Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Needs don’t stop after Christmas

With Christmas 2011 in the books and folks looking forward to the New Year and beyond, people sometimes forget that the children and adults that so many helped this past season still need help. A person's needs do not get put away with the decorations or tossed aside like a dried up Christmas Tree. The reality of the situation is that after all the “goodwill towards men” is faded away, we go back to our everyday lives…and so do the people in need.

Now don’t get me wrong, I truly appreciate all of those who give at this time of year to help those less fortunate than themselves and I imagine that the children, adults, and senior citizens that receive these once a year offerings are appreciative too, but they also know that the “gift” sometimes does not last. And that is a reality of their lives.

If there is anything that being a year-round working Santa Claus has taught me is there is no “one season” to give. Those in this world that struggle, struggle 24/7/365. They face issues everyday of food, warmth, and the need of compassion. Children, adults, and the elderly are sometimes forced into a world of darkness, depression, and despair beyond their control.

With the New Year of 2012 upon us, millions of people make New Year’s resolutions to better themselves. Maybe this year, make a resolution to keep the true Spirit of Christmas alive the entire year. And then strive to better yourself and your community at the same time by keeping this resolution.

When visiting with the many corporations, adults, and children this year, I closed a lot of my speaking engagements and lines of patter with this thought…"and remember that the Spirit of Christmas can live within you not only at Christmas, but the whole year through. Please always love and honor your family and friends, have understanding and be gentle with ALL children, have compassion and respect the elderly, always help those less fortunate than yourself, and be kind to all animals. If you can do these five simple things, from your heart, then Santa will always keep your name in his good book!"

True needs, like the True Spirit of Christmas, knows no season.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thanks DeAnn

In 1977 at the age of fourteen I was asked to be Santa Claus for the Watseka Area Chamber of Commerce. It would be a position that I would hold for eight years until my high school and college education was complete. The job entailed a parade and working in a Santa House in downtown Watseka.

In 1981, my freshman year in college, I was preparing to do the Santa gig once again for the chamber when the week before the parade, I broke my left wrist in a pick-up game of football. In my four years of high school football and four years of college ball I never got hurt, but a pick game almost sidelined my Santa career in its tracks.

I was very upset as I got the cast put on my arm. The Santa thing was done, at least for this year I thought. When the chamber found out I had a cast on, they did not panic. They suggest I find a Mrs. Claus to help lift the children.

In November of 1981, I asked DeAnn to be my Mrs. Santa Claus. She and I met in kindergarten as children and had gone through the entire Watseka School System together starting in 1968. She was the perfect choice as she was studying to be a teacher and most importantly she loved Christmas.

Thirty years have come and gone since DeAnn became Mrs. Santa Claus. She has appeared in many parades, on TV programs, at Santa’s Village, and in Santa Claus, Indiana. Three decades as Mrs. Santa Claus. I would say that there are not many Mrs. C’s out there that have done what she has done with the role and for that length of time.

Besides being Mrs. Santa Claus, DeAnn is a school teacher with 26 years with Unit 9 in Watseka, Illinois. She has two master’s degrees and numerous State of Illinois special certificates in elementary education. Beside all that and most importantly to me, today she is my real Mrs. Claus.

Thanks DeAnn for all you do for me and Santa Claus.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Just who is Santa Claus?

With Christmas just about a month away I like to take the time to stop and reflect about just who I am portraying and what it really means to be Santa Claus. You see, Santa Claus is real, more than one might expect and has been around a long time.

Ask any child what Santa looks like, and he or she can probably describe him – he’s a big guy with a white beard, a red suit and hat, and a reindeer-drawn sleigh. But how did the gift-giving habits of Nicholas, a Christian saint who lived in the third century, evolve into the myth of a jolly old elf that slides down chimneys?

Two people, political cartoonist Thomas Nast and author Clement C. Moore can largely take credit for popularizing today’s image of Santa as a jolly, rotund fellow who wears a fur-trimmed red suit. But the evolution from St. Nicholas to the image of today’s Santa occurred over a long period.

Nicholas was born in 270 AD in what is now Turkey. His parents were wealthy, devout Christians who died when he was little. Following Jesus’ advice to give to the poor, Nicholas gave away his entire inheritance to the poor and needy. He became the Bishop of Myra while still a young man, and continued to help those in need, particularly children.

Nicholas was known for his generosity. The most popular legend about St. Nicholas tells of a poor man who had three daughters but couldn’t afford a dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in the absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Nicholas decided to help the man by going to his house at night and throwing three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window.

Another version of the story has him throwing the coins down the chimney, which explains the connection to Santa’s preference for entering homes via the chimney.

The legend of this generous saint was brought to the New World by Dutch settlers, and the name Santa Claus would evolve from the Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas. The saint became a part of local lore when John Pintard founded the New York Historical Society in 1804 and made St. Nicholas the patron saint of the society and New York City.

St. Nick received another boost a few years later when Washington Irving joined the society and published a work called Knickerbockers’ History of New York on St. Nicholas Day. The work contained numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character.

It was Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” (now better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) that cemented St. Nicholas’ image as “a jolly old elf” with a “little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.” Moore reportedly wrote the poem for his family in 1822. It was first printed in a newspaper a year later, and it then became popular and was reprinted anonymously in a number of publications.

Political cartoonist Thomas Nast helped popularize the image Moore created in the famous poem. In 1863 Nast began drawing a series of annual cartoons for Harper’s Weekly that was based on the character in the poem and in Washington Irving’s work. Nash’s Santa has a beard, fur clothing, and a pipe, and was the basis for many Santas to follow. He was also the one to invent the North Pole, elves, and Mrs. Claus.

By the early 1900s, the image of Santa in a red suit and hat was so common that the Volunteers of America began dressing men in Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations for the Christmas meals for the needy. Later, artists such as Norman Rockwell and companies such as Coca-Cola continued to popularize the image of Santa Claus as a bearded fellow in a red suit in both artwork and advertising.

Today, Santa Claus is now a common image of Christmas who still carries on the spirit of giving that St. Nicholas started centuries ago and his likeness is known across the world.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Detroit's Super Santa - Joseph "Bernie" Marquis

As time goes by and we get older, you realize how important some people are in your life. Over 20 some years ago, I was introduced to a great Santa from Detroit named Joseph “Bernie” Marquis. Bernie at the time, in the 1970s and 1980s, was one of the nation’s premier Santas. For many years he was the official Santa Claus for the Hudson’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (now known as America’s Thanksgiving Parade) on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit. The Detroit News called Bernie “Super Santa” which he was.

