By Vivienne Leheny
It should come as no surprise that Santa is a Song and Dance Man. Anyone who can command the national stage nay, the world stage! for a full month of festivities has to be a real showstopper. But did you know that Santa starred in “The Sound of Music”? That he toured with “Damn Yankees”? Or that he (most shocking!) cracked the heads of wayward Jets in “West Side Story”?
The Santa of South Street Seaport did all these things. And today he claims that Santa is his greatest role. After 17 years of doling out candy canes “to children of all ages,” he’s certainly in a position to know.
Santa who, for the purposes of this article, shall be known only as “Santa” will arrive at South Street Seaport on Friday, November 24th to kick off the holiday season in high style, accompanied by the Big Apple Chorus, the USO Troupe, and the American Girl Theater Company for the annual lighting of the 50-foot Chorus Tree. He’ll then begin his sojourn at the Seaport where he’ll receive young (and old) visitors and entertain young (and old) wish requests until he takes off on the evening of December 24th to start work on his night job. True, it’s only a one-night-a-year-job, but what a doozy that one night is.
In his pre-Santa period, Santa was a well-traveled thespian who appeared in numerous Broadway and touring shows. He was plucked from the touring cast of “Damn Yankees” by the inimitable Hal Prince to replace “Officer Krupke” in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story” when that actor broke his elbow in a badly executed “trapeze fall” during the audience-pleasing number, “Gee, Officer Krupke!” Fortunately, stage falls are not required of Santa who, these days, perambulates around the Seaport with the aid of his Bishop’s Crozier walking stick.
His varied stage career has also shaped Santa’s current seasonal incarnation. This Seaport Santa is not of the cookie-cutter, red-suit-black-belt-white-trim shopping mall variety. Over the years he’s added personal elements to his costume such as the green cape from Salzburg that he wore as Captain Von Trapp in the national tour of “The Sound of Music,” which along with a rustic flannel shirt and Bavarian suspenders with bells, makes him a “Father Christmas” straight out of European lore. Santa’s throne-like chair, in which he sits from 1 to 4 pm in the Seaport’s Atrium, comes from the Broadway production of “Amadeus.” Known as the “Salieri Chair,” it was destined for burning, as per union rules, once the production closed so says Santa, the keeper of arcane facts but the producers allowed him to salvage the chair. Since it’s huge and was built for a raked stage, it sat rather uncomfortably in Santa’s small New York apartment (presumably his “second home”) for years. When Santa came to the Seaport, he brought the chair with him and now it has a second stage life the place where Santa takes children on his knee so they can confide their dearest wishes.
While he’ll happily talk about his background in the theatre, Santa is very clear about not trading on his holiday work to further his off-season name or profession. “I don’t do this for the publicity,” he says. “I do this because I love it. It sounds funny I suppose, but something happens when I put on the uniform; when I become Santa. I know how to say things, how to relate to people, in a way I don’t have available to me in my other life.”
Yet Santa’s “other life” stage experience has been useful with recalcitrant children. He tells the story of a 10-year-old boy who confronted him one day, “You’re not Santa,” he said. “Who is then?” said Santa. “Well, not you!” the boy retorted. Eager to prove his point, he stuck close by as Santa greeted other children that day, looking for evidence that this Santa was just an act. Things looked bad at one point, when a young girl remained utterly impassive as Santa extended his hand to her and said “Merry Christmas!” In a Russian accent, her father apologized: “She doesn’t speak English.” Santa fixed her with his gaze and gently said “C Pождеством.”
“Her face lit up with a smile, she ran into my arms and began speaking excitedly in Russian, which I actually don’t speak,” said Santa. “So I just nodded and smiled a lot. I had picked up a few Russian phrases during my time stage managing for the Georgian State Dance Company, and fortunately “Merry Christmas” was one of them. About 20 minutes after the Russian girl left, a deaf-mute woman approached and, much to her delight, I signed with her that’s a language I do know. All the while that cranky little boy was watching closely. Later, as I was walking around the Seaport greeting people, I felt a tug on my cape. I turned around and there he was. “‘Goddammit!’ he said, ‘I never believed in Santa before, but now I guess I’ll have to!’ and then he ran off.”
And with that, Santa lets rip his extraordinary, deep-throated laugh. One suspects a visit with this particular Santa would make a believer of us all.
Santa will make his first appearance this season at the 23rd Annual Lighting of the Chorus Tree at 6pm on Friday, November 24th at the South Street Seaport on Fulton Street, between South and Water Streets. From then on, he’ll greet visitors around the Seaport from noon to 7:30 pm Tuesday through Saturday and Sundays noon to 5:30. If he doesn’t find you, then you can find him taking wish requests in his throne chair Tuesdays through Sundays between 1 and 4pm up until his Christmas Eve departure.