The Era of the Mall

This was the artist rendering of the proposed College Square Mall in the mid-1980s. The footprint has changed over the years, but the mall in Morristown – like others across the country – was the “in” place to be for teenagers of the era, much like the characters in the Netflix series, “Stranger Things.”

A comparison to “Stranger Things”

Mid-spring 1988 welcomed a new retail, event and social center for Morristown: College Square Mall.

With a footprint of more than a half-million square feet, College Square was then, as it is now, the go-to shopping choice for the area, hosting an expanded Wal-Mart, JCPenney, Sears, Proffitt’s and Goody’s, among others.

Opening when it did, College Square landed in what is now considered “The Era of the Mall.” At least, that is the memory of many adults now as they reminisce their childhood from 30 years ago. It’s not isolated to the Morristown mall, either. The Mall Era of the 1980s was an all-encompassing period of time across the country, coast to coast.

Need proof?

Look at the location setting and plot anchor for the third season of the very popular Netflix series, “Stranger Things.” In it, cast and crew settle into the fictional Starcourt Mall in fictional Hawkins, Indiana with the story of how a rift in a fictional alternate dimension has allowed a fictional monster from the fictional “Upside Down” to wreak havoc into the fictional lives portrayed.

Yep, it’s fictional. But it’s a good bet if you gathered about a dozen or so men and women who came of age in the 1980s, you’d get a true understanding of how both realistic and terrifying “Stranger Things” really is.

Think back for a moment. What kind of clothes did you wear, or at least pester your parents into buying for you? Weren’t you and most of your friends sporting the same kind of hip and happening apparel? And wasn’t that about the time when movies, music and entertainment in general had made a greater shift into the supernatural, the horror, the science-fiction bent of reality?

I’m thinking Starcourt and College Square could be pretty interchangeable, as they would with any mall in any town anywhere in the U.S. in that ninth decade of the 20th century. College Square might not have an escalator but, hey, we had fashion shows in the mid-court area. And I’ll bet our Radio Shack could have provided all sorts of great anti-monster weapons.

If you were a teenage girl in the 80s, you probably had scrunchies for your ponytail (that is if you didn’t have your hair teased and stiffened with an entire can of hairspray), high-top sneakers, more than one blouse with shoulder pads and high-waisted jeans – high-waisted enough to be nearly full-body jeans.

The guys weren’t exempt. There were the long-sleeved velour shirts and jeans that really became the de rigueur fashion statement. This was the period when sports clothing, as in jerseys and sweatshirts with team logos emblazoned in team colors, became the favorite birthday or Christmas gift.

Everybody had, wore, or wanted Ray Ban sunglasses. Even indoors. In the dark.

Everyone listened to Madonna, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Wham!, The Police, and Cyndi Lauper rocked the world. Bruce Springsteen was proud to be “Born in the U.S.A,” while Phil Collins discovered life after Genesis.

That music, and more, was delivered to us by a new cable network, MTV. It joined the culture aligning and reflective “Miami Vice” and “Knight Rider” for television entertainment. “Dallas” was the preeminent nighttime soap opera which even drew in a younger audience, and “Family Ties” was surely an echo to today’s divisive political time with its humorously-portrayed conservative vs. liberal viewpoints – albeit slightly skewed between the hippie parents and the straight-laced leader of the sibling pack. Bill Cosby was handing out fatherly advice and Thomas Sullivan Magnum made every woman want to visit Hawaii. “Cheers” made us believe there were places where everyone knows your name.

And who can forget, even as much as we want to, “Where’s the beef?” That was the catchphrase that burned into our souls every time the older woman in the hamburger commercial repeated it.

Since movie theaters had migrated to nearly every mall in the American landscape, it was a weekend expectation to hit the popcorn snack stand before heading in to watch “Back to the Future” or even further back to watch Harrison Ford taking on raiding thieves seeking the Lost Ark. Maverick thrilled in “Top Gun” and John McClane took on some really bad guys and showed them how to “Die Hard.”

“Stranger Things” has some, if not all, of these references generously dotting its plot, subplots, and visual references.

The things most relatable in the Netflix series to real-memories of our 1980s teenagers would most likely be arcades (Pac Man, Super Mario Brothers, and Tron, just to name a few), Sony Walkmans and cassette tapes, and the birth of the most aggravating puzzle, Rubik’s Cube.

Not one of these iconic markers of the decade of the 80s missed Morristown. College Square was the new improved version of a shopping mall, replacing the old Downtown Mall (now housing the HealthStar Physician’s campus) as the hangout of choice. College Square was bigger, cooler and more inviting to every teenager with transportation. The stores reflected the same kind of fashion trends, the music store carried all the latest CDs (which overtook the waning popularity of cassettes), and the stroll from Wal-Mart to Sears still offered enough time to flirt with your high school crush before having to reverse course.

It’s not a huge stretch to imagine those same teenagers in “Stranger Things” descending upon College Square. It may strain the concept to think of a door to the Upside Down opening somewhere between the Circus World Toys and Corn Dog 7, but …

But if it was possible in Hawkins, Indiana, I’d wager it could have happened in Morristown, Tennessee.

Especially with all the underground caverns in the area.

Things that make you go hmmmmm…….

“I always thought stuff like this happened in movies and comic books.” – Bob Newby