Monday, January 10, 2011

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.”

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