestrated to recreate the Talking Christmas Tree, so when she was dining in the front window at Centre Market’s Later Alligator and saw it cruise by, it was her turn to be startled.
“I couldn’t believe my own eyes,” she said. “It made all of the memories come rushing back to me. It was hysterical because that’s all I thought about for a long time.
“Everybody with any roots in this valley knows about the Talking Christmas Tree. Everyone has their own memories, and everyone remembers their reactions to it the first time they encountered it,” she said. “Since it came back in last year’s Christmas parade, it’s provoked a lot of those emotions from a lot of people, and it’s been great for me to hear those stories.
“I’m just so happy that the children in the valley today get to experience it because it really is something very special to our city.”
She Speaks Again.
The Talking Tree lives again thanks to the efforts of Wheeling businessman Bill Bryson, Lee Ann Landert, and the Coleman family, and she started visiting with the patrons at Wheeling’s Centre Market on Friday. The Talking Christmas Tree is located in the pavilion area between the north and south market houses, and its electronics have been upgraded for this year.
Once January arrives, Bryson said the tree’s mouth will be replaced with another that is more consistent with the many memories that have been shared since the Talking Christmas Tree was welcomed back during the 2013 Perkins Restaurant Fantasy of Lights Parade.
“I wasn’t prepared for the negative reactions we received about the tree’s mouth,” Bryson said. “When this idea first came up, I thought it was going to be easy to bring it back, but after we started doing our research, we discovered there wasn’t much out there.
“We found nothing on the Internet, so we started asking former employees and media folks to see if they had anything on it, and there was nothing,” he said. “I knew George Creegan was involved, so that’s when my wife and I took a drive to the Steubenville area, but the business had closed. When I asked a few folks about it, I found out George’s daughter was still in the area.”
Once Bryson communicated his intentions, he learned the Creegan family still owned a warehouse with thousands of artifacts from the company’s operations, including several pieces of the Talking Christmas Tree.
“When I made contact with the family, I was more interested in a photo so we could use that to recreate it,” Bryson explained. “But we found those pieces and bought them, and then we commissioned George’s daughter to recreate the tree.
“But the people who said the mouth wasn’t right were correct; the mouth wasn’t right,” he said. “So after this year we’re going to improve the mouth so it appears more like what people remember.”
The idea to return the Talking Christmas Tree to the Friendly City was not Bryson’s idea though. Instead it was a notion mentioned during Landert’s Thanksgiving dinner with family members.
“We were just discussing how downtown Wheeling used to be during the Christmas season, and one of my brothers suggested that bringing the Talking Christmas Tree would be a great idea,” said Landert, who has served as the creative director for Wheeling parade the past five years. “I called Bill and told him about the idea, and now a new generation of children get to enjoy it again.”
Once Bryson knew the tree would reappear, the conversation about what to do with it began. Bryson concentrated on two locations – Oglebay Resort and Coleman’s Fish Market in Centre Market.
“I thought either location would work because of the Festival of Lights and because when someone from Wheeling comes home, they go to Coleman’s for their fish sandwich,” he said. “When I pitched it to the Coleman family, they loved the idea.
“I may own it, but I have told the Coleman family that she is theirs as long as they want it,” Bryson said. “They do a great job, and Jody Carder is phenomenal when she works it. From what I am hearing, a lot of parents and grandparents have started taking their children to see it.”
Even Jay Good, one of five children of Larry and Barbara Good, has visited the Talking Christmas Tree. He was 10 years old when his father and uncle renovated L.S. Good’s downtown location to include the wide, “air-door” entrance, broader windows, and the Talking Christmas Tree.
“I’m sure the Talking Christmas Tree paid for itself over the years, but that was impossible for my father and my uncle to measure,” Good explained. “And once it was the talk of the town, I doubt they cared because they knew that they had created something special for downtown Wheeling.
“They wanted something that was going to get people to go inside the store, and they wanted something that would mesmerize the children, and that’s what my father told the people from Creegan & Crow,” he said. “And it became a family tradition, and hopefully it becomes that again at Centre Market. Our family is very appreciative that Joe Coleman and Bill Bryson thought enough of it to bring her back.”