Reach into Milwaukee’s grab bag of Christmas memories. You’ll pull out any number of family stories. But the plum, for the oldest among us, will be the Schuster’s Christmas parade. For Milwaukeeans over the age of perhaps 75, the parade virtually defined the holiday season.
Schuster’s department stores were a Milwaukee mainstay long before the first Christmas floats rolled out in 1927. The chain’s founder was Edward Schuster, a German-Jewish immigrant who settled here in 1882. He opened a dry goods emporium on North 3rd Street (now Martin Luther King Drive) in 1884 and soon added two branches on the North Side.
Albert Friedmann, Schuster’s son-in-law, took over the business when the founder died in 1904 and began a building program that made Schuster’s the premier department store in the region. By 1915, shoppers had their choice of three multi-story establishments: at 3rd and Garfield, 12th and Vliet, and 11th and Mitchell.
In 1927, Friedmann launched the parade that would make his stores synonymous with Christmas. It was a spectacle that has no modern counterparts. For starters, the parade ran on the rails of Milwaukee’s streetcar system. In the early days of November, Schuster’s crews virtually took over the system’s Cold Spring car shops at 40th and McKinley. Using electric flatcars as foundations, they built elaborate floats depicting Cinderella, the Three Little Pigs, Peter Rabbit and other figures of fable and fairy tale. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, they were ready to roll.
The highlight of every parade was, of course, Santa Claus and his amazing float. The sleigh on the old man’s flatcar was tethered to six live reindeer, tended by “a real Alaskan Eskimo” named Me-Tik. For many years, the role was played by Daniel Lupson, a Schuster’s employee and Milwaukee resident whose family had herded reindeer north of Nome for generations.
The Schuster’s parade was decidedly a neighborhood event. Milwaukee’s downtown has always seemed underdeveloped for a city of our size, and one of the key reasons was the success of competing “downtowns” like 3rd and Mitchell. Schuster’s became the area’s largest department store chain without a presence on Wisconsin Avenue. And the parade followed a circuitous, seven-mile route through residential Milwaukee, passing all three Schuster’s locations.
Through the hard times of the 1930s, the anxieties of World War II and the boom of the postwar years, the Schuster’s parade remained the single most popular event of the holiday season.
Attendance at the 1947 spectacle was estimated at 300,000. But the parade’s days on the rails were numbered. Streetcars were an endangered species as early as the 1920s, and buses and cars finally pushed them to extinction after the war. As the rail system was slowly dismembered, the parade’s organizers scrambled to find workable routes. In 1955, they gave up, consigning Santa and his helpers to motorized trucks.
The 1961 parade proved to be the last. Gimbels purchased its venerable competitor the next year and quickly scrapped the event, but the memories that remain are indelible. When longtime Milwaukeeans look back to Christmas past, visions of Schuster’s streetcar spectacle still dance in their heads.
Elf on the Shelf
ALTHOUGH THE PARADE was the main event, a member of the supporting cast became a local legend: Billie the Brownie. In the weeks before Thanksgiving, Santa’s “faithful helper and advance agent” charted his boss’s journey from the North Pole in daily radio reports. Radio was a new medium in the 1920s (Milwaukee got its first station in 1922), and Billie attracted thousands of listeners for decades after his Schuster’s debut.