I always admired Bernie’s rendition of Santa and met him for lunch in the mid-1980s when I was in my early twenties. He was very polite, honest, and gave me some advice that would eventually help shape my career as Santa. At the time he may have had no idea how he influenced me.

Over two decades later, Bernie and I talked on the phone today. We caught up on each other. He is now a priest with the Sacred Heart Byzantine Catholic Church in Detroit and I am still Santa from Santa’s Village.

Next week, Father Marquis is coming to Illinois to see me. We are going to have lunch again. Thanks Bernie or I should say Father Marquis, for taking time to have lunch with me…both times. You have been an inspiration to me and I thank you.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Tree House Slide

It such a simple piece of playground equipment, a relic of a gone by era, and one of the most treasured attractions at Santa’s Village. The Tree House Slide first brought smiles and laughter to guests of the park on opening day, May 30, 1959. And it has been in the same location at Santa’s Village ever since.

In this modern age of cell phones, computers, and very large expensive amusement park rides, one would think that a simple “slide” would get lost in all the electronic splendor of today’s world. But the Tree House Slide is more than a modest and unpretentious attraction at the park, it’s a reminder and a connection to a time when life was simpler and families took the time to be together.

The Slide, along with the North Pole and Mushrooms, represents a constant of Santa’s Village that is being shared with the new generation of visitors by the generations that have visited for decades. This past weekend at the park I got to see that first hand. I saw a great grandmother who was 80 years old and her mid-50ish daughter, a grandmother herself, and her daughter, a young mother in her 20s and her daughter, a 4 year old little girl, taking pictures and reminiscing about going down the Slide.

You see, the great grandmother brought her daughter to Santa’s Village in 1959 and she has been coming ever since with children, grandchildren, and now great grandchildren. The family was happy to see that the Tree House Slide was still there and that it had survived the auction in 2006. They were even happier when the 4 year old little girl climb the staircase and took her first slide.

It was pretty special seeing how this inanimate object, the Slide, represented so much to this family, the connection they had to it, and now the shared memories they will keep; four generations enjoying the day together at Santa’s Village. As I watched other guests go down the Slide, I thought to myself how many children have slid down that slide. One can only estimate that number...but that is really not what is important.

What is important is that such a simple thing made millions of children laugh, millions of parents smile, and made a memory for millions. The Tree House Slide was never and will never be the marquee attraction at the park, but for the millions of families that have gathered around the shady area of the slide to watch their children at play…it will always hold a special place.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Elizabeth W. Babcock

This past weekend we went out to Albion, New York to film some segments for the documentary “They Wore The Red Suit” that we have been working on during this past year. Albion is the home to the late Charles W. Howard, the famous Santa known as the “Dean of Santa Clauses.” Howard's story is generally known to the Santa Claus Community and that was the main reason we were in Albion.

But there is another individual that played a very important and unique role in the Howard story, Albion, and in my own search for information on being Santa. And that person is Elizabeth W. Babcock.

My introduction to Elizabeth came from research on Charles W. Howard. My introduction to Charles W. Howard came from advice from Jim Yellig, the “Real Santa Claus from Santa Claus.” I met Jim through a series of letters, phone calls, and trips to Santa Claus in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Jim was kind enough to encourage me as a Santa and to realistically pursue my dream of being a true year-round Santa like he was. Jim never mentioned a “Charles W. Howard” to me in our conversations, but he did encourage me to research Santa as much as I could. When Jim passed away in 1984, I began to research more about him and discovered Charles W. Howard. In an odd way, Jim gave me the gift of Charlie.

After a couple of years compiling information on both Howard and Yellig, I came across a story about the lady who continued the making the Howard type Santa Claus Suit. Her name was Elizabeth W. Babcock. Elizabeth had purchased the suit company from Christmas Park in 1965, one year prior to Howard’s death in 1966.

I first talked to Elizabeth in March of 1986 by phone and immediately wanted to know more about her and of course…Charles W. Howard. Within a month I was sitting in Elizabeth’s home on Phipps Road in Albion, just a stone’s throw from the Christmas Park property. She was very kind and cordial as we talked about my dreams of being Santa. I showed her my scrapbook and she was amazed that such a young man would want to pursue such a vocation. I informed her that I already was employed by a photo company and that the upcoming summer I would be Santa at Santa’s Village theme park in Dundee, Illinois. She smiled. Somehow I think she knew I was going to be around this Santa thing for a long time to come.

I left Elizabeth’s house that day with a rabbit suit and a yak beard set. I also ordered two fake fur suits for my upcoming summer at Santa’s Village. Elizabeth said she would send them out in a few days, but I said I would be back to pick them up. She was taken back a bit. It is not like Chicago and Albion, NY are close together. She asked why make the trip again. I simply stated I wanted to learn more about Charles W. Howard.

Within a month I was sitting in Elizabeth’s home once again, but this time there was someone with her. It was Gale Bergeman, the daughter of Charles W. Howard himself! Elizabeth arranged for me to meet her and Gale had brought her father’s personal scrapbooks to view. As I sat between these two ladies looking at the documentation of Howard’s career, I felt as if I had just been given a great gift…which I had. That day I also got to see Howard’s home and the remnants of Christmas Park for the first time.

Over the years I got to know Elizabeth and Gale better, but it was Elizabeth who took on a new role as a mentor to me in many ways. She never played Santa, but she knew exactly who Santa is and how he should dress.

For over thirty years, Elizabeth Babcock made Santa Claus Suits that were worthy of the Howard name. Before she took over the suit business Elizabeth worked at Christmas Park for many years in many roles. When the suit business became available, she was the perfect person to keep the tradition going. Elizabeth knew business, book keeping, customer service, and most importantly…she could sew. She never strayed from the original concepts of the suit and was loyal to the Howard philosophy to the end of her life.

Elizabeth W. Babcock passed away in 2006 at the age of 92. She left behind her own legacy of integrity and quality for the sake of keeping Santa looking like he should. There are many people whom have helped me make my dreams come true and Elizabeth W. Babcock is right up there with Yellig, Howard, and Don Goers.

Elizabeth made the finest Santa Claus Suits in the world. She used the finest materials. She sewed them to specification to keep the high standard. But the component she added that was the most important to the suit was…Elizabeth W. Babcock’s Santa Claus Suits were made with love. Thanks Elizabeth.

