This time of year, one of the things I wistfully look back upon is the Christmas party my father's company threw each December for employees' children.
Rochester Gas & Electric, a regional utility provider that has a large presence in upstate New York, has a profit motive, just like any other corporation. But back then, it wore a friendly face before a child, evident as soon as one walked through the door and encountered Andy at his candy and sundries counter.
We weren't always treated to a piece of candy – we generally came to pick up my father just before dinnertime on days Mom kept the car – but we knew and liked Andy, who always had a word or wave for us.
Always interesting were the sales displays – not stark and sterile rows of appliances, but settings that seemed straight from someone's home – laundry nooks and kitchens with stocked refrigerators, where meals would occasionally be cooked in demonstration ovens.
But the most exciting reason to visit RG&E came in December each year – the Christmas party.
My recollection is that they were big, glittering affairs in ornate auditoriums teeming with hundreds of children. Thunderous applause greeted cartoons projected on a large screen, live entertainment, and refreshments. A few words from company executives were endured with generally polite fidgeting and something close to – but not quite – silence.
The coup de grâce came with the walk out from the foyer onto snowy downtown streets, as grown men and women playing elves handed each child a gift. These were not token trinkets, but treasures to carry home and enjoy for years.
All these memories were affirmed when I found and purchased a few copies of old company magazines on eBay. The Christmas 1963 edition carried the usual corporate tidings: "Safety Equipment Prevents Injuries," "Subway and Street Lighting," and "Sixth-Graders Purchase Company Stock."
The issue also offered its regular page of recipes for the home and news from various departments, including my father's in customer accounting.
An opening statement from the chairman of the board on the tragic loss of John F. Kennedy the previous month cast a sobering shadow over it all, but there had been a children's Christmas party. I devoured a capsule summary, full of details:
"More than 1,800 children, accompanied by their parents, were on hand this year for the Children's Christmas party, which was held at the RKO Palace on Saturday, December 14th."
Eighteen hundred! "During the refreshment break the youngsters (and their parents) consumed some 3,200 [ice cream] cups, which were distributed with the precision of a carefully planned military maneuver."
The event had by then outgrown two previous venues: the company's auditorium, where the first parties were held right after World War II, and a city civic center. The richly ornate Georgian-style RKO Palace, a "knockout of a theater," replete with crystal chandeliers, enormous mirrors, elaborate plasterwork, a Wurlitzer organ, and deep velvety seats, was an inspired choice for a bigger space – it seemed designed for Christmas parties.
The entertainment that year included the requisite cartoons; a "sparkling stage show," featuring a local dance company; music by the RG&E's own "Utilitones"; and, of course, "the arrival of an old gentleman with a long white beard."
All were met with "wild enthusiasm" from the masses, according to the article. And then "the master of ceremonies introduced several executives of the Company." But those keenly anticipated gifts were only minutes away. The girls were handed large stuffed dogs and the boys, a toy truck or model auto kit.
If the tradition survives, those long, snaking gift lines are surely no longer gender-separate. (There were years when I ached to cross the foyer for a piece of sports equipment in lieu of an admittedly lovely doll.)
Nor can the company invite children into the grandeur of the RKO Palace. Its profits dwindled in the '60s and the building was demolished for parking space in 1965.
Even so, I wonder if RG&E treats the children of today's employees in equivalent grand fashion. And if it realizes what goodwill and rich memories the parties and those brightly lighted appliance displays – along with a smiling fellow behind a candy counter – generated for a generation of sons and daughters.