Mimes among the handbags! Ballet dancers in the bedding department! Talking bears! Opera stars! five-tiered fountains and elevators of glass and sculptures shining skyward, like opalescent stairways to heaven!
Fair Oaks Shopping Mall in Fairfax had opened finally and officially yesterday, and on the counters and in the cases of the biggest and newest shopping center in the Washington area all things bright and beautiful gleamed like penny candy.
From Route 66, it shimmers like a castle in the distance, ringed by the $5 million worth of roads and bridges the Taubman Co. built to make the center easy to slip into. The mall is the Main Street of Automobile America.
Yesterday the customers and the curious were beginning to seize the center's 7,725 parking spaces a half hour before it opened. "I had no idea they would be storming the palace this way," said the woman presiding over the demonstration kitchen at the Hect Co. "It's like an invasion."
The Sheiks of Dixie were playing "As the Saints Go Marching In" in the juniors' department at the Hecht Co. store as Nguyen Thuy stood wide-eyed in neat, thread-bare slacks and shirt a worn leather belt at his waist. He has been in the country a little over a year now. "I thought there was little surprise in this country for me," he said, his eyes wavering between the red and white stripes of the Sheiks of Dixie and the crowd collecting around a mime. "But this I don't think I understand. It is quite remarkable."
It was, in fact, a suburban celebration, the opening rites in the well-established rituals of the shopping center, which in the suburbs are often the rituals of life itself. Among the potted palms and sparkling fountains, amid the stores that offer prefaded jeans and diamond rings, chinoiserie and greeting cards, health food and food for thought, chantilly lace and a pretty face, there is room enough and time for all the many moments of social communion -- the young in the infinite complexity of their courtings, the mothers sharing the camaraderie of the morning, weekend fathers waiting for their children, old men simply waiting.
The suburbs are not the loose conglomerations of fast-food split-level two-car quarter-acre hyphenations they are cartooned to be, but sometimes it's hard to find a center to life there. You can find it at the mall, though, maybe even for 20 percent off.
The centers have provided a place for city slickers and subrubanites ever since the combination of the automobile and the long ribbon of easy access, multilaned highways and beltways and throughway's made God's little 115-acres of Dionysian consumerism possible. For the last 20 years they have sprung, ever bigger, ever more lavish, in country cornfields and tomato patches, waiting patiently for the growth to meet them.
Always it did. Sometimes the developers took to the air, prowling the countryside in Lear jets, looking for the next intersection of highways surrounded by pastoral nothingness that could be translated into easy access and acres of stores and parking spaces. The suburbs grew to meet them, often taking their tenor from the meccas in their midst. In southern New Jersey a township once changed its name to that of the local shopping center in honor of the focus that it had provided to life.
The surrounding communities have been ready and waiting for Fair Oaks for a long time. And if somehow the citizens had managed to lose themselves in a really good book for the two years that it took to build the place, the Fair Oaks promotion machine made sure they woke up in time.
For the last few weeks, the Herndon High School cheerleaders have been out in the intersections of Fairfax County offering 500 cups of free coffee a day to morning rush hour commuters, all on Fair Oaks. When the heat wave hit, they served 2,000 glasses of orange juice. They served Cokes to people leaving the library and the Post Office and to the kids on the local swim teams.
"The support we feel in the community is phenomenal," said Connie Kiernan, director of sales promotions. "All those darling little kids serving the coffee. The truckers would honk their horns and cheer for Fair Oaks."
The Taubman center is launching in economically troubled times. High interest rates have delayed the projected opening of many of the stores slated to fill the center's 1,400,000 square feet of leasable space. Such economic realities seemed more like a mirage yesterday, however, as the people of Reston and Manasas, and yes, even Potomac and Gaithersburg, flowed down the concrete corridors.
In these recession-scarred times of allegedly lowered expectations, it seemed a time warp. The vanished American heartland, just like it used to be, when no one thought anything of thousands of people filling up acres of parking, buying bagatelles, bringing their babies, registering to win six-day cruises, freezing in the air conditioning and even finding credit card applications thrust into their hands. It was all happening at the mall.
The grand opening attracted some experts in the genre. Nancy Theumer of Reston was pleased. "Parking," she said. "It's got good parking. It's the kind of place where you won't have to follow someone out of the door to get their space. And the salespeople are nice so far. They really care. At the older malls you can tell they don't give a . . ." It was left open.
Theumer had already collected a sizable number of giveaways and freebies. "Most people don't realize how many perfume samples you can get at a time like this." Still, she said, she doesn't shop the way she used to anymore. "I don't go often," she said. "Not with the prices the way they are. You have to catch me at a sale if you're going to catch me at all, and then if it doesn't look really good on me, forget it."
Still, Theumer had praise. What I really appreciate is the planning," she said. "The trees are planted, the parking was all ready, everything's cleaned up. Their timing," she said, "is gorgeous."
Herb Flamberg, umbrella entrepreneur, stood beside his collection of antique parasols, each opening up into graceful circles of silk and velvet, trimmed in long lace, perched on the end of hand-carved ivory stems, quiet testimonies to different times.
"They would sit in their carriages with these," he said of the damasked ladies who once owned them."It was another era."
Past him walked the troupes of Adidas and Dr. Scholls, cha-cha heels and stroller wheels. Flamberg goes to about three or four mail openings a summer, wherever a store is selling his brand of umbrella. "Look at this, he said, abruptly changing eras. "They're finally making shopping fun."
Those responsible for making shopping fun have been awake for the last 48 hours. Such intensity applied not only to the individual store employes, who were up half the night filling the shelves, but to the Taubman corporate heads as well. "There they were up on cranes shining up the sculpture," said one of the mall people who had spent the night polishing the terrazzo floors. "There we were all part of the same team."
Those same corporate heads had vanished from the scene by noon. They were on their way to California for the opening today of yet another Taubman mall, of which there are over two dozen. One imagines them flying over their handiwork -- past Briarwood and Eastridge, past Meadowood and Southland, past Sunvalley and Twelve Oaks -- and all the other Xanadus of commerce in the country which in 1977 accounted for about half of America's retail business, about $300 billion.
"They are toy garden cities," novelist Joan Didion wrote, "in which no one lives but everyone consumes, profound equalizers, the perfect fusion of the profit motive and the egalitarian ideal . . ."
The afternoon was having its effect on parent-child relations.
"Don't you dare touch that."
"I can touch anything I want to."
You just wait until your father hears about this."
Nearby in a glass case, glimmering serenely amid the fray, was the Earth Star, a 115.59-carat coffee-brown diamond, "the largest stone of this color in the world," according to the Woodward & Lothrop promotional display, and the 25th-largest diamond in the world.
"Looks like a topaz to me," said one woman."What do you think?" she asked her son.
There was a moment's silence. "I think I'd rather see Winnie-the-Pooh at Sears," was the answer.