'Evening Primrose', or What Happens If You Live in a Department Store Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Evening Primrose', or What Happens If You Live in a Department Store

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Furniture settings in Stern Brothers Department Store in New York City in 1947

Do you find store mannequins spooky? Are you secretly afraid they might come to life? Have you ever wished you could live in a department store with all its bright, up-to-the-minute consumer goods? Then we have a tale for you. It's been on quite a journey, too. The journey starts with a short story writer.

John Collier

I am free! Free as the mote that dances in the sunbeam! Free as a house-fly crossing first-class in the largest of luxury liners! Free as my verse! Free as the food I shall eat, the paper I shall write upon, the lamb's-wool-lined softly slithering slippers I shall wear.
– 'Evening Primrose'

John Collier (1901-1980) was a London-born author and screenwriter whose stories tended to be what British critic David Langford has called 'bitterly flippant.' This phrase certainly describes his short story 'Evening Primrose', which first appeared in his 1941 collection Presenting Moonshine.

The story's narrator (it's a 'found manuscript') is Charles Snell, a young poet with a tendency to overwrite that makes the story fun to read. Snell is tired of being poor and uncomfortable, so he decides to move into the fictional Bracey's Department Store and live there in secret. He finds the prospect of living in luxury delightful – especially as he won't have to pay for it.

On emerging from hiding after closing time, Snell is almost caught by the night watchman. He has the presence of mind, such as it is, to pretend to be a mannequin. After the watchman leaves, Snell discovers to his shock that his idea isn't original: there are other people living in the store. The group of comfort-seekers, who have been there many years, are led by elderly Mrs Vanderpant, an imperious dowager who first took refuge there during an economic recession in the 1880s. 'Three mergers and a complete rebuilding, but they didn't get rid of me!'

Snell gets to know the routine of the department store's inhabitants and discovers that in fact all of the major venues in New York City are inhabited at night. This night culture guards its secrets carefully, he finds: if anyone threatens them with exposure, such as a too-inquisitive night watchman, a burglar, or a night-dweller who gets out of line, they call the 'Dark Men'. The Dark Men are terrible, shadow-like figures who live in a venerable funeral home. The interloper is taken to Surgical Supplies – and the next day, there is a new mannequin on the shop floor.

Snell also meets Ella, the store's only unwilling resident. At the age of six, Ella fell asleep while her mother tried on hats. When she woke, it was dark. Most of the night people wanted to let her go: after all, who would believe a six-year-old who said there were people in the store? But Mrs Vanderpant wanted a maid, and so here is poor Ella, unhappily living in Bracey's.

Snell falls in love with Ella, who rejects him because she has a crush on the handsome young night watchman. Their escape plot goes awry. Snell vows to rescue Ella and the night watchman but warns the reader who finds this that if he should fail, they must look for three mannequins, one with 'blue eyes, like periwinkle flowers.'

One doesn't know whether to laugh or shudder. Or both.

Escape! A Radio Series

Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you... Escape!
– William Conrad, usually

During the 1930s, '40s, and early '50s, the radio anthology was to the entertainment business what Netflix was today: a way to relax and enjoy a good story without leaving the comforts of home. Just as with Netflix, stories that contained suspense, thrills, or a frisson of horror were especially popular. The leading US radio series from 1947-1954 was called Escape. The familiar music, 'Night on Bald Mountain' by Mussorgsky, accompanied the introduction by the ubiquitous voiceover actor William Conrad. Each week brought another drama, often by famous writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, or HG Wells. The producers had good taste.

An adaptation of 'Evening Primrose' aired on 5 November, 1947, and starred Elliot Lewis. Paul Frees played the sinister Mr Roscoe, one of the more unpleasant of the department store denizens. The drama runs to about half an hour. If you'd like to, you can listen to it on archive.org.

Interlude in the Twilight Zone: The After Hours

People looking in a shop window at mannequins at night, New York City 1950s
Express elevator to the ninth floor of a department store, carrying Miss Marsha White on a most prosaic, ordinary, run-of-the-mill errand.
– Rod Serling

There is no official notice to the fact, but it seems likely that the themes of Collier's short story may have influenced a Twilight Zone episode called 'The After Hours.' This episode, written by showrunner Rod Serling, concerns a young woman in a department store, who turns out to be a mannequin herself, out for a brief vacation as a human being. The episode, which starred Anne Francis, first aired in 1960. If you like, you can watch it on archive.org.

'After Hours' was remade in the 1986 Twilight Zone series, as well. In that episode, Terry Farrell plays the confused mannequin. If you'd like to see it, it's available on YouTube.

Take Me to the World: The Sondheim Version

Take me to the world
A world that smiles
With streets instead of aisles
Where I can walk for miles with you

– Stephen Sondheim

In 1966, Stephen Sondheim, then a moderately-famous composer and lyricist, decided to make a musical version of 'Evening Primrose'. One motivation for this was that his friend and librettist, James Goldman, needed money. Goldman and his wife were expecting another baby and needed a bigger apartment. The musical version of 'Evening Primrose' aired on 16 November, 1966, and starred Anthony Perkins.

The musical version differs in some ways from the original story. Exteriors are shot at Stern's Department Store, a real place in New York City. Poet Charles Snell is a more sympathetic character. Ella is in love with him and they plan to run away together and allow Ella to escape servitude to the elderly diva, now renamed Mrs Monday. The conclusion is no longer open-ended, but ends in disaster for the young couple.

For many years, the original musical was unavailable. A soundtrack recording was released in 2008. Sondheim's music, however, was known and performed many times. The original performance became available in 2010. If you like, you can watch it on YouTube.

What do we think about 'Evening Primrose'? Is it merely a 'bitterly flippant' piece of whimsy? Is it a satire on consumerism? An out-and-out horror story? A tale of doomed love in which too little is learned, too late? Or merely an excuse to run around a department store singing? However you approach 'Evening Primrose', you'll have to admire the staying power of the story.


For the curious, Oenothera is a genus of yellow flowering plant also called evening primrose. It isn't a true primrose. It flowers at night. The plant is regarded as having medicinal uses.

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