Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Giving back...

Over my career I have had numerous opportunities to be involved with some great events and people. I learned early on that the "bigger" you become, the more you have to give back.

In 1995 during a hot summer's day at Santa's Village a young boy and his parents entered Santa's House to have a visit with me. The young man looked like any other boy his age, but his parents were acting peculiar. I talked with the boy for a while and at the conclusion his father thanked me for my time. About two weeks passed and the same boy and his parents came back to the park. This time the boy looked different. He was losing his hair. It dawned on me that this child was sick. After talking to the child, his mother took the boy out into the park. His father approached me and thanked me. He knew of me from some publicity that was published. He told me that his son was very sick and truly believed in Santa. I thanked him for coming to the park and if there was anything I could do to help? "Pray." he said. I took his name, phone number and then arranged for his family to have some passes to the park.

I got to know this family very well that summer and as the park's season was coming to a close, I asked the young man what he truly wanted for Christmas. "I want to fly with you and the reindeer." he replied. I was in trouble. I said, "Let me ponder that and I'll see what I could do." About a month passed by when I phoned his father to see how the boy was. His Dad said he was hanging in there, but all he talks about is Santa and the reindeer. I told him I was trying to think of a way to grant his wish. I had access to live reindeer but I was sure I could not get them to fly. I told his Dad I would keep in touch.

In early November of that year I was at a meeting of the Chicago Christmas Parade Association. During this planning session a thought occurred to me. I pulled the president of the association aside, told him of this little boy and that I had a plan. We sat in private for about an hour and upon leaving the meeting I knew that I could grant the boy's wish. I phoned the boy's father and told him to have his son and wife on Michigan Avenue a couple blocks north of the Art Institute on parade day.

The day of the parade I did my normal stuff and when my call time came, I mounted the "Miracle on 34th Street" Santa float. (This was the same float used in the re-make.) I glided up Michigan Avenue into the TV zone at the Art Institute. After the TV was off, we proceeded up the street. I signaled down to the vehicle pulling the float to stop. This was an unplanned move. No one except the president of the association and myself knew what was about to happen. The Jeep Cherokee pulling the float stopped and I signaled to one of the street marshals to come over to the float. I told him to go over into the crowd, get the young boy, his parents and bring them to the float. He did this with a perplexing look. As the family approached I asked the father to hand me up the boy and for the street marshal to put his parents in the vehicle. When all was in place I signaled the float to precede with the young man standing in front of me. I handed him the reins and said, "They are all yours. Fly'em up Michigan Avenue."

The million plus people on the streets of Chicago saw a young boy's dream come true that day. The crowd new something was special about this boy and cheered him. At the end of the parade route the Chicago Mounted Police surrounded the float as the boy and I disembarked. The media was in frenzy as to what just took place. The Police ushered the boy and his family into a squad car and took them back to their vehicle. We needed to preserve this young man's identity. I got into my limo and went back to my hotel knowing full well what was about to happen. The public relations director of the parade was instructed to give a statement. The media respected that statement and only a few photos were published of the event.

The boy died a few days before Christmas that year.

Just as in any other career or vocation, if you can help a fellow human being, you do it. I just happened to be in the right situation to "grant" his wish. It was also my responsibility.

Santa's Village-Gone Wild!

I have been asked to participate and write the forward for a new book on Santa’s Village. After numerous meetings with the author (a former park employee) and getting to know the project first hand, I agreed. Donating my time to this endeavor is important as the author has agreed to donate a portion of the profits of the book to the Make a Wish Foundation.

SANTA'S VILLAGE - GONE WILD! By Christopher Dearman is a revealing look at some of the fun, hilarious & outrageous stories that took place over the five decades Santa's Village in Dundee, IL was open.

Summers spent working at Santa's Village was a right of passage for thousands of high-school kids growing up in the Chicago suburbs. It was to teach responsibility and life lessons, while bridging the gap from adolescence to adulthood in a safe environment.

We can now lift the curtain and show what REALLY went on behind the scenes...

This book will be a window into the past to see some of the coming of age stories that could only happened if you were one of the lucky ones to work at Santa's summertime home.

Note: This book is not being written to hurt or embarrass anyone connected to Santa’s Village in anyway! Our intent is to capture memories of the people that worked at the park and put into perspective what in meant to be part of a Chicagoland summer tradition. Stories will be verified for context and content. This is a fun book, about a fun place and the fun people that worked there. As with all places that employ teenagers, there were shenanigans that went unnoticed by the management, and thus the name: SANTAS VILLAGE GONE WILD!

For more information on this upcoming book visit www.santasvillagegonewild.com

Friday, April 10, 2009

Odd Man Out

I have been involved in many “Santa” parades…matter of fact 30 of them…from televised parades in large cities like Chicago and Houston, to small parades in rural communities and beyond. So it was kind of odd for me when I was not in full regalia for the Holly and Shamrock Parade at Celebrate Santa. I was involved in the parade, but in a different role this time.

I had the wonderful opportunity to be one of the co-hosts for the syndicated broadcast of this event. And I must say that I had the best seat in the house. To be able to watch and comment on such a fantastic parade was more fun than a Santa in a cookie bakery.

