Nothing screams “the 1980s” like the Valley’s bygone shopping mall heyday. The mall was our town square. Our cultural epicenter. And, maybe, our soul? In this salute to the era of Reagan and Day-Glo leg warmers, we go nostalgia-shopping at the Chris-Town, the Metrocenter and the other titans of 80s retail.
Party On, Dudes!
It was the fashionable way to spend a Saturday afternoon for Valley kids back in the 1980s – eating bottomless bowls of whipped-cream-topped, chocolate-drizzled sundaes at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour. But for then-12-year-old actor Frazier Bain, who was about to be immortalized as the bratty younger brother in the cult classic, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it was sheer torture.
“They kept bringing out these giant stacks of mashed potatoes blended with different food coloring and covered in chocolate sauce,” Bain, now a television producer in Los Angeles, says. “And we’d all take that first bite for the camera, and try not to gag on the cold potatoes.”
The year was 1987, and the movie’s producers had taken over much of Metrocenter Mall in Northwest Phoenix to film a scene in which Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln and Billy the Kid and Socrates, among other time-traveling luminaries, sample such futuristic delights as skateboards and Hot Dog on a Stick. For years, students at the nearby Cortez High School would brag about that infamous lunch break, when the filmmakers offered endless free quarters at the video game arcade in exchange for being background extras.
“Game rooms used to be huge for us, says Wally Chester, a retired executive with Westcor, the landmark local developers behind everything from Los Arcos to Paradise Valley Mall and Arrowhead Towne Center. “It drove traffic but also made good rent. Those quarters added up. Although I don’t know how many of them made it back to Uncle Sam and the IRS, to be honest.”
Back then, Valley shopping malls were the coolest – nay, the only – place to see and be seen, save perhaps your neighborhood roller-skating rink. They were the locus of the now-inexplicable (indoor smoking lounges, rattails, Wicks ’n’ Sticks) and the then-cutting edge (indoor ice rinks, walk-up ASU-accredited MBA classes, do-it-yourself MTV-style music vids). The truth is, the “modern” shopping mall might have been invented in postwar suburban Minneapolis, but by the 1980s no one rocked the mall harder than Phoenicians.
Which is why the producers of Bill & Ted’s were now filming their salute to shopping mall culture in the Valley of the Sun. Well, that and to save money, according to Bain. “[Hollywood] is always looking for cheaper places to shoot, so being next door, Arizona was a hotspot for a while. A lot of films were being filmed here: Can’t Buy Me Love, Just One of The Guys. Bill & Ted’s auditioned and cast most of the supporting roles in Phoenix.”
However, in what now looks like an omen of the mall’s murky future, Bain reveals another secret from the set that day. “The crazy thing was that Farrell’s location had just shut down, so it was sort of a sad swan song.”
Shop & Be Seen
In its heyday, the Valley was dotted with more than a dozen major shopping malls, or “super-regional centers” in real estate jargon, all spaced approximately 10 miles apart – the distance marketing consultants determined was the maximum customers would happily drive. It meant every part of the Valley had its own turf.
Especially during the summers, the malls quickly became a sanctuary for everyone from bored teenagers and mothers pushing baby strollers, to ‘power walking’ senior citizens in sneakers. Any unlike today’s hyper-segmented, no-niche-is-too-small world, the mall somehow appealed to almost everyone. Or as musician Dallas Doctor, who spent his formative years hanging out at Fiesta Mall among others, says. “Back in the 80s, you could sit in your room in Mesa, AZ and think about a cute girl you liked and think, ‘Gee I wonder how I could find her?’ And you’d go to the mall. And it worked, every time. Every time.”
“Hanging out at Paradise Valley Mall in the 1980s, I remember connecting [haha] – we didn’t call it ‘hooking up’ then – with a boy and we would make out just outside of the food court,” says publicist Beth McRae, who still lives in the area. “Anyway, it was very exciting to hang out with tight Gloria Vanderbilt and Sassoon jeans and winged hair like Farrah Fawcett, Bonne Bell lip gloss.”
“It was a punk rock time,” says Merri DiPasquale, a hospital Nursing Supervisor who still owns a home in Phoenix, but is currently living in Germany with her husband, a decades-long active serviceman in the US Army. “We went to Xavier [College Preparatory], which was all about conformity, so as soon as you left school grounds you’d take off that uniform and get our hair all punked out. I remember buying my first cigarettes at Stag smoke shop. And also going to a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at Chris-Town [Mall] and getting all dressed up in costumes from the movie.”
As for the guys, musician Dallas Doctor, who spent his formative years in Mesa playing in a variety of rock bands, says, “We were all wearing Devo-style clothes, striped shirts and parachute pants. We thought we were pretty hip, though looking back at the photos there’s not much evidence to support that.” And he should know, considering he once played a concert for 10,000 rowdy fans at Fiesta Mall as part of the 1980s rock-parody band, Johnny B and the Leisure Suits. (See sidebar.)