Twenty five years after I sat between Elizabeth W. Babcock and Gale Bergeman, I sat between the daughters of each of them. To the left of me is Laurie Hatch, the daughter of Elizabeth and to the right is Jane Holland, the daughter of Gale.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dora visits Santa's Village

It never ceases to amaze me the popularity of a children’s television character. This past weekend at Santa’s Village Dora the Explorer and her best friend Boots the monkey stopped by for a visit. Dora is a 7-year-old girl who embarks on a trip in every one of her TV episode in order to find something or help somebody. She asks the viewers at home to help her find new ways to reach places with the help of a map. She also teaches viewers Spanish, introducing them to short words and phrases.

Dora is really pretty popular with the 2 to 8 year old crowd. She visited guests of the park and posed for many pictures including one with yours truly. Dora is a positive character for children in this day and age of so much violence on TV. She is a throwback to a different time when it was ok to be nice, polite, and thoughtful. It was a pleasure meeting Dora and Boots.

Santa’s Village also put up a huge park map right inside the entrance to the park. This new sign was very helpful to guests and was fun for me to be able to help visitors find the rides, shows, and attractions. It is a welcome addition to the landscape that is being developed at Santa’s Village.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Fire Truck and the Candy Cane Sleigh

One of the very neat things about the reopening of Santa’s Village this year is to see some of the more historic rides or props return to the park. The Fire Truck Ride is back and is being prepared to reopen sometime in the future. The ride was put in the park in the mid-1970s. The Candy Cane Sleigh is also back at the park. The sleigh is an original attraction that dates back to the opening season of 1959.

It is really great to see the excitement on the faces of our guests at Santa’s Village when they see these two attractions. Some remember riding them as a child and some are experiencing them for the first time. And when you think about it, that is pretty cool in and of itself.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sometimes it is just like déjà vu…

Déjà vu is defined as “the experience of feeling sure that one has already witnessed or experienced a current situation.” Well in the case of Santa’s Village this past year reopening… déjà vu is alive and well at the park. Sometimes it seems as if Santa's Village never really closed at all.

Granted some things have changed, but there is so much that is the same. A lot of former employees have resumed their roles at the park like Don, Joslyn, Ralph, Tim, and Sue and others have taken on new roles like Jason and Amy. Each day it seems that some former employee is visiting the park. Crystal, Dean, and others have made their way to Santa’s Village this summer. Then you have the guests that are coming to relive some childhood memories with their children and grandchildren.

There are many new employees and visitors to the park also that get caught up into the nostalgia and the magic that is Santa’s Village. They are quickly becoming a part of an extended family that first started in 1959. Over the years, Santa’s Village has hosted more than 20 million guests and has employed many thousands of local teenagers and adults.

The future of the Santa’s Village property seems secure for the future…at least for a while. The Azoosment Park, Paintball Explosion, and the Sterling Bay Companies have come together to bring the property back to life. In doing so, they also brought back a lot of memories and magic to a lot of people… including Santa Claus. And in the process they all have become part of the Santa’s Village family and history.

Being at Santa’s Village again is sometimes just like déjà vu…but that is really a good thing. Seeing the smile on a child’s face will never get old.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Day to Remember Santa Don Goers

Since the reopening of Santa’s Village in Dundee, Illinois there have been many families that have come out to enjoy the park together. This past Saturday the family of Santa Don Goers came to Santa’s Village. Santa Don passed away this past May of 2011 just as Santa’s Village was about to reopen.

Don’s daughter’s family came to the park to enjoy some old memories and create some new ones. It was good to see them and it was even more interesting to see Don’s grandchildren and great grandchildren enjoy the place that their grandfather was associated with for over 20 years.

Don Goers first came to Santa’s Village before there was even a Santa’s Village. Don was a local construction labor that was hired on by the Henck Construction Company of Sky Forest, California in September of 1958 to build Santa’s Village. In a way, Don was the original Santa’s Village employee.

Don help build the park from day one. He worked on the buildings, help form the cement mushrooms and toad stools, and installed the rides. When the construction of the park was complete, Don was offered a job by Santa’s Village to work in the maintenance department. Santa’s Village opened on May 30, 1959 and Don Goers was there.

In his early days, Don helped anywhere he could. He even suited up in the red suit to help the park’s first two Santas, Jim Combs and Eric Mitchell Lavoie, get a day off. In 1966, Don would take over the role of the main Santa Claus. A position he held until 1979. Don’s fourteen seasons as Santa for Santa’s Village is one of the longest in the park’s history.

Not only was Don known as the Santa from Santa’s Village, he was known as the Santa from the Joseph Spiess department store in downtown Elgin, Illinois. A position he held for nearly a decade. Besides the park and the department store, Don appeared at Holiday events, parties and homes in and around the Chicagoland area.

When Don’s family visited the park this past Saturday, they got to reflect on his years at Santa’s Village. We held a small private ceremony for them and presented some photos and information about Santa Don. In talking, I believe that the grandchildren really didn’t know what their grandpa had contributed to Santa’s Village and its success. By the day’s end I am pretty sure they knew a little bit more.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sparky meets the Reindeer

I spend a lot of time at Santa’s Village and sometimes you miss out on some of the simple little things… like walking your dog. So this past weekend we brought our dachshund Sparky to the park for a visit. Sparky has been to Santa’s Village before, but this was the first time he got to meet Santa’s reindeer.

Of course the reindeer were not the only thing Sparky got to see…he even got to ride on the Candy Cane Sleigh, visit the North Pole, and enjoy the beautiful surroundings that are Santa’s Village.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Rainy Days and Hot Days

The one thing no one can control about working at a theme park is the weather. This July of 2011 has been the rainiest on record in the Chicagoland area with over 9 inches of rain. It also has been extremely hot when it has not been raining. Many days the heat indexes topped 100 degrees.

Santa’s Village, like any other outdoor attraction, is at the mercy of Mother Nature. The park has had to close on some of these days because of the rain and other days the park closed early because of the dangers of the heat wave that has been sticking around a lot this year. For the park officials the decision to close is a tough one, but they always put public safety, employee safety, and animal safety first.

Even if the park is closed because of the uncontrollable weather, the daily operations of maintenance, administration, and cleaning still have to take place. Plus the care for the animals that live at Santa’s Village need attention no matter what the weather may be. The park just does not get locked up and everyone goes home for a day off.

