Under my hat: Memories of Hess’s
This time of year, 42 years ago, I joined with co-workers Sharon Remaley, left, and Pat Bernini to celebrate completion of another hectic holiday advertising schedule at Hess’s of Allentown. We were among dozens working in what was then Pennsylvania’s largest in-house ad agency.
Elegant print advertising became a trademark of Hess’s during its 97-year run in center city Allentown.
Hess’s staff picnics, held at Emmaus Community Park for the employees of Hess’s flagship store at 9th and Hamilton, Allentown, have come to an end. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
LEFT: I was happy to see Hess’s popular rodent, Pip the Mouse, which made a surprise visit to the co-worker picnic in 2017.
Former staff of Hess’s advertising department maintained contact at the Hess’s employee reunion picnics more than 40 years after they worked together.
Former Hess’s employees bought chances at their reunion picnics to win a Hess’s bear, created by Susan Weller Bickta, a former public relations staffer.
Hess’s memorabilia of all kinds was on display at each of the Hess’s co-worker picnics which ended this year, 25 years after the store closed.
ABOVE: Hess’s of Allentown Robot, operated by Donald Serfass, shown here in 1978 at the grand opening of Hess’s Harrisburg East Mall.
I was saddened to receive an announcement last week, even if I suspected it was coming.
It was an email, telling me our biyearly Hess’s 9th and Hamilton staff reunions have ended.
“The news is certainly not easy for any of us to bring to you,” wrote friend Shoshanna Hinder. Shoshanna was one of many former Hess’s Hamilton Mall co-workers organizing reunions to make sure the bubbling chemistry of Hess’s staff continued to percolate. But, as she said, “All good things must come to an end. However, in this case it is the physical picnic ending, not the many friendships and wonderful memories that we all possess.”
Time has taken a toll. Our group has grown older and fewer, from a bustling 135 to about 90.
In a sense, it’s ironic that the news arrived at the time of year when Hess’s employees traditionally were busiest.
I started my career in bustling Hess’s advertising department in the 1970s. The holidays were the peak period of every hectic year. A large staff of writers, photographers, artists, fashion models and illustrators worked on print and special promotions to sustain a rich Hess’s legacy. I was a small cog in a big machine, but the memories stand out.
It was there in 1977 I portrayed Luke Skywalker in print ads to coincide with the release of the initial “Star Wars” movie.
In 1978, Hess’s taught me how to operate their mechanical robot, giving me a unique role in store promotions. There were plenty of great experiences.
Today, 40 years later, very little remains of Hollywood on Hamilton. The building is gone. The 61 massive crystal chandeliers have disappeared, along with those impressive steel escalators. The Patio Restaurant and its mile-high strawberry pie is only a memory.
I never found out what became of Hess’s Robot. I still remember how to run the controls even after all these years. But where is it?
Hess’s was a bundle of magic shaped into a world-class department store. It was Toyland, housewares and French fashion all under one roof.
We’ll never see anything like it again.
Here are a few more secrets of what made Hess’s special. Many folks find this stuff fascinating:
• Hess’s had the first talking elevators in the U.S.
• Hess’s had no heating system. The store was warmed by lights and those 61 chandeliers. Max Hess decided to install the chandeliers after seeing similar ones in the Palace of Versailles.
• At Christmas, the toy soldiers outside the store stood 21 feet high. Each soldier was 15 feet added to a 6-foot drum.
• In 1953, Max Hess was listed as the second master salesman in B.C. Forbes’ book “America’s Twelve Master Salesmen.”
• The Patio Restaurant beer was made by Horlachers in Allentown.
• Max Hess’s three-point philosophy was: Be the first, be the best, be entertaining.
• In the 1970s, Hess’s hosted the PA Lottery as it started out. A Lucite ball on the first floor was filled with $1 million in cash for one week. Every morning, the money was brought in by armed guards and placed in the ball.
• Among the stars and notables who visited the store: Sophia Loren, Susan Lucci, Fabio, Michael Landon, Troy Donahue, The Osmonds, Liberace, Mean Joe Green, baseball’s Willie Stargell and many others.
• Hess’s had a rigorous employee orientation and training program. The company expected employees to represent Hess’s in proper manner. New employees were drilled on what to wear. The store used charts showing which colors and patterns should be worn. Employees could buy their clothes at the store where they enjoyed a 20 percent discount.
At a recent reunion, Wayne Holben, Hess’s public relations manager, said, “It was a tough place to work. But if you could work for Hess’s, you could work anywhere.”
I agree with that statement. Hess’s seemed to ask a lot of its employees.
Remaining reunion funds will be donated to Allentown’s Zion Church, home of the Liberty Bell Museum, to help preserve Hess’s Pip the Mouse Show.
“It is our hope this will serve as another way to keep the Hess’s experience alive for future generations to enjoy,” said Shoshanna.
That’s a nice thought.
Still, it’s a melancholy holiday for me to realize that another tangible connection to Hess’s is gone.