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MONTGOMERY WARD MEMORIES A PIECE OF AMERICANA CUSTOMERS TELL MEMORIES OF STORE THAT HAD EVERYTHING FROM WASHERS TO CHARM TIPS.

Byline: Brent Hopkins Staff Writer

Though it sold all the regular appliances and housewares, Montgomery Ward has been more than just a department store to its shoppers.

First through its catalogs and later through its stores, the venerated chain, known by the friendly moniker ``Monkey Wards,'' has been a retail presence for more than a century. So when it announced in late December that it was liquidating its inventory and closing its 250 stores forever, loyal consumers were aghast.

After a three-decade presence in the land of shopping malls, Wards began shuttering stores Saturday when its Eagle Rock location closed. The Westfield Shoppingtown Topanga Wards closes for good tonight and the Panorama City store by Thursday.

``Monkey Wards was Santa Claus to us,'' said longtime customer Iris Bancroft of Granada Hills. ``It had such a nice history in my family, I'll miss it.''

When she says Santa Claus, she isn't kidding. Born in China to parents answering the call of the Swedish Mission Covenant, the 78-year-old photographer, writer and debt management counselor relied on the famed catalog for presents - her only contact with American goods until the family returned in the early 1920s. Through stories relayed to her by her older siblings, she knows the excitement of receiving a Wards crate well.

From music boxes to the newly invented Grape Nuts, Wards shipped many an item to Bancroft's father, Carl Nelson, the headmaster of the mission's school in Jingzhou. If he timed it right, an order placed in October would be fulfilled in time for Christmas. Once the heavy crates were hauled by hand up the river, Nelson and his young family cracked them open to dole out the goods to the other Americans.

``Any kid who's ever opened a box of things knows how exciting it is,'' Bancroft remembered. ``And these were monster shipments to end all. Even though they knew that some of the things were for other people, it was tremendously thrilling. My brother's 90 years old and he still remembers it well.''

Memories of the chain loom large for Dorothy Lorimor, as well. Growing up in small-town Kentucky, the child of a young widow, Wards proved a godsend with its inexpensive appliances and friendly salespeople. Her grandfather helped shepherd her family through the rough times with purchases made at the Hopkinsville store. Most stores were unhelpful at best to him, a shell-shocked American Indian veteran.

``He could walk into Wards and they'd treat him wonderfully,'' Lorimor recalled. ``He could even buy on credit, which was really rare back then.''

With that credit, he bought the family its first wringer washer and an icebox, cooled by 25-cent blocks of ice.

``Sometimes we'd be lucky to have the quarter,'' the 63-year-old retiree laughed. ``It was pretty neat having that icebox. Before that, we used to just put the food outside on the window ledge.''

And thus, a lifelong Wards shopper was born. She relocated to the San Fernando Valley in 1959, and patronized the Topanga Promenade location steadily after it opened in 1964.

The Wards store at the Topanga location also etched itself into the memory of Claire McDonough. Growing up in Canoga Park, the third of a quartet of sisters, she battled it out nightly on whose turn it would be to do the dishes. Elder sisters Melanie and Lisa wanted no part of the scrubbing and dunking, nor did Claire and Nina, and the evening bickering grew to epic proportions.

Seeking to alleviate the tension between his daughters on Valentine's Day, her father, Joseph, packed the girls into the family car and drove down to the local Wards for a little technological help.

``My mom was dead set against the idea of a dishwasher,'' the McDonough recalled. ``She had four daughters, so she figured she had no need for something automatic. But Dad overruled her.''

Mention of the washer 30 years later still brings a raised eyebrow for McDonough's mother, Sally Martin.

``I knew that it wasn't going to solve anything,'' Martin said with feigned outrage. ``Then they started fighting about who had to load it, or who had to wheel it around.''

``Things have really changed since then,'' McDonough mused. ``As a kid, you loved getting the Christmas catalog. You lived to look through it.''

She still does, using a 1976 issue to teach history for her class at McAlister High. Martin held onto some vintage issues as well, their well-preserved pages revealing long-expired discounts and messages pledging to support President Nixon's war on price fixing. Filled with page after page of floral print and polyester, the catalogs reveal a time when clothes were cheap and, frankly, a little ridiculous.

``Some of these would be in style now as vintage,'' McDonough marveled, leafing through a 1971 issue before settling on a particularly bilious piece of sleepwear. ``I'm not so sure about these caftans, though.''

But hey, at the time, Wards was the place to be. Families looking for a little style and a lot of savings could load up on reasonably priced, reasonably hip clothes. Some stores even offered the Wendy Ward Charm School, where young ladies could pick up style tips.

``Today's savvy teen-ager would probably find it lame, but at the the time, it was the thing to do,'' said Alyce Brothers, 43, a 1971 graduate of Topanga's charm school. ``It was just like Little League or church ... or the 'Brady Bunch.' ''

Brothers enrolled at the age of 14, looking to gain poise and find peers to discuss teen concerns. Studying from a binder as thick as a phone book, the classes taught how to properly apply makeup, coordinate outfits and to cross their legs in a ladylike fashion.

``They really didn't teach us liberating thoughts,'' Brothers recalled.

Still, in the Mom-and-Apple-Pie climate of the 1970s, this seemed perfectly normal - fun, even. At graduation from the six-month course, the girls put on their own fashion show, complete with a catwalk strut through the cafeteria.

``I enjoyed it,'' she said, reflecting over a snapshot of her modeling debut. ``I think a lot of girls now could profit from being in a charm school.''

From appliances to fashion, Wards has managed to take hold of its customers in a way no other store has - inspiring a fiercely loyal set of memories generally reserved for the local Mom-and-Pop outfit, not a huge chain.

``It's a real piece of Americana,'' said Jan Brown, a devoted customer of the Panorama City store. ``People remember their parents and grandparents shopping there.''

Since moving to the Valley in 1983, Brown has stocked her charming home with Wards appliances, from the microwave to the air conditioners. Its convenience and selection proved to be a godsend over the years, she said.

``I knew exactly when it would close,'' the 59-year-old publicist recalled. ``If I ever needed anything last minute, I could dash up there and find what I needed.''

After depending on Wards throughout the years, Brown and many other shoppers are facing a loss greater than mere convenience, but a way of life.

``I guess I'll have to never buy another appliance,'' she joked before turning serious. ``It's a shame to see these great names that meant so much to people go out of business.''

CAPTION(S):

11 photos

Photo: (1 -- 2 -- color) 1872

Aaron Montgomery Ward distributes his first catalog

(3 -- color) 1939

Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer was created for the store in 1939 by copywriter Robert L. May

(4 -- color) 1940

Montgomery Ward offers high-tech electronics with the Air radio.

(5 -- color) 1959

A model shows off the latest in winter fashions

(6 -- color)

1967

Mattel's Major Matt Madon made his debut in the year's Christmas Catalog.

(7 -- color) 1973

Seafoam green and bold geometric patterns shows the oompany kept up with the times

Photos Courtesy Montgomery Ward, Mariam F. Donerian, John Eaton, Marty Kuhn and Sally Martin

(8) Claire McDonough sits on her mom's Montgomery Ward dryer while showing clothing styles in 1970s catalogs.

(9 -- 10) Above, Granada Hills resident Iris Bancroft's parents took advantage of Wards catalog shopping while living in China. Dorothy Lorimor, wearing jeans purchased from Wards, originally started shopping at the store in Kentucky.

(11) Jan Brown still gets good use from the appliances she purchased at Wards, including the ones shown here.

Charlotte Schmid-Maybach/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 18, 2001
Words:1383
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