With an electrical crackle and a blinding flash, white-hot beams shot up through the night sky over Akron.
One by one, 12 carbon-arc lights, operated by gasoline-powered generators, switched on in a perfect circle around downtown until their brilliant beacons converged at a point about three miles above the city.
Older Akron residents might have a faint, wispy recollection of ethereal lights illuminating the darkness of Thanksgiving 1966. Be assured that it wasn’t a dream.
“Look in the sky tonight!” the advertisements implored. “Rising up from downtown Akron!”
The Downtown Association of Akron, formed three years earlier “to promote and develop the civic, social and economic welfare of the central business district,” dreamed up “The Tree of Lights,” a holiday display rising three miles into the heavens for four nights.
Led by President Louis F. Fabre, owner of Maderite Tailoring Co., the Downtown Association hailed the glowing exhibition as “the largest, most spectacular Christmas tree anywhere.”
“Look up in the sky tonight,” the group urged. “Then come downtown and see it for yourself. It’s our way of wishing you a truly Merry Christmas!”
Christmas before Thanksgiving?!?!?
To some critics, it seemed that stores were promoting the season a little too early, but times were changing in retail.
Downtown business owners hoped their grand-scale plan would lure shoppers back to Main Street following the mass exodus of customers to shiny, new Summit Mall and Chapel Hill Mall.
One way to attract people was to cast the city in a new light, they reasoned.
The association rented 12 carbon-arc lights from a Cleveland company for use Nov. 23-26. Merchants had wanted to run the display for a whole month, but it was deemed too expensive, so they settled for the traditional start of the holiday season.
“Tree of Light” hours were scheduled from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. The display began on Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving and concluded Saturday night.
Bright lights, big city
The 60-inch lamps, which burned at 3,000 degrees and produced 800 million candlepower, were the kind used at airports. A 3-ton mobile generator was required to operate each spotlight.
“They must be placed in a perfect circle and aimed precisely to meet in a peak,” the Beacon Journal reported. “If there is a cloud cover over Akron, the lights would be adjusted to peak at the level of the clouds.”
A worker was stationed at each unit to maintain the beam, protect public safety and make sure that no wise guys got any bright ideas.
It was a strange sight to behold as bony-white fingers of light pointed toward oblivion. From a distance, the colliding beams did seem to form the shape of a giant conical tree.
Or maybe a giant teepee.
World War II veterans probably had flashbacks to 1940s air raids when similar-looking searchlights swept the skies as a defense against enemy planes.
Hopefully, the 1960s pilots received a warning, because these were really odd beacons.
Television viewers had to be reminded of those crazy shows Star Trek and Batman, which were both new in 1966.
With a little imagination, “The Tree of Lights” looked like a burst of phaser blasts from the USS Enterprise or maybe a dozen Bat-Signals calling for the Caped Crusader.
No wonder that workers were stationed at each light. The temptation to position a bat symbol over a spotlight must have been overwhelming.
Nestled beneath the giant tree were the gifts of downtown Akron.
Department stores O’Neil’s and Polsky’s were the biggest presents, each nicely wrapped, but there were dozens of smaller boxes that looked intriguing, including Alexander’s, Allen’s, Baker’s, Berid’s, Block’s, Bond’s, Byron’s, Carlton’s, Cole’s, Hanover’s, Honadle’s, Koch’s, Kramer’s, Kresge’s, Lang’s, LeRoy’s, Marshall’s, Morey’s, Nobil’s, Richman’s, Temo’s and Woolworth’s.
In 1966 advertisements, the Downtown Association made a strong case for shopping on Main Street:
• “Downtown Akron: Summit County’s largest, most complete shopping center.”
• “Downtown Akron: Bigger choice, better selection, wider variety of prices.”
• “Downtown Akron: Christmas headquarters where holiday windows delight the family.”
• “Downtown Akron: Where we try harder to serve you better.”
White-hot beams burned brightly for four nights before switching off one by one.
“The Tree of Lights” disappeared from the night sky, but it had served its purpose.
Shoppers went downtown to see what the older stores had to offer and discovered, as usual, a beautifully decorated world of tinsel and glitter.
Holiday shopping remained vibrant in the district — at least for a while. In the 1970s, the suburban malls exerted their dominance in the market.
The Downtown Association of Akron operated for 19 more years before folding in 1985. When it shut down, there were at least 50 vacant storefronts on Main Street.
Over the last few decades, downtown Akron has welcomed a slow, steady revival.
If things continue to improve, the city might consider breaking out those spotlights once again.
“The Tree of Lights” doesn’t have to be a flash in the pan.
Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.