Volume 22, Number 33 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 25 - 31, 2009
Downtown Express photo by Alexandra King
Roger Franklin, 83, says comfortable boots are important.
More than ho ho ho, this Santa is far from ho hum
By Alexandra King
Some previously unknown facts about Santa Claus — instead of the North Pole, he keeps a small apartment on the Upper West Side. In place of a reindeer named Rudolph, he owns a 16-year-old rescue cat named Ms. Louise. And the Polar Express is, in fact, the No. 3 Train to Fulton Street.
For the past 21 years, Roger Franklin, 83, a lifelong actor, has been the resident Santa Claus during the holiday season at the South Street Seaport. Though there are many Santas in the shopping malls and department store grottos of New York this Christmas, he believes he is the oldest and longest serving of them all.
“For years, in my business, you didn’t say your age,” Franklin said, in the unmistakeable booming voice of Mr. Kringle. “Now it doesn’t make a difference.”
For nearly a quarter of a century, Franklin has presided over his seat on the third floor of Pier 17, listening to the same playlist of festive songs over the mall loudspeakers and gazing at the same old view of the shops.
Every day, kids crowd around the green velvet chair in which he sits, resplendent, and flanked by two large toy soldiers. At his weekly story session Sunday, a mother casually plopped her 4-year-old son into his lap, while others clambered onto his chair as he read “The night before Christmas” complete with voices, hand gestures and whistles. He can say “Merry Christmas” in 7 different languages, including sign language, and in 21 years of hosting the regular tree lighting show at the Seaport, he said he has not once forgotten his lines.
When talking about his work, his whole body, despite the fact that he now walks with a cane — “perfect for the character,” he said — becomes animated, and his bright blue eyes, along with the bells on his clothing, twinkle.
Franklin takes it easy during the other 11 months of the year. He still does the occasional voice over, and he organizes movie nights for the seniors at his church. But as the festive season approaches, he starts to look forward to donning the red suit.
“It’s always an excitement,” said Franklin. “The funny thing is, the night before my first day back, I don’t sleep very well. I’m nervous because I think, how am I going to do this? How can I live up to this role?”
But that initial stage fright, he added, is soon eased when he arrives at work the day after Thanksgiving.
“As soon as I come to the Seaport and get dressed and I go out on the field, a child will tug at my cape and look up in my eyes and say, “Santa” and it’s all back,” he said. “It’s what makes it all possible.”
When it comes to making that moment of recognition magical for the kids, this most metropolitan of Saint Nicks works hard. Though his contract dictates that he need only work four hours a day, Franklin stays until he has given every child the time that he thinks they need. He typically leaves his apartment on 76th St. at 8:30 a.m. and doesn’t get home until 9:30 p.m., when he has what he describes as “night lunch,” with his beloved cat. Indeed, this Santa is so busy, he doesn’t even take a lunch break.
The early arrival in the morning and commitment to the role is a habit Franklin picked up in his theater days.
“I don’t like, and have never liked, to be rushed,” he said, “I arrive here, I do my make up, read my letters and relax.”
Franklin brings all the professionalism of the Broadway star to the daily grind of Father Christmas. He is fastidious about working in sensible shoes, for instance. And few Santas can boast that their boots were made by opera singer Placido Domingo’s shoemaker.
“Good shoes are important when you’re working,” he said, “I have two pairs…so comfortable!”
Born in Boston in 1926, Franklin was the only child of a mother whom he describes as a “permanent invalid.” Left constantly weak due to a heart defect, she drafted her sister Edna Camm in to help look after her son. It was Edna, a burlesque dancer, who introduced Franklin to what would become his life’s passion: the theater.
He got his big break at 18 during an audition he had attended by chance with a friend. A Manhattan director asked him if he knew any music from composer George Gershwin. Franklin proceeded to sing his entire songbook from memory, landed a chorus role on Broadway and has been in the business ever since. His long and varied career includes more than 1,000 performances in the first original production of “West Side Story,” where he played Officer Krupke, as well as roles in “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I.” In addition to his musical theater work, he has toured with the Russian Ballet Company and the New York City Opera.
Franklin got the job at the Seaport after his close friend and former assistant Robert Bruce Holley, a fellow actor who played Santa at the mall for five years, died. It had been Franklin who had suggested Holley take up the role, after the Seaport placed an advertisement in Showbiz Magazine. When he passed away, Franklin felt compelled to take his place.
“I did it for him, to carry on the tradition, “ he said.
When he first came to the Seaport in the Christmas of 1988, the kids who visited him would ask for Barbies and board games. Now they demand gifts Santa hasn’t even heard of, while snapping him on their very own camera phones. Franklin said he couldn’t possibly imagine what a Nintendo Wii might be, but besides, he tries to focus kids’ attention away from what gifts they are hoping to receive.
“I don’t like it when kids just talk about what they want,” he said, “I ask them, what nice Christmas things are you going to do for your mother?”
Franklin believes this was the part he was born to play. In fact, it’s difficult to work out where he begins and Santa ends. This fine balance is something that he recognizes as crucial to his character. He is careful to keep his adopted persona from slipping, even among those whom he becomes close to.
Ten years ago, he made friends during his wanderings as Santa with a Seaport storekeeper. One day he suggested that his new friend should learn his real identity.
“But he didn’t want to know” said Franklin, “he said — ‘Please don’t tell me. To me, you will always be Santa.’”
He continued, “It made me think. I thought, ‘This is the point.’”
Franklin said he enjoys playing such a meaningful role. Though he says he never said anything to his mother, who was unable to have more children, he was often lonely as a young boy. His own personal experience of childhood sadness, he said, now informs his work.
“People think that doing Santa is all ho ho hos,” he said, “and that is part of it, but it’s a very small part. You would be surprised how many people who have problems will come to Santa and say things they can’t say to anyone else.”
Franklin never married, and has no children of his own. His last living relative, a cousin in Canada, died ten years go.
But loneliness isn’t a problem for a man in a Santa suit. In fact, Franklin is seemingly surrounded at every turn by adoring fans who he has known for years. Shop owners ask him if he needs coffee, janitors hang around to chat, and the office interns, whom he affectionately calls his “elves,” constantly stop by to check if he has enough candy canes.
“All my family are gone,” he said. “So this is my family, and they are wonderful.”
Jessica Mulder, 24, an intern at the South Street Seaport, said she looked forward to seeing Franklin each day.
“Everybody loves him,” she said, “he’s the authentic Santa and an all-round good guy.”
Unlike many of the major department store grottos, Franklin’s services are offered for free, an attractive option, he points out, in a recession. In fact, even Santa is feeling the pinch. His salary, which had steadily increased over the years, was recently frozen. Not that he minds. In fact, he’s more concerned that the public are made aware that his services come at no cost.
“Now with the economy, so many people cannot afford to pay,” he said, “they can come here, I can take the time with them.”
Every day, Franklin is offered tips and cash for pictures, but refuses to take any money, despite there being nothing in his contract that forbids him from doing so. However, he often finds unexpected gifts left for him after a child visits. Often, they come in the form of dollar bills stuffed nimbly into his pockets.
But Franklin has found a perfect place this year for the money. For the first time, he gathered a $5 tip that had been left without his knowledge last Friday, halved it, and gave it to the two kiosk holders that sell soap and handmade jewellery in front of his chair.
“They haven’t had many customers and they haven’t been doing very well,” he said.
“I don’t need it. I don’t want for anything this Christmas other than what I have,” he said. “I thought of that wonderful line from “The Sound of Music’ — ‘Love isn’t love until you give it away.’”