Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Thank You

I would personally like to take the time to thank all the families and groups that visited Santa’s Village Azoosment Park this past 2012 season. It is by your patronage and support that this Chicagoland icon is still a part of the summer tradition of the region.

Thanks also to the staff of the park. There are many people that work behind the scenes that help create the magic you see at Santa’s Village. From the ride operators, ground crew, janitorial staff, shops and entrance to the food service workers, animal workers and barn staff, thank you.

Thanks to the management team of Jason, Amy, Don H., Jake, Jill, Tom, Samantha, Joslyn, Rob, Curtis, Dutch, and Wendy. To the maintenance staff of Dave, David, Rob the carpenter, and Danny the painter. Also thanks to Tim, Robin, Don B., and all those who entertained us with the game show and the magic show.

And of course, a very special thank you to all the children and adults that continued the Santa’s Village tradition of stopping by Santa’s House to say hello, sign the Good Book, and talk a little about the history, the magic, and the memories of the park.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Reopened Santa's Village feeds nostalgia

Chicago Tribune
Steve Johnson - Tribune reporter

4:46 PM CDT, August 14, 2012

It is probably not accurate and certainly not provable to say Phil Wenz willed Santa's Village back into being. But it's not a crazy thing to believe either.

After the northwest suburban amusement park closed in May 2006, Wenz helped organize the auction of the assets. He kept an office on the premises and served as administrator of the property, which quickly maneuvered to rejoin the wild prairie, plants growing around and into those assets — rides, vehicles, and the vaguely Seussian buildings— that hadn't been sold.

“Mother Nature took it back over,” Wenz recalls. “There were weeds all over the property. The buildings were empty. It was basically a ghost town. And it was one of those things where that, of anything, was very sad to see.”

He did historical research to write a picture-heavy book, “Santa's Village,” from Arcadia Publishing's “Images of America” series. He contributed the foreword to another, Christopher Dearman's “Santa's Village Gone Wild!” a self-published, not-as-racy-as-it-sounds collection of former employees' reminiscences about backstage doings at the park during its decades as a hotbed of teen employment and, therefore, teen behavior.

And more days than not — 200 a year — Wenz still spent a couple of morning hours putting on makeup, gluing on one of the $1,500 white beard-and-wig get-ups he carefully maintains, surrounding himself with the foam padding, the red suit, the belt, the boots.

And he went and made his corporate and charity appearances as “Santa from Santa's Village,” just as he'd been doing since making his first appearance there in 1986, at age 23. He did so even when the place seemed most likely to remain on the lengthening list of shuttered independent parks, their vintage charm no match for video games or the mega parks that can advertise ferociously, usually touting something like a new roller coaster named after a blockbuster movie character.

Wenz, now 49, knew that story line from the Chicago area alone: Riverview Park, its memory guarded like an heirloom in Chicago, is now a shopping mall, police station and college campus south of Lane Tech High School. Adventureland, in present-day Bloomingdale, now hosts the Scottish Rite Cathedral, a headquarters building for Freemasons. Kiddieland, in Melrose Park, held on longer than the others, but not long enough to avoid turning into a Costco.

All of them have a powerful pull on people's memories, testament to the way these fantasy lands make themselves larger than life. East Dundee, however, is not the North Side of the city or even Melrose Park. Located, roughly speaking, midway between Schaumburg and corn fields, it's a place where retail chains can find the space to build big boxes almost anywhere. And so the land sat there, even as Wenz did not.

“With this park, even when it was closed, the name never died,” says Wenz. “We did tons of book signings. There was a lot of legwork we did just to keep these opportunities open, to keep the name before the public.”

Now there is, once again, a park bearing the “Santa's Village” name operating on the property, like some ridiculous thing you whisper into Santa's ear that somehow turns up under the Christmas tree. And Wenz, once again, spends his early mornings getting into character in his office above the gift shop and spends his days in Santa's House in the park, greeting a new generation of visitors to the place, which first re-opened in late 2010. It's been renamed “Santa's Village AZoosment Park” to reflect a focus on younger kids and the live animals brought in by new owner Jason Sierpien, who had his own memories from working there as a teenager and again during the last season the park was open, when it contracted with him to supply the animals.

The iconic Snowball ride isn't there anymore, a carousel in its place. The Polar Dome ice arena, which used to host Blackhawks practices, is now home to an indoor battlefield in Paintball Explosion, a separate business that occupies half of the almost 40-acre property, including most of the area that was devoted to older-kid rides in the later-years land expansion of the first Santa's Village.

