History of Valley Fair Center

By Mike Carroll

In 1948, Macy's parent company, R. H. May & Co. Inc. planned to open a Macy's department store in Downtown San Jose, California, according a San Jose Mercury News article. After failed purchase negotiations with San Jose's Hart's Department Store about obtaining property, Whelk H. Gingham, head of Macy's West Coast operations, approached San Jose land owner, Warren Helms, about another available downtown site.

Helms' asking price was too high, so the firm began seeking other locations and purchased some land along San Jose's Stevens Creek Road. At the time, there wasn't much there except for a few orchards and Highway 17 was a few years from being built. Macy's Valley Fair opened their doors in the summer of 1956, gradually getting around 40 stores. This included Woolworth, The Cable Car restaurant, Leed's, Lerner Shops, Thom McAn, Mode O'Day, McWhorter-Young and Campi's Music, a record store that provided preview kiosks before purchase. Helms was later informed that negotiations for his downtown location may have merely been a bargaining tool to acquire a better deal at the Stevens Creek Road site.

A free parking lot provided shoppers more convenience than the parking meters and paid lots of downtown, although Peerless Stages Bus Line offered shuttle service for loyal downtown shoppers, Unable to compete with Valley Fair a few miles away, downtown stores closed or moved, giving way to blight during the sixties and seventies.

In 1957, Bayfair Shopping Center opened across the bay in San Leandro. A joint venture from Capital Co. and Macy's California, the 60 acre center was designed to serve a quarter million shoppers in the east bay. The first 22 stores included Amerio's Bayfair Drugs, Hellwigs Bayfair Toys, Marlene's Feminine Fashions, Nancy's Casual Apparel, along with a barber and beauty shop, and a grocery store.

In 1956, Gold Coast Shows, headed by William H. Meyer, set up a kiddieland amusement park on the roof deck of Macy's, Valley Fair. The seven rides included a Merry-Go-Round, boat ride, a miniature train and a 40 foot Ferris Wheel. The giant Ferris Wheel could be seen several blocks away as it peered over the walls of the department store.

The following year, Gold Coast opened Kiddieland at Bayfair. This was larger and on the terrace level over some small stores. Fourteen rides included a Ferris Wheel, Merry-Go-Round, Tilt-A-Wirl, Octopus, as well as the Arrowflite Freeway Auto Ride, a popular sports car ride featured at Disneyland that was made by Arrow Development, of Mountain View, California. Manager, Gene Cardoza, ran both the Valley Fair and Bayfair rides, according to the November 8, 1957, Hayward Daily Review.

William H. Meyer, who began with with Ringling-Barnum Circus in 1919, ran successful amusement parks in Southern California during World War II and kiddieland attractions at the Sacramento, California, state fair. In 1947, he founded Gold Coast Shows and came up with the department store roof-top carnival concept. “William H. Meyer, veteran West Coast park operator, took a tip from ‘There's a gold mine in the Sky’ and applied it to his business.” according to the Billboard. He opened his first rooftop attraction at the downtown San Francisco Emporium department store. After a successfully 1947 Christmas season, he erected one at Stonestown Center in South San Francisco. Remember all the carnivals in Bay area shopping center parking lots in those days? Chances are, they were his, as Gold Coast was doing many of these these as well.

The Valley Fair Macy's Sky Terrace Cafe offered shoppers a place to eat lunch while their kids enjoyed the rides. Tables with colorful umbrellas lined the outside of the eatery, but a small dining area was available inside.

Pre-teens fashion shows were held on the the roof deck. Afterward, the kids were allowed free access to the rides. Some even recalled Dixieland bands up there. According to a 1956 San Jose Mercury News article, a helicopter with Santa Clause landed on the deck. A Hayward Daily Review article described a event at the sister center across the bay:

"...a dramatic arrival of Santa by helicopter landed at Bayfair to meet the children, followed by the 60-piece US Marine Corps band, initiating the Bayfair "Toys for Tots" program."

As you walked out to the deck from the elevator, a colorful tower with bright mosaic tiles was seen out on the left. The structure was an excellent example of 1950's pop art and complemented the fair atmosphere. It served as an exhaust system for the center's underground shipping area but was painted over around 1970 and removed in 1986 when the shopping center expanded.

The Macy's rides closed after a dismal 1957 Christmas season. However, Kiddieland at Bayfair continued on and was renamed Playland, later even adding a roller coaster attraction. The cafe and roof deck at Valley Fair were blocked off from the general public and used as a break area for Macy's employees.

The Emporium department store opened in 1957, later adding small stores and becoming Stevens Creek Center. In 1959, Payless Drugs was added to Valley Fair. Town & Country Village opened the same year.

Around 1960, Meyer was appointed general manager of the new Frontier Village project by Joe Zuken. A miniature antique car based on the Arrowflite track technology was purchased for the South San Jose park. In May of 1960, Meyer once again utilized Valley Fair. Along with Arrow Development, he came there to showcase the miniature cars for Frontier Village. Frontier Days, by Wild West Entertainment, included some horses, a stage coach, covered wagons, “nine Indians headed by Chief Feather and a display of whip cracking, sharp shooting, knife throwing and rope spinning”. They planned a similar event the following month at Bayfair.

A 12-car Ferris Wheel like the one at Valley Fair showed up at the Frontier Village park after their 1961 opening. Did Bill Meyer bring it from Valley Fair?

In 1964, a second floor was added to Macy's as originally planned. The Hahn Company bought the center in 1984, merging it with The Stevens Creek Center, in Santa Clara. Crossing the border between two towns could have been a logistical nightmare, but apparently cooperation from the two cities expedited the process.

The annual Christmas carnivals at the downtown San Francisco Emporium lasted until 1995 when the store closed. But it's not clear who was running it at that time.

 

Seven carnival rides occupied the roof-top. Composite rendering.
 
Pre-teen fashion shows were often held at the fun spot. Operators would then let the kids enjoy the rides for free.
 
This December 6, 1957 ad was was published in the San Jose Mercury News. The rides were closed after the dismal season.
 
Courtesy of DelCarlo Photography (circa 1957), the center contracted Arnold DelCarlo to photograph the rides before they were removed. "It wasn't working out" he recollected. Note that Highway 17 (top) has yet to be built.
 
The tower was an colorful icon of Valley Fair. After years of enduring exhaust soot, it began showing its age.
 
Circa 1959, the Town & Country Center (top) had just opened. This was also the year Payless Drugs (right) was added. Also note that other stores have yet to be added to the Emporium (top/right).