Time Machine

Time Machine: Killian's talking Christmas tree was a holiday tradition in Cedar Rapids for decades

Store employee stood inside 'Mary Christmas' and chatted with children

Killian's department store in Cedar Rapids, happy with the success of its Talking Chrismas Tree at Lindale, had another
Killian’s department store in Cedar Rapids, happy with the success of its Talking Chrismas Tree at Lindale, had another tree made in 1971 for its Mall Shopping Center (later Sycamore Mall) in Iowa City. (Quad-City Times clipping from De. 23, 1971)
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The Killian Co. department store was a fixture in downtown Cedar Rapids from the time it opened in 1911 until it closed in 1982.

Killian’s first Christmas in the city culminated Dec. 27 when the store emptied its toy department onto its Third Street SE sidewalk. At a signal, waiting children scrambled to grab as many toys as they could carry.

The next year, Killian’s started a Santa Claus Club. To join, children had to promise to give a gift to “someone poorer and less fortunate than yourself.”

In 1953, Killian’s built marquees over both the Third Avenue and Second Street sides of the store and placed Santa and his reindeer atop both.

In addition, the store’s display staff created 10 scenes of the Christmas story from the Bible in the store windows, keeping the lights on until after midnight from Dec. 21 to 24.

The windows contained Christmas displays each year after that, adding a puppet show in the big corner window in the 1960s.

The talking Christmas tree

In September 1960, Killian’s opened a store in the new Lindale Plaza (later Lindale Mall). Six years later, it added a Christmas attraction to that store — a nearly 10-foot-tall talking Christmas tree.

The tree, 4 feet wide at its base, was custom built by a New York company for the Lindale store. A similar tree had been set up in 1965 in Long Beach, Calif., but the Lindale tree was one of the first talking trees in the nation.

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The store chose employee Delores Colton to become the voice of its Christmas tree. Colton would enter the back of the tree and sit inside. She was able to view the children and their families as they approached.

The store explained the attraction in ads: “Of course, sometimes a busy Talking Christmas Tree gets very sleepy and has to take a nap, just as you do. But most of the time, the Tree will be wide awake and very happy that you had time to stop for a chat.”

The Talking Tree always had a female voice. When Colton was unavailable, another female employee filled in.

In 1970, the store advertised in The Gazette classifieds for a “Lady for Lindale Talking Christmas Tree. Must enjoy working with children.”

The Talking Christmas Tree found a name in 1975 — Mary Christmas, of course — and a magical way to be in two places at once — at the Lindale store and at the Mall Shopping Center on Sycamore Street (later Sycamore Mall) in Iowa City.

Mary Christmas moved to Killian’s downtown store in 1981 when Killian’s sold its Lindale and Iowa City stores to Petersen Harned Von Maur.

Moving around

The downtown Killian’s closed its doors Sept. 2, 1982, and the Talking Tree found its way to an Anamosa department store, Breon’s Fashions, owned by Dale Breon, who bought the tree that year at an auction of Killian fixtures and displays.

Breon set it up intermittently at his stores in Anamosa and Monticello. When he opened a women’s clothing store in 1987 in the Armstrong Center in downtown Cedar Rapids, he moved the Talking Tree to the skywalk outside the new store.

Breon told The Gazette he’d told Irene Konecny, the Armstrong Building’s leasing manager, that “she would have to come up with someone to man the tree. We are looking for volunteers, particularly those who might have worked at Killian’s.”

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“The children get a real kick out of the tree. You should see their eyes light up when the tree talks to them.”

Breon’s moved to Coventry Gardens Mall at 215 First Ave. SE in 1996, and Mary Christmas moved, too. The store closed in 1999 with Dale Breon’s retirement.

Where Mary Christmas, the Talking Tree, went from there is unknown. Perhaps the North Pole?

Comments: d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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