Still, to Wenz, enough things are the same that “it's kind of a deja-vu-type thing in many ways, and there's also times that it's like the park never closed. It just got a makeover,” he says.

“People thought, ‘Phil's got this pipe dream.' Well, here I am sitting in Santa's Village once again.”

It is an unlikely story, says Pam Turlow, and that's why she chose it to end her own book, “The Cotton Candy Road Trip,” a chronicle of visits to more than 40 such vintage parks across America.

The Elmhurst resident was spending a hot July morning touring the reborn park in its second full summer of operation, remembering the visit she made last September to bring her book full circle from her first park visit, to Kiddieland at the start of the season (2009) that would be its last.

In the book, which Turlow published herself (Amazon and cottoncandyroadtrip.com), she called the Santa's Village rebirth “a type of Christmas miracle.” Parks close quite a bit; rarely do they reopen.

Sitting on a bench by the entrance during her follow-up visit, she describes Santa's Village as “a beautiful representation of the Santa-themed park from the '50s. The architecture is Tyrolean, but yet it's bigger-than-life. It's Tyrolean from a little kid's eyes.”

She's wearing little ferris-wheel earrings, specifically the Wonder Wheel from Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park at Coney Island in New York City, says Turlow, 49, a voice actor who has been nominated for top awards in audio book reading.

Storybook and Santa themes were big when the new highway system led to a boom in roadside attractions in the 1950s. Santa was especially good because he has all the name recognition of a licensed character without those pesky licensing fees.

But in the new millennium, Turlow's 44 park visits included only two Christmas-themed parks, the East Dundee attraction and Santa's Workshop/North Pole, at the foot of Pike's Peak in Colorado. A third still operating is an unrelated business also called Santa's Village, in New Hampshire's White Mountains, dating to 1953.

Vintage amusement parks retain such a powerful hold on people, she says, “because you have a lot of your firsts at an amusement park. First dates are quite often at amusement parks. You remember the first time you rode a particular ride, how scared you were, and then you tackled it,. you know? In some ways, it's like little microcosms for life.”

What she learned in her park-themed journeys is “that these places are amazing bits of often mid-century history that shouldn't just be razed and forgotten, that it really takes some amazing people to run the parks,” she says.

While Wenz does his Christmas-in-July duties, Turlow, Sierpien and general manager Don Holliman — also rehired from among longtime staff — walk around and talk about the provenance of rides, plans for the future and whether they'll be able to open the shuttered water park, another late Santa's Village addition, its tubes and sluiceways still visible in the valley to the immediate east.

“This year, it would have been fantastic,” says Holliman, referring to the heat that lures people to water parks and had kept attendance down at the amusement park.

The new Santa's Village exists on, roughly, the footprint of the original, founded by California developer Glenn Holland in 1959 because he thought the Chicago area was the right place to expand from his two Santa's Villages in California (both closed).

“The park today is geared more to 2- to 10-year-olds, like it was in the very early days,” Wenz says. “From 1959 through about '66 to '70 was always for the smaller kids. In the '70s they kind of put in bigger rides and it became more of a rounded family park. By the mid-'80s to '90s they put even bigger rides out here, like some roller-coasters. It kind of changed the demographics a bit.

“Today it's back to its original roots, with the buggy brigade: the moms, the dads, the grandmas, the grandpas and the smaller children. Also the landscaping is either the best or second-best it's ever been,” going back to the very earliest days, he says.

The older-kid, Coney Island section of the park has now been incorporated into the Paintball Explosion side of the property with a kind of grace that belies such battlefield names as “Biohazard” and “Mutiny.” Original signage — “Santa's Slide,” “Dundee Bomb Pop” — decorates the paintball fields. The old bumper car building is used for cover, as are a lot of the structures from Arcade Alley, the games of chance. An old plane that kids would sit in on a ride is plugged, nose-down, into the ground.

“That elf is original,” adds Journey Kerchner, Paintball Explosion's general manager, who claims the business is gaining a reputation as one of the top paintball venues in the U.S. “It's every paintballer's dream to play in developed properties.”

Dearman, who grew up in Elgin and now is a reporter in Wisconsin, says he wrote his book because of the immediate and interesting response to a Facebook posting he put up about having worked at Santa's Village as a teen.

“I started contacting other people, interviewing them,” he says, and he eventually fashioned the book as an oral history. He won't say how many copies he's sold (Amazon and santasvillagegonewild.com), but he was able to live for a year off the proceeds, he says.

“The reaction was fantastic. Some people were scared off by the title: ‘You're gonna be ruining my childhood,'” they'd tell him. “The ‘Gone Wild' part does scare some people off, but it's basically a love letter to the park.”