There are a lot of things that the general public might not understand about rainy days and hot days. And that is to be understood. But as an insider, I know that the park officials do make the right decisions when it comes to weather. It is a tough call sometimes and I am glad I don’t have to make that decision.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Man’s Best Friend

A little over two years ago, DeAnn and I had a very special “little friend” enter into our lives and home…His name is Sparky.

As a young boy growing up, my family had many pets that became our family members. My two brothers were into the pets more than I was, but I did enjoy having the dogs, cats, gold fish, and hamsters around. I never really had my own pet as a kid or even as an adult but that changed in early 2009.

A couple years ago I was talking to a friend of mine who had to find a new home for his family’s pet dachshund. The dog was 7 years old at the time and a lot of times, at that age, a new home is hard to find. I was familiar with the dachshund bread as my family had one when I was a child. It was probably the only dog that I really had a true fondness for as a kid.

With that being said, when I thought about this 7 years old dog that needed a new home, I seriously thought about it. I was also afraid of what the alternative could be. After a couple days, I knew I wanted the dog…now all I had to do was to tell DeAnn.

DeAnn and I discussed the issue and we both agreed that having a pet in the house might be challenging at times, but for the dog we needed to do it. Plus she thought it would be good for me. Well, DeAnn was right.

I brought Sparky into our home in February 2009 and he has been with us ever since. Sparky is a great joy and he is a true friend and buddy. I cannot imagine life without this little red “wiener dog” around.

Today Sparky is 9 years old and turning a little gray around his snout and paws, but who isn’t. He travels with us as much as he can and the love and companionship he shows is as genuine as I have ever seen or felt. He is truly part of our family.

Thanks Sparky for bringing the kid in me out again.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Gone Fishing

Sometimes you just need a little time off to relax and go fishing. Too hot for ice fishing, but relaxing all the same.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The North Pole

It is a piece of theme park history. When Glenn Holland and Putnam Henck of Santa’s Village Corporation first developed the concept of Santa’s Village in 1953 they wanted to bring the Legend of Santa Claus to life in startling realism. Part of that realism was having an iconic symbol for the park. It was an obvious choice…the North Pole. The frozen North Pole appeared at all three Santa’s Villages that Holland built. It became a landmark. In reality there were only six North Poles built. Three were for Santa’s Village Corporation and three others for different entertainment venues. Today, to my knowledge, only three exist.

The frozen North Pole that was at the Dundee, Illinois Santa’s Village was first located in the center of the park in a small area coined “North Pole Plaza.” When the Polar Dome was built in 1962 the Pole was moved, along with Santa’s House, near the Snowball Ride. The Pole was move once again in 1968 to right outside the front door of Santa’s House.

Since the North Pole was first frozen in 1959 at Santa’s Village Dundee it has fascinated millions. The Pole was last frozen at the park on September 18, 2005. I tuned it off on the last day of operation of the park. The North Pole survived the auction of the Santa’s Village assets in the fall of 2006 because I had made an agreement to preserve the North Pole and all the Santa’s House props along with the extensive public relations archives of the park that date back to 1958. All these things have been in my possession ever since.

The North Pole has been used a few times since I removed it from the park. This past year I loaned the North Pole to another attraction. That agreement has since expired. And so the North Pole is once again with me at my home in storage. But the Pole will not stay in storage long. With the reopening of Santa's Village this past May and my return to the park as Santa, I have agreed to loan the North Pole to Santa’s Village. So after 5 years the North Pole is coming back to the park.

For all its history the North Pole has survived three locations, numerous sign toppers, the park’s closing and auction. It will be great to see the frozen North Pole once again at its original home at Santa’s Village. And for sure, the Pole will bring back memories for some and create new memories for those who have never seen it and once again fascinate the young and the old alike…that believe in the magic of Santa and childhood.

Christmas in July

Since the Fourth of July has passed, the “Christmas in July” season has started. What does this really mean? Well for starters it is extremely hot walking around Santa’s Village theme park in full regalia. Last weekend the temperatures were way past 90 degrees with heat indexes were over 100 degrees. It’s hot enough if you’re wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but a full yak beard set, wool pants, black boots, and foam rubber padding is extreme. But that is part and parcel with being Santa from Santa’s Village. It is also a heck of a way to drop a few pounds. Of course we take the necessary precautions while in the suit to keep hydrated and monitor body temperature.

July is also the time of year that we start shooting print ad pictures, commercial spots, and promotional videos for this upcoming Christmas Season. These can be lots of fun especially when you have a great crew that you are working with. Last week we shot at Sears Holdings national headquarters in metropolitan Chicago. Sears Holdings is the parent company of Sears retail stores and the Kmart retail stores. We did filming for both entities. I tip my hat to the crew of the project as they were very accommodating and really great professionals to work with and be around. It is a lot of work, but it is very rewarding to see the finished project where the talent of all concerned blends into one image. That in itself is pretty cool on a hot July day.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Taking a time-out to go back to High School

It has been a long time since high school and that world seems like a far off place. Of course my "real" reality is not the typical path chosen by most. But it is the one that best fit me and so I might look at life in a different way.

The reality of my world is that I make a fulltime living being Santa Claus. Since the inception of a “live” Santa visiting children some 170 years ago there have been only five Santas that have done Santa as a living for a span of a decade or more. I happen to be one of those men. I’ve been a fulltime Santa for over 25 years and only one man in history has more fulltime years at this than I do…and he helped me get a “D” on my high school junior year term paper about what I wanted to do for a living. In a way that is some sort of poetic justice for me today as I think that paper and a certain English teacher that graded it motivated me more than anything else. I knew she was wrong.

This upcoming weekend, the Fourth of July celebration in Watseka, Illinois, my graduating class of 1981 will celebrate our 30th anniversary…so I have made arrangements to take a few days off and go back to high school. I have mixed emotions about the whole thing. I know that since I left high school I have changed a lot. And of course all of the 100 or so of my classmates have too. That’s just part of going from a young person to a middle aged person.

Reminiscing about days gone by is fun. Heck that was the point of this blog in the first place. I have probably forgotten more about high school than I can remember. And that is most likely true of everyone. But that is not what is important.

In my humble opinion, it is not that thirty years have passed or so and so was a jock, musician, drama queen , a rah-rah or stoner…and it is not about high school any more. What it is about is that these people were a part of my formative years. They were and some still are a part of my life. It does not really matter where anyone ended up or who does what and where…as long as they are happy. That’s what is important.