For Gen Xers and older millennials, the ’80s shopping mall evokes a powerful nostalgic response – as demonstrated by the flood of phone calls, emails, social media posts and vintage Diamond’s catalogs that PHOENIX received after issuing an all-points-bulletin about this feature.
Some remember the numerous, now-defunct mall gimmicks that seemed cutting-edge at the time, such as the walk-in recording studios where you and your BFFs could warble along to Wham! in front of a green-screen. [I like the sound of "warble along to Wham!" - great word choice and alliteration.] “I think I still have the cassette tape of my recording at Metrocenter in the studio,” Valley publicist Jennifer Kaplan responded via Facebook.
Others brought up food court favorites. “Sometimes I just really miss a corner slice of greasy, cheesy pizza from Pizza D’Amore in Chris-Town Mall, back in the day,” Denise Sullivan, an artist who now lives in Tucson, emailed to say. (Don’t we all.)
Yet others brought up still-simmering mall rivalries. “I wanted to make sure Valley West Mall was on your radar,” says Sky Schaudt, a KJZZ Senior Digital Editor, [my former digital manager at KJZZ] says [just used this term up above with Sullivan], echoing a common sentiment. “Sadly, it is now a super Walmart, but in my childhood it was the site of baseball card shows, trick-or-treating and a cheapie movie theater where I first saw Willow and Big Top Pee-Wee, among other cinematic masterpieces. A lot of people cared about it, and the West Valley often gets the shaft when it comes to Phoenix-area history.”
Shopping Showplace of the West
But to really tell the story of why malls became such a beloved – and inescapable – part of life here in the 1980s, you need to start on a sizzling summer’s day in 1961, when the Valley’s first fully enclosed (read: air-conditioned) mall opened on 80 acres of former farmland owned by Chris Harri, hence the unique name of Chris-Town Mall.
Now known as Christown Spectrum, it’s the state’s Arizona’s oldest operating mall, though much of the original layout was razed in the early 2000s to make way for “big box” stores such as Costco and Walmart. If you squint, you can still see the towering central entryway leading to the mall’s main atrium, back-dropped with swooping mid-century staircases. Hosting everything from annual Corvair car shows and sand sculpture displays to performances by Wallace and Ladmo, Garfield and the entire cast of Saved by the Bell, Chris-Town’s Fountain Court was also renowned for its over-the-top holiday displays. Imagine an entire snow-capped village, populated with spinning, twirling mechanical polar bears and penguins (never mind that penguins don’t live at the North Pole), all culminating with Santa dramatically arriving each year in a helicopter.
“I remember putting up the very elaborate Christmas decorations, and people would come down from Flagstaff just to see it,” says Sr. Vice President of Construction & Operations, [title/position] Stan Gray, who still works for the mall’s former owners, the Grossman Company Properties. “But you have to remember, there were very few other malls at the time.”
That all changed in the early 1970s, Gray says, when someone in Chris-Town management [?] [Stan was purposely a little vague here, I don’t think he wanted to dig up old mall developer rivalries] hurriedly organized an all-tenant meeting and announced, “‘There’s this thing they’re building and they’re calling it Metrocenter and it’s going to be way out in the middle of nowhere. And I don’t want any of you opening up stores over there, it’s just going to be a bunch of chains, anyway.’”
At the time, Gray says, “Malls were still filled with mom-and-pop shops and a few mid-majors like Woolworth and Kresge [known today as Kmart]. But Metrocenter had stores that were both ‘up and down.’” (Duplicate stores on different levels of the mall.)
Ultimately, Metrocenter – which opened in 1973 – set the standard for all malls that followed in the ’80s and beyond. It was Arizona’s first-ever two-story mall, boasting a record five department stores (Diamond’s, Goldwater’s, Sears, Rhodes Brothers and The Broadway) while offering a blur of Miller’s Outposts, Contempo Casuals and Orange Julii. But those weren’t the reasons teenagers and families flocked there from across the Valley. Just like hairstyles at the time, the owners set Metrocenter apart by going even bigger.
More Things to More People
Metrocenter didn’t just have a sprawling food court, or a video game arcade or a cocktail lounge shaped like an old-timey airliner – it had all three, suspended over an open-air ice rink down on the basement level. At one point in the history of the mall, you could also hit the Jazzercise studio, play mini golf, drive go-karts and even take college credit classes at an Arizona State University satellite campus.
“Metrocenter was designed to be the mall that was more things to more people,” says Chester, who was originally hired to recruit food court favorites such as Pizza D’Amore to the then-distant construction site surrounded by alfalfa fields. [is something missing here? Was Chester hired to recruit the food court restaurants?] “Metrocenter opened with five department stores, but only six other tenants,” he says. “But then it skyrocketed. We had the state’s largest food court, but it was so busy that people were getting in fights over seating.”