In addition to tales of employee theft, romance and intoxication, “it's got the nostalgia and the feel-good stuff too,” Dearman says.

“These local parks, it's not like Great America, these big huge things that can be overwhelming,” he adds. “My mom worked at Santa's Village when she was a kid, and she took me there every year. When you get older you just yearn for those nice memories from when you were young.”

Back in Santa's Village, Star Jets, a longstanding ride that didn't sell at the auction, has just gotten new paint this year, and it looks almost new. The other original rides are Kringle's Convoy, a mini-train made of cars done up like the cabs of semis, and the firetruck, which tours visitors around the grounds.

“The nostalgia was obvious from the beginning,” says Sierpien, 36, who grew up in Carpentersville and remembers visiting both Santa's Village and Kiddieland as a child. “But a lot of those buildings were built in 1958. It's not easy. It's a constant battle.”

He points to one modestly sized building. “That's one of the tiniest roofs here,” he says, “and that was 20 gallons of paint. “It's kept us really, really — maybe a little too — busy.”

Now the battle is to get the word out, let people know that there's still a park like this in the area that people can visit for less than $20 at the gate.

At the Kiddieland auction, Sierpien bought the Kiddie Whip and the Midge-o-Racers, boosting his park's offerings and hoping to lure devotees of that place to his, about 30 miles to the northwest.

“So where are the hand cars?” Turlow asks, referring to a ride that had been auctioned off.

“Georgia,” says Holliman.

“Florida,” Sierpien corrects.

“Georgia,” Holliman says again.

“Georgia, you're right,” says Sierpien.

Turlow, for the sake of a photograph, is allowed onto the Kiddie Whip in abject violation of the size restrictions. She looks ecstatic.

“Thank you so much,” she says, after exiting. “I have not gotten to ride that particular ride since I was 5 years old.”

After the ride arrived from Kiddieland and he first looked at it, Sierpien says “a panic set in that we had gotten ripped off.”

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not the same ride I remember. It was much bigger.'”

Then, of course, he realized that he was remembering it from the perspective of a child.

Steve Johnson
Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune

Friday, May 18, 2012

An old friend…

This past Mother’s Day, May 13, 2012, Santa’s Village Azoosment Park reopened for its 2nd full season. The park, which originally opened in May of 1959 and operated continually until it officially closed in May of 2006, is enjoying a new rebirth and an ever growing awareness of just how special the attraction is to so many people. In this modern day age, Santa’s Village Azoosment Park is a retrospective classic of a gone by era.

Antique Cars and Fire Truck
Families, some of whom have been coming to the corners of IL RT 25 and 72 in East Dundee for decades, are now enjoying the Santa’s Village experience with their new family members, many of which were not even born when the park closed in 2006. A new generation of children now has the chance to grow up with a Chicagoland tradition. And that is pretty special.

It is special for those families to have a common memory of a certain ride or attraction. This season the park has brought back the Fire Truck Ride, the Antique Cars, and a beautiful Carousel. These rides all have a history with the park during one decade or another. By bringing these rides back and adding them to the Balloon Race, the Convoy Trucks, and the attractions already in place, one can only imagine the common experience that a grandparent and a grandchild can share at Santa’s Village Azoosment Park.

The park itself is like an old friend or family member with years of loyalty from guests and employees alike. As the season progresses there will be more enjoyment and memories made with Santa’s Village. It is all about family, friends, and fun!

And when you think about it, some of the best times one can have in life is to sit and reminisce with and an old friend who is back once again.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Don Goers - International Santa Claus Hall of Fame

Last Saturday, April 21, 2012, upwards of 700 Santas and Mrs. Clauses came to the 2nd annual Jim Yellig Santa Claus Workshop in Santa Claus, Indiana. The event also included the induction ceremony for the new members of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. The Class of 2011, which was announced to the public on December 22, 2011, was honored along with the charter members of the Class of 2010. I am very fortunate to be in this exclusive “club” as I was enshrined as the first living Santa with the charter class.

At this year’s enshrinement my best known predecessor and friend, the late Santa Don Goers, was inducted. Don passed away a year ago in May 2011. It was a sad day and one that I shall not forget because of the irony of Santa’s Village re-opening for the first time in 5 years. Don never got to see the park up and running again and that to this day bothers me. We did have a small celebration at the park for him with some of his family present in August of 2011.