If anything comes out of this reunion for my classmates and me, it’s the feeling that we all still have a common bond to each other. I hope this is a reunion not a “let’s party dude” or “class of 81 rules” thing. High school was a long time ago and all of us are now in our late 40s so no one should expect a 17 or 18 year old mentality. Hopefully people can just be themselves.

Going to a class reunion is a rite of passage in some ways. I never attended the 10th or 20th class reunions, so I think it is about time to go to one. I guess I’m just getting older and realizing that life is really very short. Over the past few years my class has lost a few more classmates. Little did I know way back in 1981 that would be the last time I would see some of these people. That is why this reunion is important also. You never know the cards the game of life will deal you.

I do look forward to seeing members of my class. As I said before, they all were a part of my formative years as a person and in a way as Santa Claus. That is my connection to the Watseka Community and the High School Class of 1981. And I thank them for it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Welcome to Santa's Village Paizley

It is not too often in one’s life that miracles happen. Miracles don’t have to be world changing or earth shattering to be important in an individual’s life. With the reopening of Santa’s Village this past month I have seen these “little” miracles happen at the park. As Santa, I try to meet and greet each and every person who visits Santa’s Village. I appreciate the time and the money spent by these guests to come to the park and enjoy Santa’s Village again. But every now and then a “little” miracle will happen.

For many generations of Chicago area children Santa’s Village was an annual summer outing with mom, dad, brother, sister, and even grandma and grandpa. Five summers have come and gone since Santa’s Village was last open and now we have a new generation of young children who have never had the experience of the park. It is really something to see the magic in a child’s eyes when they enter into the park and see it for the first time. It is also special to see a young parent and a new grandparent experience it for the first time with a child. It brings back many memories and connects them with a new memory of Santa’s Village that all three generations can share.

I first appeared as Santa at Santa’s Village some twenty five years ago in 1986. In the spring of 1988 my daughter Holly was born and I got to welcome her to the park. My daughter grew up with Santa’s Village and me being the park’s Santa. It was different for her I imagine. Well, Holly is all grown up and married to a great young man named Nicholas. Who else would Santa’s daughter marry? About two years ago God blessed Holly and Nick with a beautiful little girl named Paizley… my first grandchild.

My job at Santa’s Village is to create magic and bring the character of Santa to life for children of all ages. I’ve welcomed literally hundreds of thousands to Santa’s Village and have been seen by millions in the many parades, Christmas appearances, and promotions we do. But there was one thing that I had never done and that was about to change.

A couple Saturdays ago Holly and Nick brought Paizley to Santa’s Village and this time I got to be the recipient of the magic. The day was special in many ways. Holly got to relive old memories of her childhood at the park with her husband and the both of them got to create a new shared memory with their daughter. As Holly’s father I got to see my daughter experience the park with her daughter and as Santa, I got to welcome my granddaughter to her first ever visit to Santa’s Village.

Some say there are no miracles left in the World. Well, I disagree. Miracles can happen…even for a guy who is Santa Claus.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Coming Full Circle

After 5 years Santa’s Village in Dundee, Illinois is open. The park’s last day of operation was on September 18, 2005, but the park and Polar Dome officially closed on May 30, 2006. It is a great feeling to be back at Santa’s Village as there are so many fond memories of the park for me. I first became Santa Claus at Santa's Village in 1986. A regional photo company called Instant Photo Corporation (IPC) had the contract of supplying the park’s Santa. I worked for IPC as a Santa trainer back then, so it was natural that I would be at Santa’s Village. IPC dissolved as a company in late 1988 and I took over the contract at Santa’s Village in 1989 with my own company Santa Claus Productions.

Now 25 years later, a bit older, heavier, and with less hair on my head, I find myself back at Santa’s Village. It is like walking back in time. The property of Santa’s Village is divided into two sections, The Paintball Explosion and Santa’s Village Azoosment Park. I do the Santa thing for both companies and really enjoy being a part of the re-opening of Santa’s Village property. I guess in a way I have come full circle.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Remembering Santa Don Goers

It is with great sadness that I must convey that Santa Don Goers has passed away at the age of 85 on May 24, 2011. Don was Santa’s Village’s main Santa Claus from 1966-1979. My sincerest condolences go out to his family and friends.

An Algonquin, Illinois native, Don came to Santa’s Village in 1959 as a maintenance man and helped out where ever he could. One day he and another park employee were working on the Snowball ride when Santa walked up and asked if they knew of anyone who could help him out and give him a day off. Don spoke up and said “Yes I do…me!”

Don, as Santa, entertained hundreds of thousands of children at the park…including yours truly. I sat on Don’s knee in the 1960s. Not only did Don play the park’s namesake, he could be seen at Christmas events all around the area. A lot of children from the Fox Valley region remember the “REAL SANTA” from the Joseph Spiess Department Store in downtown Elgin. That Santa was Don also.

God bless you Don and thanks for making the magic of Santa come alive to many generations of Chicago area children.

Monday, May 23, 2011

They Wore the Red Suit

We have the great privilege to be part of a new film that documents some of the legendary Santa Clauses of the past and some of the Santas of today. Film maker Larry Peter and his staff at Power Plant Productions is creating a wonderful behind the scenes look at the vocation and business of being the man in the red suit. We have already filmed with Larry at Santa’s Village in East Dundee, Illinois and in Santa Claus, Indiana. This weekend we will be filming again at Santa’s Village at the opening of the park.

In the upcoming months we will travel with the film crew to the National Christmas Center outside Philadelphia, to Albion, New York to look at the history of Charles W. Howard, to New York City and Macy’s, back to Santa Claus, Indiana to look at the history of Jim Yellig. In between all this we will film some more at Santa’s Village and a few other locations. It will be a busy summer.

Working with Larry and his crew on this film has been and is a great pleasure. I am honored to be a part of this film and I am looking forward to the final product. For more information on They Wore the Red Suit please visit the film’s official website at www.thesantamovie.com

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mothers Day 1986

It was 25 years ago this Mother’s Day in 1986 that I became the Santa from Santa’s Village in Dundee, Illinois. Being the St. Nick for a theme park that is based on the legend of Santa Claus is a true fulltime job. It requires upwards of 200 days a year in appearances for the park and at Christmas time. It is also a neat way to make your living. Now I am not a 24/7/365 Santa by any means, that is just not my cup of tea. And I know that I have been very fortunate to be a true year-round Santa.