If you can imagine it, Metrocenter was also the first in Arizona to add a movie theater right inside the mall. “That was a big deal,” says Dallas Doctor, who remembers driving over all the way from Mesa. “Between the movies and the food court, you could just hang out at all day. I had friends who spent the night at the mall waiting to see the Star Wars sequels.”
Movie addicts weren’t the only one’s who stayed odd hours or practically lived at the mall. “I grew up doing my homework on a pickle bucket on the cooking line at Miracle Mile Deli,” says Josh Garcia, now a third-generation owner at te restaurant.
“My first-ever job was working at Mann’s Chris-Town movie theater,” says Verity Bendel of Phoenix, now a Medicare insurance specialist. “I started at 9 a.m. on a Saturday at one end of the mall and applied for a job at literally every single store. It took me all day!”
Former punk rocker DiPasquale also got her first job at a Chris-Town shoe store:. “Michael’s Buster Brown. It helped pay for my tuition at Xavier.” But DiPasquale also reveals a secret that non-mall-workers wouldn’t know. “After the mall closed at 9 p.m., there was a whole other beginning to Chris-Town social life. The staff was still there cleaning up, so you’d wander around, say hello to friends. There was lots of socializing and flirting.”
“We were always closing at the same time,” Garcia says. “So you’d have conversations, ‘What are you doing later?’ We didn’t have text [messages] or social media, just 'Come to my house, we’re having some friends over.'”
“People used to fear it was changing our society, that malls were somehow bad for kids or people,” Wally Chester says. “But I think it was a good thing. A place where people got out and saw each other face to face. It’s something we don’t get enough of today.”
Even if sometimes it led to arguing over seats in the food court.
Be Excellent to Each Other
Back in the mid’80s, malls were so dominant that the Arizona Republic ran a cover story proclaiming, “The shopping center, like the dinosaur in its day, has few natural enemies.” Surely, the experts pontificated, the only threat is if they build too many malls. Then the Internet meteor hit.
We don’t need to pick over the sad remains of the Valley’s late, great mall scene. Most of us lived it. But much like the secret afterhours life of mall employees, there’s much more to the demise of mall lifestyle beyond just blaming Amazon. Truth is, we got malls wrong – they might have seemed like the model of bland corporate sameness, but in fact they were secretly socialist – or at least collectivist.
Most malls were a complex partnership. The developer would find the site, construct the pedestrian corridors and courtyards, and manage all the smaller tenants. But the major department stores all built their own storefronts on land they bought outright, using their own architects and construction crews. It all worked out great, with everybody benefitted benefitting from the huge flood of foot traffic, until suddenly the people stopped coming.
Today’s developers are now trying to pick up the pieces, says zoning and land use attorney, Adam Baugh of the Withey Morris firm in Phoenix, who’s helping to reinvent Fiesta Village in Mesa, a shopping plaza across from the now-shuttered Fiesta Mall that back in the ’80s was home to the infamous restaurant/dance club, Bobby McGee’s Conglomeration. “Everyone is trying to figure out what to do with these cavernous retail spaces built for an entirely different era. So you have to get creative and look at entirely new functions, from entertainment such as rock climbing gyms or indoor skydiving, to labor and tech centers, to art galleries and showrooms, or even converting to residential.” Which is the plan at Fiesta Village, where the owner has proposed building 220 luxury apartments surrounded by restaurant-heavy lineup of retail spaces. It also helps that, unlike most major shopping malls, the project has a single owner.
“That’s part of the problem with trying to repurpose these older malls,” Chester says. “A new developer might have a realistic plan, but each department store owns its own building and land, and they have these set bank book values of what the property is worth, so they’d rather sit on an empty storefront.”
“People don’t realize,” says Dave Scholl, who worked with Wally Chester for decades before going on to co-found the development company, Vintage Partners, “there used to be 12 to 15 departments stores you could partner with to open up a new mall from the ground up. But today there are only two that still build ground-up stores, Macy’s and Dillard’s. The rest all collapsed through mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcy. This is not a temporary downturn or a regional thing; the future is being rewritten.”
But even though he spent the better part of his career building bigger and better malls, Scholl has come around to the ‘new’ new future. “Malls were always a made-up version of the authentic, organic Downtown shopping experience. Today’s generations, who grew up ordering things online and now on their phones, are saying, ‘No, I want the authenticity back.’ They have voted with their dollars for more community-based centers filled with food and beverage, and connecting with like minded people over a craft beer.”
So maybe the kids are alright. After all, wasn’t that the main takeaway of the ’80s, at least according to the Tao of Bill & Ted?, to Always “Be excellent to each other. And … party on, dudes!”