Monday, June 14, 2010

American Girl's Big Changes (2.24.08)

In the February 20 Business section of the Chicago Tribune, theater critic Chris Jones broke the news that American Girl has decided to close all theatrical operations at their stores in Chicago, New York and LA. The last Chicago shows will take place in June. Later this year, the Chicago American Girl Place at 111 E. Chicago Avenue will close its doors and the store will move to Water Tower Place.

A million years ago, before I had kids, I took my nieces from Kansas City to the American Girl store for a performance in their comfortable basement theater. We enjoyed the sweet-voiced and earnest actresses and I was pleased not a single one sang, "Accessories are great!" ("Of course," my husband points out, "they got you in the seats. That's all the marketing they needed to do.")

I don't recall the particulars of the story, but the upbeat message was pretty much, "girl friendship means laughing and hugging and understanding and sometimes misunderstanding but eventually figuring it out-ing and forgiving and hugging some more."

I bought my tween niece a doll. (Her teenager sister was content to observe.) My sharpest memories of lunch in their café are of the little spotted scrunchies that encircled our napkins and matched the black, white and hot pink décor, the tiny seat for Chloe's new doll to join us at tableside (are non-American Girl dolls unwelcome?) and the sweet Irish waitress on a summer work visa. No word on whether the café will survive the move to Water Tower.

An innocuous way to while away an afternoon, right? I'm not sure. I'm all for overindulging the visiting nieces and grandkids, but now that I'm a mom, I'm in no hurry to introduce my own girls, three and five, to "retail therapy." Right now, I'm happy they consider clothes a means to keeping warm and used toys as fun as new ones.

What did we actually do when we take our daughters shopping as entertainment? Reinforce the idea that consumption in and of itself is fun? Or spend quality time? Teach them to value the accumulation of material goods? Or to tell the difference between a bargain and an extravagance?

For me, all the fresh and fun girl-power vibe of the movie Enchanted ground to a halt when the little girl character (who was all of six years old) went on an extended shopping spree with her new princess friend.

The mood and music stayed lively in this brief montage sequence, but I was squirming. So the modern day princess no longer makes her own clothes, but whips out a credit card? How do all those shopping bags mesh with thinking for yourself and defeating your dragon?

I wonder how hollow "the American Girl experience" will sound when the theater shuts down and the emporium becomes little more than a store.

Check out Chris Jones' blog for more about this decision's impact on Chicago's theater community. The comments, some apparently from parents of performers in the American Girl shows, shed light on the possibility that the theatres are closing because management is unhappy at attempts to unionize.

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