Saturday, June 12, 2021

‘Downtown, where all the lights are bright’

| February 21, 2021 12:00 AM

When I was little, before my mother started driving and before she returned to work, she would occasionally take me downtown to see a matinee or go with her to get her hair done at the beauty academy. Between the flips and beehives hairstyles of the ’60s, being professionally coiffed was the way to go — the ’do would last for a solid week.

We lived in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, so we rode the city bus. It was about a six-block walk to the bus stop from our house where we’d wait for the right bus. It took the better part of an hour to make the 6 ½ mile trip, but we would be taken to the heart of downtown Columbus and dropped off right in front of the six-story flagship Lazarus department store — a place that will live in my memory forever.

The enormous air curtain storefront breathed down on you as you entered; the lavish makeup, perfume and candy counters were front and center; the elevators were manned by uniformed attendants; and the sprawling Colonial Room restaurant pulsed with clinking plates, cups and silverware. For a little kid from the suburbs it was Mecca.

I loved the escalators. What kid can resist climbing up the down? My fishnet stockings once got caught in the side of the escalator and began unraveling before our eyes as my mother called for help. I suppose if no one had come, they would have just been swallowed up.

Once when I was very young, I got lost in Lazarus. Mom loved to tell the story of how she frantically searched for me, asking all the employees if they’d seen me. I was found sitting contentedly on the floor of the sixth floor folding clothes.

When I was older, I was allowed to ride the bus downtown with my girlfriends — a pretty big privilege. We felt quite independent roaming in and out of the big department stores and up High Street to the Lincoln-Leveque Tower to ride the tallest elevator in town just to look out the windows at the people and cars far below. Built in 1927, the art deco skyscraper is still there. At 47 stories, it was the tallest building in Columbus until 1974, and it’s now the second tallest. The Palace Theatre was on street level and I would catch a matinee there from time to time with Mom. I remember seeing “Babes in Toyland” at Christmastime, but when I was a little older, we’d take in the James Bond films, which Mom loved. She’d often pass me a tiny Sen-Sen licorice breath mint from her purse in the dark; I thought them sophisticated.

Back in the day, Lazarus, which occupied four city blocks, would put up an amazing Christmas window display that wrapped all the way around the corner of the building. A ramp was erected in front of the plate glass windows so kids could walk along in awe of all the moving, mechanical puppets while Christmas music piped out on the city streets. It was magical.

As a teenager, I ushered (so I could see shows for free) at the palatial Ohio Theatre downtown right across from the Capitol building. Its Spanish Baroque architecture is decked in red velvet drapes and seats, gilded arches, a mezzanine, balcony and opera boxes, and an enormous, stunning crystal chandelier. Built in 1928, the grand dame was saved from demolition in 1969 and completely restored. I saw everything from Broadway shows to Ravi Shankar and Segovia there. The acoustics are fabulous.

Now that I think of it, it was all pretty uptown for a girl from the ’burbs.

Community Editor Carol Marino can be reached at