Don’s family and friends were in attendance this past weekend for his induction. I too was there. Santa Don Goers induction into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame is a fitting tribute to man who always smiled and saw the best in people. His Hall of Fame plaque reads…

Don Goers
“Santa with a Smile”
Dundee, Illinois

Don Goers didn’t play Santa, he was Santa. As one of the longest tenured Santas in theme park history, Goers began his career in 1959. He is among the original men who played the role at Santa’s Village Theme Park in Dundee, Illinois. In 1966, Goers took over the role fulltime becoming Santa from Santa’s Village and being in costume 200 days a year. It would be a position he would hold for 14 years. 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 became his trademark. Goers spent twenty years at Santa’s Village in the maintenance department and as Santa. He helped the park grow from just a few rides and attractions to a Chicagoland icon. Each year, tens of thousands of children visited him in Santa’s House. Goers left the park in 1979, returning only once to be Santa. In 1994 he returned for the 35th anniversary celebration of Santa’s Village.

Don joins 24 other men in the Hall and is deserving of being one of the first 25 to be inducted. His entrance is special for me also as I sat on his knee in 1966 and we will always be connected by Santa’s Village and the role of Santa from Santa’s Village. Now our plaques hang together in the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in Santa Claus, Indiana. How cool is that! Somehow, someway, I know Santa Don Goers was present Saturday in Santa Claus, Indiana…you could tell he was, as everyone was smiling, just the way Don always did.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Pondering being Santa

Sometimes I sit back and ponder what my life would have been like without Santa Claus. Today is Easter Sunday 2012 and I have been in full regalia over a dozen times already this year. It started in February doing promotions, photo shoots and related activities for Santa’s Village. This month, April 2012, we have a couple day in the suit, but more importantly, we have over 700 Santas and Mrs. Clauses coming to Santa Claus, Indiana in less than two weeks to be a part of the Jim Yellig Santa Claus Workshop. After the Workshop in in May 2012 Santa’s Village opens to the public for the season and Santa appearances for the park will stretch until the end of October…and then the real Christmas Season begins in November and December.

I know that I am very fortunate to be able to have a true year round Santa career for over a quarter century. It is special and I know it. But just as many people, especially other Santas, wonder what my world is like, I sometimes wonder what their world is like. It is something that I am not sure I will ever really know. And that is okay. Being Santa is a vocation and a fulltime paying job for me. It is my work, my living, what I am all about, and what I do. Just like most, I like to get away from my job and not think about it. I have hobbies, but to many people surprises, my hobbies have nothing to do with Santa or Christmas. After a certain time of the day, heck, I don’t even want to talk about Santa. And for some reason that surprises some folks.

April 19, 20, and 21st at the Jim Yellig Santa Claus Workshop, hundreds of Santas will be coming dressed in all sorts of Casual Claus clothes. The first time I saw this, it reminded me of a comic book convention I attended years ago in Chicago. I saw dozens of “Batmans”, “Supermans”, “Spidermans” and many other characters being portrayed by attendees. It was wild. These folks really get into this stuff. I guess so do guys who play Santa. I guess it is a release from their real jobs and real worlds. I on the other hand I will just be me, Phil, at the Workshop as I want to get away from my real job, which is being Santa. I do enjoy the pageantry of the Casual Claus, though I do not fully understand it. And probably never will no matter how many times someone tries to explain it to me.

The Jim Yellig Santa Claus Workshop will be fun, but the best part of it will be… I get to see others really get excited about portraying Santa. I get to hear about all the stories of a Santa’s past seasons. I get to see friendships being made and acquaintances being renewed. I get to see some really neat outfits. I get to be behind the scenes seeing people smile and enjoy the Spirit of St. Nicholas. I get to be just a normal guy among a sea of white beards and red shirts. I get to smile, be “the child” and enjoy the magic. I get to be me, Phil, not Santa.

And I would not have it any other way.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Back to being Santa...

Spent the last weekend starting off the live appearance schedule for Santa’s Village. I started the year with 200 days slated in the suit for promotions, the spring-summer-fall park calendar, and into the Christmas season 2012. The countdown has begun. (Already have done one photo shoot and a voice over in February…had to shave off the facial hair off this time as a full glue-up was needed. Vacation is over and back to work.) Pictured with me from left to right are Park General Manager Don Holliman, Magician Tim Balster, and Azoosment Park/A Zoo to You Owner Jason Sierpien.

Next month we will be in Santa Claus, Indiana in mid-April for the Santa Claus Workshop I am producing. The response to the event has been much greater than anticipated. We have over 700 Santas from around the world coming to the gathering making it the largest of its kind in North America and perhaps the world.

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.
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