By Gary Nosacek, Milwaukee Freelance Writer
"It was a creepy, scary old mall. There were guys removing asbestos in catacomb like rooms and there was plastic hanging everywhere. Then we just munched those buildings."
That's how Marty Worden remembers Capitol Court. Marty was the engineer in charge of destroying the grand old mall and replacing it with The MidTownCenter. That might be the way he saw it, but if you grew up on the northwest side of Milwaukee in the 60s and early 70s, your memories of Capitol Court are vastly different!
First it should be pointed out that Capitol Court was not a mall like the wimpy spoiled kids of today hang out in. It had no roof. If you wanted to go there, you'd have to brave whatever weather the day had to throw at you. It didn't seem to matter; the place was always filled with people.
It's s bit strange to think of it today, but the fall and winter were actually the favorite seasons for people with Capitol Court memories. The fall brought us Halloween. Every year the merchants from Chapman's on the south end, all the way to Keller's Liquor Store on the north end, would hold painting contests. People who registered in advance were allowed to create wonderful monster masterpieces on the store windows. In the days before Freddie and Jason, these paintings were mostly cartoon versions of Frankenstein and Dracula. People would show up early on Saturday morning and wander all day so they could watch the junior artists as they worked. On Sunday everybody came back to enjoy the little ghoul gallery that was created. It was silent and a bit creepy because Capitol Court was closed on Sundays back then, which only added to the fun. A few days after Halloween, the window washers came and all that was left were paint streaks on the sidewalks.
The day after Thanksgiving giant wooden candy canes appeared. They were x-shaped and stood on white boxes that looked like toy blocks. Early in the 60s, Santa Claus could be visited at both Penney's and Gimbel's. Having more than one Santa became a bit confusing, so Capitol Court solved that by creating the legendary Kookie Cookie House. The Kookie Cookie House was an actual wooden house that looked like a North Pole toy factory. The windows had little displays built into them, so you couldn't see in. Some days visitors had to wait in long lines, while on other days you could walk right in. Either way, a visit to the Kookie Cookie House was worth it.
If memory serves, the first thing you saw upon entering was a metal robot who was working levers. He was the brains behind the operation. Next you would come to little gingerbread men stirring dough. They were small, rubbery creatures with aprons and chef hats. Then there was a conveyor belt with sheets of dough that were stamped into gingerbread man shapes. The process ended with toy Tonka trucks leaving the factory on a small moving road, bringing the cookies to Capitol Court. And how did they come to into the hands of good little girls and boys? Santa was sitting on a throne at the end of the house, and he gave them to us! I can still taste those cookies.
In the early days, The Kookie Cookie House was put up near Hagensick’s Playroom toy store. That added to the excitement, because you could go to the store and see what you wanted for Christmas before you talked to Santa. Later it was moved to the Chapman's end of the mall. That wasn't quite as cool. I remember going just for the cookies and then going home. There were only big people stores around it. Who wanted to go into those? In the late 70s when Capitol Court finally put a roof on, The Kookie Cookie House didn’t seem to fit the new environment. A house inside a house didn't seem right. It was replaced with a typical mall Santa sitting on a chair selling photos of him and you. The House is now owned by WKTI producer Gino Salomone who says it's in pretty bad shape. He has no current plans to do anything with it.
But if Fall and Winter were great fun at Capitol Court, the Spring and Summer had special memories too. Shortly before Easter, a giant wooden egg with oval side windows would suddenly appear. Inside were eggs that eventually hatched into chickies and duckies. A giant Easter bunny was available to visit, who handed out neat coloring books. Later, a petting zoo of farm animals was added. I still remember the TV commercial. It had still cartoon drawings of the animals and Jack DuBlon, the guy who did Albert The Alley Cat's voice for Channel 6, saying things like " I'm a little lamb. I'm a real live rooster. You can see us at Capitol Court!" The Summer brought us monkeys! Capitol Court had a small cage put up directly across from Gimbel's. At first it there were just two monkeys, but after a few summers it was announced that the mommy monkey was having a baby. They held a contest to name the baby. I suggested "Cappy.' Being ten I was sure I was brilliant and I would win. The winner suggested ' Court Jester.' Dumb name. I still think Cappy was better.
One note about monkeys. The cage usually had a sign that said, ' Don't feed them.' I never listened to that. I always gave them peanuts. One day the daddy monkey was in a bad mood and hauled off and clawed me when I gave him a peanut. I still have a scar on my thumb. That's the day I learned, " Don't feed them" meant don't feed them. Since then I have stayed away from monkeys and kept my peanuts to myself.
The summer also meant Kiddie Land would open! Kiddie Land was a very small amusement park that sat on the north end of the parking lot. It had a train that ran along the edge of the park. I also remember a lady bug roller coaster and small helicopters that you could make go up and down with a control bar. If you were a bigger kid, Kiddie Land had a Tilt o Whirl. Little kids were scared to ride it.