From 1986 until the park closed in 2006, I was Santa over 200 days a year…for 21 years. After the park closed I still did Santa many dozens of times a year in numerous locations including Santa Claus, Indiana and of course my Christmas Season. The property owners kept me informed during the past 5 years the property sat unused and I kept a presence at the park during that time as I had complete access. Now with the re-opening of the property, I have to get back to my real job…being Santa from Santa’s Village.

Back in 1986, I had no idea that my life would take the path that it eventually took. I did though write a term paper my junior year in high school about the possibility of being Santa and making a living at it. It got a “D.” Today, in a way, that is some sort of poetic justice for me.

Over the years I have kept daily log books or journals, as some would call them, of my vocation of Santa. These logs started back in 1985 when I was hired by Instant Photo Corp of America. There are now some 70 spiral bound notebooks of information, feelings, reflections, and business of my life.

My father was and is still a very intelligent man. He and my mother are both 80 years old and have been married for 60 years. They are really the foundation of my career in so many ways. And it was s stroke of genius by my father that led to all of this.

Back in 1985, I was a recent graduate with a business marketing degree from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and as with most graduates, I was look for a job. I came across an ad in the Chicago Tribune for a Marketing Professional and Santa Trainer for a photo agency that provides pictures with Santa to major malls and department stores. I wanted the job of course.

I prepared a resume and let my father review it. He told me he knew I had the qualifications for the job, but my age would work against me. So he came up with an idea. He re-worked the resume so there were not dates and told me that if I got the interview he would take me. Now, I am 23 years old at the time, I did not need my daddy going to an interview with me if I got one. He insisted that we wait and see if I got an interview first, then he would discuss why he would take me. Well, I applied and did get the interview.

With the interview secured, my father told me of his idea. He strongly suggested that I go in full Santa regalia to the interview. If I was to be the Santa Trainer, I better know the part, plus the suit, wig, beard, and make-up would conceal my age. And without the dates on my resume, they would not really know…at least for a while. He mentioned also to not break character if at all possible.

To make a long story short, I was hired on the spot as a fulltime employee…their Santa Trainer. It was with Instant Photo Corp that led me to Santa’s Village in the spring of 1986. They had the contract at the time. When IPC folded in early 1989, I formed my own company, Santa Claus Productions and have had the contract with Santa’s Village and the property ever since. Now 25 years later, I am still Santa from Santa’s Village.

Last weekend as Santa we opened up part of the property and on May 27th the entire property will open for day to day operations. I have spent this week reflecting how my life has now come full circle. I have read my entries in my log books from 1986 and I found most entries I feel the same about today.

From…Mother’s Day 1986… “My first day at Santa’s Village was today. Man is this cool! I only wish the suit was as cool. I just hope that this lasts forever…”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Santa helped me get a "D" on my English paper!

It was a homework assignment that I will never forget. Sometimes in life what you think is a disaster turns out to be a true blessing. I began playing Santa at the age of four years old in Havana, Illinois. I continued that family tradition all the way into high school in Watseka, Illinois to my freshman year. That year, at the age of 14, I became the local Chamber of Commerce Santa and started to appear in parades and at Santa’s House in downtown Watseka. It was fun, enjoyable, and something I really like to do, even at such a young age.

During my junior year in high school, my English teacher assigned a thesis paper to our class on what we wanted to do for a career after we graduate. Well, I had been playing Santa for the chamber for a few seasons and I thought…why not just be Santa as a career. I had heard of one man who had done this. So it could be done…right?

A few years earlier I had seen a newspaper article on a man from southern Indiana that was the year-round Santa at Santa Claus Land theme park in Santa Claus, Indiana. His name was Jim Yellig. Yellig had been at Santa Claus Land since its inception in 1946. Santa was his job, but most importantly it was his vocation. He did not play Santa, he was Santa.

The English assignment required that I do research on my “dream” career and so the first thing I did was hit the library and research Jim Yellig. I found out a lot about this man...a WW I veteran, an American Legion Post Commander, and a career Santa Claus. I gathered as much information on Yellig that I could find, but it was not enough. So I decided to write him a letter about how to be a year-round Santa Claus.

It felt kind of strange, being a 16 year old junior in high school, writing a letter to the Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Indiana, but I did it anyway. I asked in my letter for advice on how to make Santa a career, what education was needed, and if there was any special requirements. I told him a little bit about my background as a young Santa and that I was doing a paper on a career that I wanted to pursue. I addressed it to Santa Claus and mailed it to Santa Claus, Indiana.

I went about the business of writing the paper for class, half thinking how silly it was to bother a professional Santa with my pipe dream. I really didn’t think that Jim would reply. Well I could have not been more wrong.

I came home from school one afternoon to find an envelope addressed to me lying on the kitchen table. As I picked it up, I noticed it was from Santa Claus Land. I had just gotten a letter from Santa.

I took the letter into my bedroom and opened it very cautiously, not knowing what the contents might be. The envelope contained a handwritten letter from Jim Yellig and a book called, “It’s Fun to be a Real Santa!” I very carefully read the letter.

“Dear Phillip,

Thank you for your letter dated the 10th of April. Your request is one that I am not sure Santa can fill, but he will try. First of all you have to have the love of Christmas and children in your heart. You must understand this as without it you are just wearing a red suit. Be dedicated to the magic that Santa holds for a child, understand the religious meaning of Christmas, and be kind to the elderly as they are your children also.

Get as much general education as you can, study, study, and more study. Then ask the Good Lord for guidance as he will know what path he will lead you. Please let me know how your paper turns out.


Santa Jim Yellig, the Ho-Ho-Ho of Santa Claus, Indiana.”

The letter and the book inspired me. Santa had written me back. I showed the letter to my parents who thought that the message and tone of Jim’s letter was very honest and motivating. They also stated that I better get busy on the paper as it was due in a few days.

I wrote the paper with a sense of excitement that I had never had before. I carefully crafted each paragraph and cited my references. When I was finished, I had the paper typed by my Dad’s secretary to make sure all punctuations and grammar was correct. I then turned the paper in to my English teacher.

About a week passed and finally in English class the paper was retuned to me. I opened the red folder that incased the manuscript with great anticipation. I looked at the teacher's remarks. I got a “D” with a comment added, “An unattainable goal.”

I was heart broken. At least she could do was encourage me a bit or maybe say that Santa could be a hobby, not a profession. But she didn’t. As requested, I wrote Jim another letter to let him know how the paper turned out.

