Saturday, August 16, 2008

Santa Don Goers

To me there is only one Santa Claus that is really Santa from Santa’s Village and that man is Don Goers. An Algonquin, Illinois native, Don first came to Santa’s Village in 1959 as part of the maintenance department. He started to help out “Santa” that same year by playing the part to give a day off to the main Santa. He is among the original gentlemen who played the role at the park in 1959.

Goers made “Santa” his own in 1966 taking the role over fulltime that year. As Santa, he invoked a jolly demeanor that was more a reflection of his personality making him a natural for the character. His wide smile and hearty belly laugh was his trademark.

Spending twenty years at Santa’s Village in the maintenance department and then as Santa, Goers saw the park grow from just a few rides and attractions to the addition of the Polar Dome and the “Coney Island “ section. Each year, tens of thousands of children visited him in Santa’s House and throughout the park. Leaving the park in 1979, he returned only once to be Santa again. It would be in 1994 on the 35th anniversary year of the park.

I met Don Goers as a child many years before I was to become his successor. I would not meet him again until some 27 years later during the Christmas of 1993 at Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee, Illinois. I was the opening day shift Santa that year. Sometime during the course of that Christmas Season while out shopping, Don and his wife came up to the Santa set at the mall and started to have a small conversation with the photo operation manager. After this conversation, Don came up and introduced himself to me. Of course hearing his name I knew exactly who he was.

We chatted for a minute and I asked if he would stick around a few minutes as my shift was about to end. He agreed. After I was out of costume, Don, his wife and I sat in my dressing room talking about Santa and Santa’s Village. We had a lot in common. The conversation lasted about an hour when we exchanged phone numbers.

Spring of 1994 saw Santa’s Village celebrate 35 years of being a landmark in the Northern Fox River Valley. As the park’s season progressed, I thought it would be neat if I could have Don come back for a day and be Santa once again at Santa’s Village. After a few phone calls between us and he agreed. June saw Santa Don Goers return to Santa’s Village.

The day started off with me meeting Don in the main office. (It wasn’t like he didn’t know his way around.) From there I took him to the dressing room where he changed into his costume. When he walked out in full regalia as Santa, you could see a little smile beneath his moustache. Standing in front of me was the Santa that I knew as a child.

Santa Don and I went out of the dressing area and over to Santa’s House. I opened the door for him and for the first time in 15 years, Don was back “home” once again. He sat in Santa’s chair and rapped his knuckles on the chair. It was of course the same chair that he and all who ever played the character had sat in.

I left Santa’s House for a few minutes and when I came back, I glanced in the window. It was strange feeling peering into the house. There was Santa, in his house, just as I remembered him as a child. Walking inside, I felt as I had just traveled back into time. Don Goers had changed himself into Santa Claus and he had change me into a little boy once again. It was magic.

Don played Santa all day that day. A few newspapers came out to interview him. It was his day, but it was also my day. It is not too often that two people form different eras have a chance to interact and share some of the same experiences. Each of us got to go back in time for a brief moment. In age we are 38 years apart, but in the Santa’s Village world we share so much and the same role. We will always be connected by that common bond.

I still see Santa Don every now and then. I enjoy the conversations and enjoy the fact that we have the opportunity to talk about the park. Of all my days at Santa’s Village, the day I got to “re-visit” with Santa is by far my most cherished.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The last day...

The last day that Santa’s Village in Dundee, Illinois would be open to the public was on September 18, 2005. The Polar Dome shut its doors in May of 2006. Forty six years had passed since my first predecessor “Santa” Jim Combs opened the gates to the Village in 1959. And 50 years had passed since the first “Santa’s Village Santa” Carl Hansen opened the first of Glenn Holland’s three Santa’s Villages. Hansen opened up the Sky Forest, CA location in 1955 and he opened the second park in 1957 at Scotts Valley, CA. The Sky Forest park was opened for 43 years and closed in 1998, while the Scotts Valley’s park closed in 1978 after a 21 year run. Dundee outlasted them all with 46 years.

I arrived at Santa’s Village early that day in September of 2005. I wanted to take in the whole experience of this day. Rumors had been flying that the park was going to be sold and this was just another closing day. None of the people that worked at the park on that last day thought this was going to happen. And of course it did not.

This last day was a passing. A passing of a dream, the passing of magic and most importantly the passing of the people who worked at Santa’s Village over the years. I could not help but think of these people as I began my day as Santa. I knew this might be the last time that I was in Santa’s House visiting guests and entertaining the young at heart.

It was a weird day from the start. A pretty good size crowd was there that day, all with cameras. In reality, more pictures were probably taken in the park that day than in any day in the last 40 years. People just soaked it all in.

By 1:00 pm you could see some of the management of the park getting a little emotional of the day. Visitors came and went in a steady pace all day in Santa’s House. I kept my composure until Debbi, the long time manager of the barn and petting zoo, came into Santa’s House. Debbi, like a few others had been associated with the park for decades. Her smiling face and tear soaked eyes got to me.

Her visit made me realize what Santa’s Village means to a lot of people…family. Whether you worked out at the park in 1959, 1966, 1972, or whatever year, you were part of this extended family. During the last hours that Santa’s House was open that day, mostly employees came in. It was all I could do to keep in character. When it came time to close up the House that day, I made sure I knew who the last visitors were and I had the last picture taken in the House.

Going to my dressing room when my day was finished, it was hard to not think of all the people that I had the good fortune of working with at the park. I thought of one of the owners who passed away a few years earlier and thought of Don the general manager of the park for so many years. Others crossed my mind such as Frank, John and Joslyn, Jill, Grant, Lori, Lauren, JoEllen, Luda, Pete, Cathy, and Toby. The maintenance guys over the years, Ralph, Red, Bob, Kenny, Nels, Gene, Ron and Russ. The food service people of Willie and Marion Hankey. All these people and more were part of my time at the park.

I thought about all the people who worked there before me like “Santa” Don Goers and general manager Ray VanRoyen and Jack Morningstar. I thought about the original Santa’s Village Corporation folks, Glenn Holland and J.P. Henck. All were part of this day.

When I finally got changed out of costume, I went and sat in the park with a lot of the management that was winding this day down. The director of operations, Crystal, had been a part of this park for 30 years, the maintenance department of Gary, Mark and Matt, the current owner and his son and daughter-in –law and the security guards, Dean and Al were all around the snowball ride. The park’s wonderful magic act duo of Tim and Robin were there. Sue L. was there smiling like she always did. Sue H. and Jeff D. were tucked away in guest services preparing for the closing of the day.

When it came time for the closing announcement, we all just kind of looked at each other. When it was announced, I remember everyone dispersing, as the park had to be locked down. I sat on a bench with Tom, the grounds manager, and watched as the people exited. Across from us sat the owner. I don’t think a word was said.

As the last people exited I thought how over the years Santa’s Village provided magic and entertainment for over 20 million guests. The owners, managers, contractors and thousands of local teenagers created that magic. All of them contributed to the 46 years of Santa’s Village.

When the park was secure, the managers met in the Polar Dome’s Alpine Room. Everybody knew in their hearts that it was over. With the clinking of glasses, Santa’s Village in Dundee passed into our collective memory.
Visit Santa from Santa's Village Click Here .