Watching from above the parkway, on the balcony of the Midtown Lodge, the view was incredible. To see the nearly 600 participants all dressed in red, white and green proceeding down the winding road towards the TV zone brought a tear to my eye. This was going to be a parade with Santa like no other before.

The police estimated the crowd at nearly 20,000 people. The fathers, mothers, children and families that lined the street were at a Mardi Gras pitch. You could see excitement and feel it in the air. The atmosphere was pure magic!

As the parade progressed below our vantage point, I saw the faces of the hundreds of Santas, Mrs. Claus and elves beam with as much excitement as the spectators that viewed the parade. Somewhere during this event, the reality of the real world was suspended and the fantasy of childhood became the reality.

Even Mother Nature got in on the act. The preceding days before the parade it had rained, but on parade day the sky was as blue as the ocean and there were only a couple clouds in the sky. Some how deep inside, I knew that up there in the clouds were Charles (Howard), Jim (Yellig), Bill (Strother) and even St Nicholas looking down with smiles on their faces.

As the parade ended, we rapped up the broadcast and headed back up to the convention center. As I walked, I listened to the comments of the people who had just seen this event. Needless to say, the comments reflected my feelings…it was just spectacular!

As I stated before, it was odd for me not being in this parade, but this time I was happy being the odd man out.

Thank You Celebrate Santa

The Celebrate Santa Convention is now part of our collective memory and history. Words cannot express the wonderful experiences that DeAnn and I had in Gatlinburg. It took nearly 700 hundred Santas, Mrs. Clauses, elves, helpers and vendors to make up the expo at the beautiful Mills Auditorium and Convention Center. There were many others who could not attend and were very much a part of this gathering.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Joe and Mary Moore for asking me to be a part of this. I also thank Tim Mack for being the “glue” that held the convention together. These three allowed me to have free range to create the opening and closing power points for the convention. I also would like to thank Bill Sadowski, who worked behind the scenes. Bill is that very important tangible that most never see that helped bring it all together at the expo.

The media chairs, Michael Rielly and Dutch Schrap worked hard before and at the convention. Dutch stepped in when Mike could not make it and did a great job. This was by no accident, as the media plan that was developed was strong. Special thanks to Jerry Owens, Gary Isaacson and David Troutman who worked in the media room and as escorts for reporters.

Great appreciation and thanks to the Santa Claus Oath Committee members who were at the convention:
Jerry Owens / Co-Chairman
Gary Isaacson / Co-Chairman
Danny Nease
Ron Breech
David Troutman
Tom Kliner
Diana Owens
David Hoopes
Penny Hoopes
Dutch Schrap
Bill Sadowski
Ken Fulkerson
Owen Davenport
Barry Walzberg
Lesa Walzberg
Carl Carlucci
Kona Gant
Bill Young
Sam Militello
Dennis Blanden
Harold “Buddy” Norvell
Everett Johnson
Steve Gillham
Dennis Wendling
Gloria Wendling
DeAnn Johnson-Wenz

Special thanks to Keith and Cynthia Burton, who stopped by Holland, Michigan on their way down to the convention to pick up part of the display from Carol Myers of the St. Nicholas Center… and thanks to Carol Myers for providing the display.

Thanks to the chairs of Celebrate, Bob Elkin, Amy Abell, Dana Mack and Tom Zimecki for all their hard work and time.

Thanks to Jim Morrison of the National Christmas Center for bring some of his displays.

Thanks to Steve Small for researching the Santa groups and compiling their information and Tom Sheerin for working on the Traveling Oath Project. Steve and Tom could not make the convention but are very much a part of Celebrate Santa.

This convention owes a debt of gratitude to the Charles W. Howard family and the Jim Yellig family for being a part of Celebrate Santa.

To Mr. Charles Bergeman, grandson of Charles W. Howard…Thank you and your family for being a part of the Santa Claus Oath.

To Mr. Will Koch, grandson of Jim Yellig…Thank you and your family for being part of the Santa Claus Oath.

To Mrs. Pat Koch, the daughter of Jim Yellig, thank you for your recorded message that was shown during the Oath Ceremony.

To the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School alumni, thank you for letting me speak at your gathering at the Inn at Christmas Place after the convention.

To Paul Werne, Public Relations and Media Director of Holiday World, Santa Claus, Indiana. Thanks you and your staff for all the help over the last couple months.

To Kevin Klosowski of Santa’s Candy Castle in Santa Claus, Indiana. Thanks for all that you have done behind the scene for the Santa Claus Oath. It is very much appreciated.

To my Mrs. Claus DeAnn, thanks are not enough for all that you have done.

As I took the stage after the Oath slide show, I was given a standing ovation. I truly was humbled and I thank you all for that honor on behalf of all those who helped me on my journey to be standing there at that moment. It is truly appreciated.

If I have forgotten to thank anyone, I thank you now.

Celebrate Santa is over, but the emotions and memories will last a lifetime. Thank you all and the Santa Claus world for letting me be a part of it.

Phillip L. Wenz
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