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San Francisco Emporium Rooftop Holiday Tradition

A ferris wheel, merry-go-round, train, and visit with Santa Claus and his elves – all these treats and more awaited visitors to the rooftop holiday carnival presented every Christmas by the Emporium on Market Street. Once upon a time this venerable department store also boasted an indoor ice rink and an auditorium for lectures and concerts by The Emporium Orchestra.

The last Christmas carnival was held in 1995, the Emporium’s 100th anniversary year and the year the store closed. A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed visitors and quoted an Emporium employee who boasted, “Our Santa is the best Santa in the Bay Area.” (In fact, there were two Santas, separated by screens.) A Kentfield man agreed, saying, “My boys come to see Santa Claus. They know there are other Santas. But we are sure that the only real Santa is the Emporium Santa.” And former Supervisor Angelia Alioto remembers her father, Mayor Joseph Alioto, saying. “When I was a child I thought Santa Claus lived on the roof of the Emporium.”

“I could sit down and cry,”' said Gladys Hansen, San Francisco historian, about the closing of the store. Many older San Francisicans brought their grandchildren to see the store decorated for the holidays as it had been in their youths.

City Guides, too, remember fun times on the roof of the Emporium. Rob Spoor says, “I remember going to the top floor of the store and past a huge model train display. Then climbing up stairs to get to the roof, and stepping into a typical carnival midway. I was always amazed at the weight it must have put on the roof. It was one of the most special things about Christmas in San Francisco. I mean how many cities have a rooftop carnival on a major urban store?” Bill Ferrero reminisces, “It was about 60 years ago for me, and there was a train and rides for kids.” A friend of his remembers a man selling lavender in packets across the street. Pam Ferrero remembers taking her kids, but thought the carnival was getting a bit seedy in the 1970’s.

Margaret Sheehan reports that her partner Bruce Coleman remembers a clunky train in the 1950’s, shown on page one in a photo from the San Francisco History Room’s collection. Margaret’s friend Bob Bowen recalls, “I have more vivid memories of going to the rooftop in the early 1950's and seeing personal appearances by TV cowboy stars The Cisco Kid and Poncho [Duncan Rinaldo and Leo Carrillo] and another time seeing Wild Bill Hickock and Jingles [Guy Madison and Andy Devine]. Also around that time I remember riding some kind of small roller coaster.”

And our City Guides expert on the Sunset District, Lorri Ungaretti, reports, “Stonestown Emporium also had a rooftop carnival. We were not allowed on the roof of the two buildings except when there were rides up there. That's part of what made it so exciting – I do remember how exciting it was to be outside. We sometimes went to the rooftop rides at the downtown Emporium, but more often my older brother and I went to Stonestown.”

Photos reprinted with permission, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

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The Emporium Rooftop Christmas Carnival, 1947

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Merry-Go-Round Horse Arrives, 1957

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