Original Memphis: Enchanted Forest

story by Vincent Astor

(above photo an elf from the 1980s, courtesy of the Pink Palace Museum)

Goldsmith’s downtown was a wonderful store with numerous departments on several floors. It was also in many ways a labyrinth, the original building having taken over several others including the old Hotel Gayoso. Those who knew the way could come upon the elaborate staircase of the Gayoso. Those who went all the way from Main to Front Street would find several small departments. The bakery was there (excellent cheese cake and cookies), Goldsmith’s Central Ticket office where tickets to live performances of all kinds were sold and Temptation Tunnel (normally used to connect the store with its garage) under Front Street. Sometimes merchandise was sold in there.

Between the bakery and the tunnel was a doorway shut for most of the year. On Thanksgiving, an elaborate decoration surrounded the open doors. The hallway beyond meandered deep into the basement of the old hotel. At the end was The Enchanted Forest.

It was low-ceilinged and far away from the outside world. Its twisted path passed animated creatures, some of which changed each year. There were busy beavers, friendly bears, fairy tale characters, elves of all descriptions and woodland creatures all preparing for Christmas Day. The path wandered until it came to a perennial figure—a young deer perpetually licking a big peppermint stick.

Beyond was Santa Claus (in the flesh) and the Secret Gift Shop with a small door for children who could go in and buy a secret gift unknown to parents. It was truly magical.

The Enchanted Forest has been a Memphis holiday attraction for more than 50 years. The first version of the forest was on display in the Gayoso Hotel on Front Street until the hotel closed in the early 1950’s. George Hettinger, display director for Goldsmith’s came home from World War II with an idea to create a magnificent holiday display. It was then that The Enchanted Forest was born. The event was custom built and set up in various areas throughout Goldsmith’s before finding its permanent home on the west ground floor in the 1960s. At that time, it became a more spectacular exhibit, with larger and more elaborate characters and scenery. Throughout the sixties, the Enchanted Forest made a name for itself with families and tourists labeling it as the holiday event to see.

Goldsmith’s last displayed the Enchanted Forest in 1987 before it was moved to the Pink Palace. The current Enchanted Forest contains many of the original figures and scenes. Above: children at the water mill with fisherman, Dec. 1965 ©Special Collections Department, University Libraries, Univ. of Memphis

Pandas and tin soldier from the early displays, photo courtesy of the Pink Palace Museum

Kids view the steamboat, Nov. 1976, ©Special Collections Department, University Libraries, Univ. of Memphis

In the early 1970s, Barry Hartzog became Goldsmith’s Visual Merchandising Director. He began incorporating new characters every year bringing to life favorite characters from storybooks and movies. Each of the characters was built to be 18-24 inches tall to appeal to children. Hartzog remembers crawling through the Forest on his hands and knees to experience it through the eyes of a child. Olive Gamble, a visual merchandiser with Goldsmith’s, also was a seamstress who made new costumes for the characters to make it appear different each year. She still remembers those years fondly.

Olive worked at Goldsmith’s from 1976 to 1987 and her two favorite displays were the witch from Sleeping Beauty (with a fire made of fabric beneath her) and the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. It was a long-time tradition for people in the Visual Department to stand inside the exhibit and listen to the comments of families as they toured through this magical holiday wonderland. Many of the Santas were off-duty fire fighters. In 1990 Goldsmith’s donated the many collected components of the Enchanted Forest to TWIGS (Together We Initiate Growth and Sharing) who incorporated it into their Festival of Trees event. The holiday tradition then became
the Enchanted Forest-Festival of Trees and continues today to raise funds for LeBonheur Children’s Medical Center. It is now owned by the LeBonheur Foundation and displayed annually at the Pink Palace. Downtown Goldsmith’s closed in 1993.

BTW, the Mr. Bingle character (who had his own small show on Channel 5) was a trademark of the Maison Blanche stores and still makes appearances every holiday season. Locally, he appeared at Lowenstein’s and later at Dillard’s. More about him next year.

Pink Palace Museum
3050 Central Ave, Memphis, TN 38111

Enchanted Forest: November 17 – December 31, 2018 | Monday – Saturday, 9am – 5pm; Sundays noon – 5pm; Fridays 5 – 9pm Admission to the Enchanted Forest does not include regular Museum admission: Adults: $6; Children/Seniors: $5
Other attractions: Festival of Trees, photos with Santa, Gingerbread Village, Model Train and Christmas Village. See the website for full details.