Kiddie Land opened right after school let out for the summer. It would have you bring your report card in and you'd get a free ride ticket for every “A”. Johnson Cookies also did a promotion. For every label you brought in you'd get a ticket. After being replaced by a miniature golf course in the '70s, Kiddie Land's domain was ultimately replaced by an automated 24 hour Post Office. I used it once. It wasn't much fun. I missed the helicopters!
CAPITOL COURT MEMORIES: THE STORES
It may comes as a surprise to the ‘mall rats’ of today, but most people don’t really think about the stores when they’re asked for Capitol Court memories. The Halloween window painting, The Kookie House and the monkeys always come up first. You practically have to remind them that there were stores there .Then, you’ll get something like, “Oh, yeah, I liked xyz.” Here’s a few xys that The Garage fondly recalls.
Playroom: Today, two aisles at Toys R Us are bigger than this whole store was, but for kids in the 60s, nobody had cooler toys . Playroom had all the great army sets, like Fort Apache and Zorro ( I still have both in my basement). There was a big glass case filled with Matchbox Cars. Later Hot Wheels were added. In the mid 60s the store went crazy when G.I Joe hit the scene. You could get all 4, Army, Air Force, Marine and Navy. Then, all the equipment packs arrived! (Yeah, still got them in the basement too.)
Hobby Horse: When you got a bit older, your loyalty switched to Hobby Horse. Before computer games and internet chats, most boys were into model building. Some were car freaks, others were model plane guys. You could also get train sets and HO gauge soldiers there. The soldiers were my passion. Hobby Horse was also my LAST Capitol Court memory. Years after moving from the neighborhood, one of my kid’s teachers saw our last name and remembered us from the old days. It turned out that her dad owned Hobby Horse. At this time, Capitol Court was being torn down, so I went to the demolition crew and talked them into giving me a piece of rubble from somewhere around the Hobby Horse site. On the last day of school, I gave it to her with a note about what it was. You would have thought I gave her gold! Her husband got transferred that summer, and she didn’t come back. I was very glad that I pulled that off.
Woolworth’s: This is the only store I’ve ever been in that nobody knew its real name! Everybody just called it “The Dime Sore.” In the “space age” of the 60s, this store was a real throwback to small town Wisconsin. It had birds, turtles and fish in one aisle, toys in another, and sewing materials next to that. It even had the Woolworth’s Luncheonette. There was a huge magazine rack in the front. That’s where we got Superman comics. The more ‘hip’ kids switched to Batman. In the late 60s, the pet area was removed and the record section was built. We got all our 45 rpms from Woolworth’s. I’m not sure why. Maybe they were cheaper there.
Penney’s: My main memory of Penney’s is back to school sales. It seems that was the only time I was there. It was a big people’s store, so I didn’t have much need to be in it. I did get The Beatles White Album there, but my mother made me take it back. She didn’t like Yoko Ono.
Gimbel’s: I remember this as a huge magical place that had everything. There was a monster toy section in the basement. It also had garden supplies, furniture, clothes, suitcases, well, just think of it and it was there. In the days before the Kookie Cookie House , Gimbel’s had the coolest Santa. You’d go up the escalator and there he was, sitting on a big throne. After you talked to him, you got a huge, red candy cane. Loved that! For some reason, even though we bought all our 45’s from Woolworth’s, we got all our albums from Gimbel’s. I think it was because they had a huge selection and the prices were a bit cheaper on the 33 1/3 rpms. One last memory. Capitol Court was closed on Sunday for years. Gimbel’s decided in the late 60s to remain open. There were sermons against it, and buyers stayed away for awhile, but eventually the shoppers came, and the rest of the mall gradually had Sunday hours too.
Johnnie Walker’s: If Penney’s was for school clothes, Walker’s was for cool clothes. It had Beatle Boots and ruffled shirts. You wanted bell bottom pants? Nobody else had them. I even remember this great pair of American Flag pants. The stars were on the waist and the stripes ran down the legs. I never got those. My dad liked hippies as much as my mom liked Yoko.
Coachlight/ Maru: I never felt comfortable in there. It was all glass figures and delicate thingies. I always thought stuff was going to fly off the shelf and break. The many signs that read “Pretty to have, pretty to hold. But if I break, consider me sold” didn’t help much!
Keller’s Liquor: I know. We were too young to be in there. But it had this great selection of Jim Beam Whiskey bottles that we were always trying to get our parents to buy. I REALLY liked the bottles that looked like John Wayne and Elvis. Our dads were beer drinkers and didn’t see the sense in buying liquor just to look at. Of course, now those bottles are worth a fortune, especially the unopened ones. Sometimes father doesn’t know best!
Chapman’s: We never went in there. Our parents always called it, “The expensive store.” If there was a special occasion, they might go in alone and get something. We were never taken in there.
Lerner’s: Yeah, it’s a sewing store. But we went in there for macho reasons. They had black cowboy hat patches that said, “Bad Guys” on them. When we got into Verne Gagne’s All Star Wrestling, we bought those patches in honor of our favorite bad guy, Blackjack Lanza!
If you find yourself driving down memory lane, stop in at Gary’s Garage and give me a few of the things your remember about ‘The Court.’ Nothing after they put the roof on though. It wasn’t the same place I’m writing about.