Tom Vlasick lives in Colorado now, but as Christmas gets closer, his mind tends to drift back to his native Westmoreland County, specifically to the former Greengate Mall and its Centre Court.
His memories are unforgettable images of blankets of fluffy fake snow, giant sleighs filled with all manner of colorfully-wrapped presents, ribbons, tinsel, the sounds of local high school bands and the joy in the voices singing Christmas carols.
“The thing that I remember the most is the huge tree in front of Horne’s,” said Vlasick, a Norwin graduate. “It went up two stories. That to me was the focal point, even though there was stuff all throughout the mall.”
Vlasick’s comment on the Greengate Mall Revisited website — “Ahh, Christmas at Greengate Mall. It didn’t get any better than that!” — is very typical of the nostalgia other commenters and many longtime county residents have for the mall’s annual holiday display.
Greg Moyer, 53, of Greensburg knows all about it: from 1985 through the end of the ’80s, Moyer was in charge of the display, which took seven months to plan and execute.
“We’d sit down in February and decide what kind of look we were going for, and start sketching things out on paper,” said Moyer, who began helping with the decorations in 1983 before taking over a few years later.
By 1987, the holiday display not only brightened every corner of the mall, it extended to the parking lot, where the mall’s “Light Up Night” began to include a Zambelli fireworks show.
“I’ve always been interested in decorating,” Moyer said. “My mother told me that when I was old enough to move around, I used to redecorate our Christmas tree the way I wanted it.”
That childhood experience served Moyer well as he planned holiday themes for the mall each year.
“One year, the theme was ‘For All That is Christmas,’ a tagline I saw in a catalog,” he said. “Another year, we did ‘Christmas: A to Z.’ ”
Moyer has always been in love with Christmas, and that enthusiasm went far beyond the mall.
“Some years, I put up eight trees in my house,” he said. “My living room is religious decorations, my sun porch is snowmen, and I bet I have about 500 different Santa figures.”
His holiday spirit was clearly infectious, if the comment boards on the Greengate Mall Revisited website are any indication. The website will mark its 15th year in 2019, having launched shortly after the mall was demolished in 2003.
“I knew Greengate was an important part of the community, and I wanted people to have a place to come together and reminisce,” said Gary Nelson, 32, of Hempfield, who started the site along with Moyer.
Nelson’s strongest memory is of the mall’s Light Up Night.
“They would always have these exquisite displays and really go all-out with the decorations,” he said. “One year when I was working at the mall, they did a sandcastle display and a laser show.”
At its peak, around 100,000 people per year visited the website, Nelson said. These days, much of that nostalgia has migrated to the Greengate Mall Revisited Facebook page, which has more than 5,600 members.
“People want to relive it and remember these good memories from that era,” Nelson said.
Vlasick, who also worked at the Greengate Montgomery Ward in the mid-1980s, agreed.
“I just recently posted a picture of Gimbel’s in the old Eastland Mall decorated at Christmastime,” he said. “People think about going home for Christmas and missing these places, or someone brings something up and you go, ‘Oh, I remember going to Greengate!’ ”
Chad Altman, 51, of Greensburg can remember playing as a member of the Hempfield band during the mall’s Light Up Night.
By the mid-1980s, he was part of the crew that helped Moyer create the Christmas displays, and when Moyer retired, Altman took his place.
“There were thousands of sets of lights,” Altman said. “We’d use 75 rolls of snow blanket. When we’d tear down at the end of the year, we could fill a 40-yard Dumpster just with snow from Centre Court.”
Altman said he’s most proud that 90 percent of the decorations were created in-house by a crew that worked strictly on Christmas and Easter decorations.
“We’d tear down Easter and we’d start brainstorming for Christmas,” he said.
These days, Altman creates decorative displays at South Hills Village Mall, “and I try to keep that magic alive,” he said. “I still work with two former Greengate decorators, and we try to keep that going with the decor we put up.”
Moyer said he got the most satisfaction from seeing peoples’ faces the night that everything lit up.
“We would bring in dancers, we’d bring in lip-synchers, and we’d scatter them throughout Centre Court,” he said. “Everything would sit there, unlit, without the train running. Then on Friday night, usually around Veterans Day, we’d bring the whole thing to life.”
Altman summed it up nicely.
“Christmas at Greengate was a tradition, just like the Horne’s windows in downtown Pittsburgh,” he said. “It was always more of a family than a mall. That’s what Greengate Mall was about.”
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.