Thanks to Georgia Public Broadcasting, Atlantans will have one final holiday gift to unwrap and savor on Christmas Night at 7 pm — “Rich’s Remembered,” a brand new one-hour documentary about the famed Atlanta retailer.
Built in 1901, the legendary six-story downtown department store, located on the corner of Broad and Forsyth Streets, was imploded in 1994 (a section of the structure with the famed Rich’s clock remains as part of the Sam Nunn Federal Center). In 2005, following a merger with Macy’s, the Rich’s name disappeared forever.
But for generations of Atlantans, Rich’s was synonymous with Atlanta, especially around the holidays, thanks to the Great Tree Lighting every Thanksgiving night and rides aboard the Pink Pig monorail.
A year-long initiative of GPB Originals, “Rich’s Remembered” is a fascinating look at the history of Rich’s, its founding in 1867 by Jewish Hungarian immigrant Morris Rich with a $500 loan from his brother, to its heyday as a downtown Atlanta shopping destination, its reluctant but powerful role in the civil rights movement and its unparalleled commitment to customer service (the number one rule in The Spirit of Rich’s employee handbook? “The customer is always right.”).
The host for the special is retired WSB-TV Action News anchor Monica Pearson, an Atlanta institution as revered as Rich’s. Pearson, who landed in Atlanta in 1975 to make history as the first black female Action News evening anchor, still remembers her first trip to Rich’s.
“Coming from me this is going to sound like a joke but my first trip to Rich’s was to the beauty parlor,” Pearson recalls with a laugh (viewers used to get so fixated on how Pearson wore her hair on air, former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson once showed up in a blond wig to help honor her at one of her WSB-TV milestone anniversaries).
“Rich’s was one of the few salons in the city that had both African-American and white beauticians,” says Pearson. “I had spent the first year on air wearing a wig because I couldn’t find a hairdresser.”
Also featured in the special is a reunion between 1973-74 Rich’s Teen Board members Sheila Maddox, now a successful realtor who was among the first young women of color to serve as one of Rich’s teen community liaisons and her friend Julie White Stephens, who was one of the young women modeling the latest fashions for the ladies lunching in Rich’s Magnolia Tea Room. On why Rich’s having a diverse teen board mattered at the time, Maddox recalls in “Rich’s Remembered”: “We got to interact with other young ladies from all over the city and from all walks of life.”
Also included in the doc is Sol Kent, Rich’s longtime fashion director and “Fashionata,” the annual lavish runway salute to fashion — written, directed, narrated and executive produced by Kent — and usually held at the Fox Theatre. His influential role in the city’s fashion scene landed Kent on the August 1978 cover of Atlanta magazine, accompanied by the quote: “If there is an Atlanta look in fashion, it is definitely not Southern belle.”
“Sol Kent was a genius when it came to fashion,” says Pearson, who attended many a Fashionata before its demise in 1991. “He knew the taste of Southern women but he also knew what was coming next. He really was a fashion guru. When you looked at not only the fashions that were in the store but how he dressed the women for Fashionata, he was way ahead of his time. Fashionata was something completely unique to Atlanta.”
Another Rich’s tradition completely unique to the city was the annual Lighting of the Great Tree downtown each Thanksgiving night. Each year, as a guest soloist and choirs hit the final “di-vine” in “O Holy Night,” the lights would magically appear on the Rich’s Great Tree, perched majestically atop the glass bridges across Forsyth Street. “Ooooooooh’s” were audible for blocks. A color photograph of the Rich’s downtown spectacle graced the cover of the Dec. 15, 1961 issue of Time.
The Atlanta tree lighting tradition continues, now held the weekend before Thanksgiving outside the Lenox Square Macy’s in Buckhead.
“Rich’s Remembered” doesn’t shy away from the department store’s more tumultuous history either, covering the landmark black student protests at the Magnolia Tea Room lunch counters as the young people, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to integrate the store. As activist Lonnie King explains via a pair of interviews in the doc, “Rich’s was the largest domino in downtown Atlanta. If we could knock down that domino, the others would fall.” While Rich’s president Richard Rich initially resisted the call for desegregation, even jailing the students and MLK, he eventually relented and Rich’s became one of the first integrated department stores in the south.
“Dick Rich was just doing what everybody else was doing at that time,” says Pearson. “I clearly remember growing up in Louisville and being measured for clothes because my mother and I couldn’t try on clothes in the store. That’s just the way it was. But when Mr. Rich looked at all it could cost him, he ended up giving in. It was a good business move.”
From memories of riding the Pink Pig to chef Nathalie Dupree’s Rich’s Cooking School and the department store’s famed book signings by authors like Terry Kay, “Rich’s Remembered” offers a fascinating and educational walk down memory lane for new and old Atlantans alike.
Hosting the special also jogged loose one of Pearson’s own favorite memories from her 35-year career at WSB-TV, co-anchoring decades of Great Tree Lighting live broadcasts over the years, beginning in 1976.
“The year I got to sing ‘O Holy Night’ at the tree lighting with a choir is one of the highlights of my career,” says Pearson. “The tree lighting is a great example of Rich’s sense of community and how ingrained the store was here in Atlanta. I love being retired but if [current WSB anchor] Jovita [Moore] ever loses her voice, all they have to do is call me and I’ll be there. I loved doing the tree lighting every year.”
Pearson is hopeful that “Rich’s Remembered” becomes a new GPB Atlanta tradition each Christmas for viewers. “I don’t think we’ll see a store like Rich’s again,” says Pearson. “It was truly a part of the fabric of the community here in Atlanta. It was a lot of fun to relive everything that was great about Rich’s.”
“Rich’s Remembered,” a GPB Originals production will air at 7 p.m. on Christmas night on GPB Atlanta.
What are your special memories of Rich’s throughout the department store’s many decades in Atlanta? Share them with us in the comments section below!
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.