It was about a week later that Jim replied back and he was a little surprised at the mark I received. “Don’t let one person’s opinion discourage you from any of your dreams.” he stated. And he gave me even more encouragement.

I continued to play Santa during the rest of my high school days and college days. Jim and I would correspond letters and phone calls back and forth over the years. I even traveled to Santa Claus, Indiana to meet him and talk to him in person on occasion. He always encourage me, giving me sound advice along the way. Jim became my mentor even though he may have not fully realized it. He was also my friend. Jim Yellig passed away in 1984 at the age of 90. I was 22 years old at the time.

Well, I did become a true year-round Santa in 1985 when I was hired by Instant Photo Corporation of America. And the rest as they say is history.

I will never forget Jim Yellig’s kindness and his advice. I will never forget our conversations and I will never forget what I like to call Jim Yellig’s three “Rs” of being Santa.

“To be a great Santa you have to do the research, rehearse the part, and lean how to render the role. You have to become Santa, not play him.” That’s what Jim Yellig taught me.

Jim gave me a gift I can never repay… and he helped me get a “D” on my English paper along the way.

Thanks Jim for being a great inspiration.

Friday, April 1, 2011

You better watch out, you better not pout, and you might want to take cover…Paintball Explosion comes to Santa’s Village!

You might remember Santa’s Village as a child, but just as you have grown up and changed, so has the Santa’s Village property in East Dundee, Illinois. Paintball Explosion opens a new era in fun family entertainment at Santa’s Village on April 30th with an exciting opening day ceremony. There will be activities for the young, the old, and everyone in between. There will even be some strolls down memory lane for those who used to work at Santa’s Village.

Paintball Explosion has developed not just 1, 2 or 3 areas for paintball activity, but 7 great fields of play! Each area is designed to entice players in either a realistic setting or a fantasy setting. And just as an added surprise, join Paintball Explosion on their Facebook page and they will send you an exclusive invite for the pre-grand opening party that will be held on Friday April 29th at 7:00 pm. There will be plenty of food, drinks, and paintball in their state of the art indoor climate controlled field.

Paintball Explosion at Santa’s Village… Don’t miss out!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Chief

This past Friday, March 11, 2011, I spent the day at the Santa’s Village property doing a presentation on the history and memories of the park for the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association (ROBA.) After the presentation, we donned full Santa regalia to visit with the ROBA members and do some filming on a documentary we were asked to be a part of. With the different aspects of Santa’s Village; The Azoosment Park and Paintball Explosion set to reopen this coming May, being back in costume for the first time on the property since May 2006 (when Santa’s Village closed) was pretty cool. Even cooler was to have “The Chief” back in the park.

I always referred to longtime General Manager Don Holliman as “Chief.” It is a term I often heard growing up as people use to address my father as “Chief” at the hospital where he was the CEO. So the term is part of my vocabulary, though I never addressed anyone except Don with it.

There are a few people that are imbedded in the collective conscious in the history of Santa’s Village. Don Holliman is one of these people. Don came to Santa’s Village in 1968 during the Everding era as a manager for the Polar Dome and was made the park’s General Manager in 1972. A position he held until after the 2003 season.

In Don Holliman, Santa’s Village found a general manager that promoted the rides first and the other intangibles second. Holliman understood the new reality of the amusement business which was taking place in the early 1970s. The profit centers of a park were the gate, rides, foods, attractions, merchandise and games. It has change very little since. Consistency of name and image combined with these profit centers is a recipe for success.

I had not seen Don in many years, though we have talked on the phone often. As my day was winding down last Friday and before I changed back into my civilian clothes, I went into the main office and “snagged” Don for a picture. For the first time in nearly 8 years, Santa and “The Chief” were together at Santa’s Village.

I am extremely happy for Don being back at the park as the General Manager of the Azoosment Park section. He is helping write a new chapter in the continuing saga that is Santa’s Village. Good to see you again “Chief.”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nicholas of Myra LLC Film Group Aligns with the Santa Claus Oath Foundation

February 11, 2011

BUFFALO, NY ----- St. Nicholas of Myra LLC, currently in production with the motion picture Nicholas of Myra (NOM)-The Story of St. Nicholas, has announced an alliance with the Santa Claus Oath Foundation. Dan Argenas, Director of Communications for NOM, LLC thinks the alliance will help spread the word to St. Nicholas aficionados on a global basis. “Oath author Phil Wenz and the Santa Oath Foundation are committed to helping us keep the various Santa Claus organizations up to speed on the progress of the film and how they can create buzz about NOM in their own part of the globe,” shares Argenas.

The Santa Claus Oath (SCO) Foundation is an establishment specializing in the preservation and perpetuation of the Santa Claus Oath, the ‘Santas’ of the past, Santa history, and Santa artifacts as a chronological part of the Legend of Santa Claus. Their goal is to educate the current and future generations of those who would be a Santa Claus in the tradition of St. Nicholas the gift giver of Myra.

The SCO Foundation works with many of the St. Nicholas and Santa groups throughout the US and in many other countries. These groups work to promote and expand the message about Nicholas the man who ultimately became St. Nicholas, an immortal symbol and the cornerstone of many of our present Christmas traditions.

The Santa Claus Oath Foundation looks forward to helping spread the film’s message to the over 3,000 Santas, Mrs. Clauses, and helpers whom have signed and pledged the Santa Claus Oath. The entire Foundation takes the historical events surrounding the life of Nicholas very seriously as the Oath principle states, “I pledge myself to these principles as a descendant of Saint Nicholas, the gift giver of Myra.”

Wenz agrees, “We feel that it is very important this motion picture project be completed and the Santa groups around the world will participate in every way possible to help in the success of the telling of the story of the Bishop of Myra. With the Foundation’s network of the Santa communities, our contacts within the sponsorship development industry, and the passion we hold for the Christian message, the Santa Claus Oath Foundation sees this as a great journey into the base of Keeping Christ in Christmas.”

Jerry Hartke, the film’s creator and Director had planned to align with the majority of the global St. Nicholas groups and understands the value of “spreading the buzz” regarding the progress of the film. Hartke takes it a step further, “We are building a vital line of communication to these important groups beginning with Phil Wenz. With the SCO Foundation we can cover a great deal of territory quickly when it comes to keeping our audience informed. As we complete the production phase of the film, we are committed to providing updates and information to our global fan-base.”

The Santa Claus Oath Foundation will begin the communication process to Santa Claus organizations with a special Nicholas video, a film teaser, and discussion information to Santa groups use at upcoming meetings.

About the film, Nicholas of Myra – The Story of St. Nicholas

Orphan, saint, immortal… Nicholas was born to Greek parents in the city of Patara during the latter part of the Third Century A.D., on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Orphaned while still young, Nicholas inherited his father’s vast fortune -- an event that served as the catalyst for a journey of self-discovery that one day led him to the city of Myra (presently Demre, Turkey). There he came to live a dual life, as a devout bishop by day, and an anonymous gift-bearer by night. Few people know of the many legends that surround his familiar name -- even fewer know the history behind the saint.

After years of extensive development, Nicholas of Myra Writer/Director Gerald Hartke took ambitious steps to finally realize the never-before-told story for movie audiences to enjoy. Although the screenplay had drawn interest from mainstream entertainment studios, it was not until the project caught the attention of a group of Western New York investors that the production began to accelerate. Along with Executive Producer Thomas J. Mallare, Hartke launched Nicholas of Myra LLC in 2005 and assembled a talented team of actors and filmmakers, as well as state-of-the-art digital cinema technology, needed to bring the epic motion picture to the big-screen.

Fueled completely by independent financing, the production remains headquartered in a 4,000 square foot studio/soundstage in suburban Western New York and has already garnered national, as well as international, attention. With the end of production clearly in sight, the goal now is to complete what might be considered the most ambitious independent film ever attempted, while showcasing the diverse beauty and talent of Western New York in an unprecedented fashion. For more information on the film, Nicholas of Myra – The Story of St. Nicholas, please visit www.nicholasofmyra-movie.com

About the Santa Claus Oath

The Santa Claus Oath document outlines eight principles that any portrayer of Santa Claus should follow. Created in April 2008 by Phillip L. Wenz, the Santa from Santa's Village, the Oath was inspired by two legendary Santa Clauses, Charles W. Howard of Albion and Jim Yellig of Santa Claus, Indiana. For more information on the Santa Claus Oath, please visit www.SantaClausOath.com

The Santa Claus Oath

I will seek knowledge to be well versed in the mysteries of bringing Christmas cheer and good will to all the people that I encounter in my journeys and travels. I shall be dedicated to hearing the secret dreams of both children and adults. I understand that the true and only gift I can give, as Santa, is myself. I acknowledge that some of the requests I will hear will be difficult and sad. I know in these difficulties there lies an opportunity to bring a spirit of warmth, understanding and compassion. I know the “real reason for the season” and know that I am blessed to be able to be a part of it. I realize that I belong to a brotherhood and will be supportive, honest and show fellowship to my peers. I promise to use “my” powers to create happiness, spread love and make fantasies come to life in the true and sincere tradition of the Santa Claus Legend. I pledge myself to these principles as a descendant of Saint Nicholas the gift giver of Myra.

Copyright © 2011 Wonderworker Pictures / Nicholas of Myra LLC

Monday, January 10, 2011

To downstater inducted into Santa Claus Hall of Fame, portraying St. Nick no laughing matter

Chicago Tribune
By Lisa Black, Tribune reporter
December 21, 2010

At age 4, Phil Wenz was no bigger than an elf when he slipped on his dad's red flannel shirt and pajama pants and used safety pins to hold up a white kerchief beard. It was the beginning of what would become a full-time career as Santa Claus.

The payoff came this week when Wenz, 48, learned he has been selected as a charter member of the Santa Claus Hall of Fame (santaclaushall.com). His portrait, along with those of 13 other famous jolly old men, will be displayed in an exhibit at the Santa's Candy Castle tourist attraction in — you guessed it — Santa Claus, Ind. Of the inaugural group, Wenz is the only living member.

The downstate native has marched in parades, toured hospitals and held court for more than 20 years at Santa's Village in Dundee.

"I probably have had a couple million people crawl across me," said Wenz, of Crescent City, about 25 miles south of Kankakee.

With a daughter named Holly — she once joked that she could find him in any mall — Wenz takes this Santa stuff seriously. It takes two hours for him to make up his face and glue on a $1,500 beard and wig.

"To me, it's just normal," he said. "It's the only job I have ever had."

Asked what he would put on his holiday wish list, Wenz grew thoughtful.

He savors the history of St. Nicholas and Christmas past. Today he receives fewer "Dear Santa" letters and more electronic Tweets, which are difficult for his stubby fingers to master.

"There's too much commercialism," he said. "We need to slow down and look in our rearview mirror and see where we are going."

Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune

Beloved Santa headed to the hall of fame

Daily Herald - 12/20/2010

Phil Wenz first donned the white beard and plush red hat when he was 4 years old.

Forty-four years later, Wenz's affection for the character variously known as Kriss Kringle, Papa Noel and Father Christmas has earned him a trip to the Santa Claus Hall of Fame in Santa Claus, Ind.
Wenz, who played Santa Claus at East Dundee's Santa's Village for more than 20 years, got the call Monday morning informing him he was one of 14 legendary Santas who will make up the hall of fame's charter class.

Of the 14 charter members, including the first department store Santa and several men born in the 19th century, Wenz is the only one still living.

“The 13 other gentlemen have already passed on, so it's an honor,” Wenz said. “It still hasn't sunk in yet.”

He added: “I'm 48 years old, and I've been playing Santa for 44 years. That's kind of bizarre.”

Wenz's portrayal of Santa began in earnest in the late '70s, when he was a teenager in downstate Watseka. The local chamber of commerce asked him to play Santa for its annual Christmas parade and Santa House promotion.

Wenz accepted and played Santa for the next eight years while he earned his high school diploma and college degree.

Shortly after graduating, Wenz was hired by the Instant Photo Corp., which led in 1986 to Wenz becoming full-time Santa at Santa's Village.

The gig at Santa's Village led to numerous appearances in parades, corporate events and television specials. Although Santa's Village closed in 2006, Wenz has continued to play Santa full time, including around 60 appearances each year during the holiday season.

In his 40 years in character, Wenz has watched the growing commercialization of Christmas and Santa Claus.

“I think Santa can get overexposed,” Wenz mused. “Anything in excess is not a good thing. Sometimes the magic is taken away.”

But Wenz has also seen Santa weather the advances of the electronic age, with kids now texting their wish lists and asking for expensive gadgets like iPods.

“He'll adjust to the times,” Wenz said. “Everybody does.”

Copyright © 2010 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
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