Long before my career in public relations included writing things like congressional testimony, state-of-the-industry speeches, and quotes written expressly for politicians easily mistaken for cardboard cutouts or bodies seeking reanimation, I earned a living doing the marketing for a roller rink in New Jersey. Now this wasn't one of your run-of-the-mill skating facilities left over from the 'forties, but a multimillion dollar disco/singles club for the well-heeled and slick wheeled. From Thursday through Sunday, indescribably heavenly bodies gyrated and swerved through this place to a throbbing beat that percolated raw sexuality.
But on weekend mornings the place was given over to the three- to seven-year-old-crowd. And in the interests of screwing a dollar out of every conceivable opportunity, some genius decided that nothing would delight this particular demographic more than to have Santa Claus arrive on skates.
"Great," I said. "I'll get a release out to the papers and get started on the ads. What chump are you going to get for the role of Santa Claus?"
Public relations is the story of unending service to the client. Yet the measure of that service is subject to constant change. There are days when your clients hang onto your words as if the were directions from a prophet. And then there are the days when your value is measured by how fast you can get them coffee or clean the toilets.
"Well, we thought you'd do it as part of the seasonal promotion," they said.
"Do I look that stupid," I asked.
They already had the Santa suit custom tailored for me. Made of crushed velvet and lined with real fur, it was rumored to have cost a grand. (This was in the '70's, when a grand was real money.) The leather belt was four inches wide with a silver buckle. There were real leather pullover boots too. But the best part was the wig and beard. They were all one piece and either made of real hair or silk. Even the little square Ben Franklin glasses were real glass. The costume was gorgeous.
I would be lying if I said I didn't make one hell of an official looking Santa. I was more muscle than pork in those days, and gave the impression that jolly old Saint Nick could easily split a cord of wood.
"Help me pull on these boots and we'll be all set," I said to one of the staffers, who was dressed like an elf.
"Boots? The boss said you were to wear roller skates."
"Are you out of your mind?" I asked. "I can't skate. I'm not wearing skates!"
"The boss said that you were to wear skates, that you were to shut up about it, and that we're supposed to help you out to Santa's throne."
The skates were strapped to my feet before I could claw my way out of the room. With an elf on each arm, I was wheeled out into the masses of children. For the first and only time in my life, a collective sigh rose as I entered the room. (It must be pointed out that the sigh wasn't really for me, but for the person I was impostering. Still, it remains a significant high point among my memories.)
I was mobbed by hundreds of little kids who simply wanted to touch my hand, wave to me, or say "Hello." I was dressed like the ultimate "yes-man," who always delivered. True to plan, Santa's elves each put a shoulder behind my back, and began shoving me across the carpet to the skating floor (a distance of 20 feet).
Santa's throne was an elaborate chair in the center of the skating floor, with fake reindeer standing on each side. As I recall, one of the deer had a flashing red nose. The elves meant well, but I was beginning to accrue a bit of mass in those days (though nothing like my present size). The wheels of my skates were digging into the carpet and encountering substantial resistance. The elves later claimed it was like wheeling a howitzer through a swamp. They were really putting their backs into it when the wheels of my skates hit the hard wooden floor.
Their energy and my mass were converted into forward movement in an instant.
I broke free from my moorings and shot across the floor at about 40 miles per hour. Arms flailing, I took out the deer with the flashing nose and smashed into the throne with a loud "thud!"
"You missed the other deer," said an elf, who was laughing so hard he could barely stand up. "You want to try again and see if you can pick up the spare?"
Ten minutes later -- with the deer and the throne back in place -- I started listening to the dreams and hopes of about 1200 kids. I began each interview with the same litany: "Ho... Ho... Ho... What's your name? Have you been good this year? Do you listen to your parents? Do you do your homework? Do you share with your friends?"
Their responses were the standard boilerplate lies, followed by the presentation of the Christmas lists, with few variations. Most were memorized and delivered as one constant flowing word. "I want a bicyclefootballtaperecorderguitarracingcarsetandaG.I.Joe." A small percentage of kids came with written lists, complete with their addresses and directions to the same so there'd be no mistake on the morning of the 25th. Some froze and forgot what they had to say. One or two cried. And I will never forget the little girl who buried her face in my beard, saying "Sanna, Sanna..." over and over again.
At the peak of this holiday networking, a bigger than average kid climbed into my lap. This one seemed kind of old to be perpetrating the Santa gimmick, but I figured he wanted to hedge his bets as the zero hour drew near."
We went through the routine with me playing the straight man and the kid being the ventriloquist's dummy. He had just finished the gift inventory, when he suddenly said, "But you won't bring any of this stuff to me. You won't come to my house on Christmas."
"My God," I thought. "What horror story does this poor kid have at home?" I imagined a divorce in progress... Sickness... Parents out of work... Perhaps even the death of a parent...
"Why do you say that?" I asked.
"Because I'm Jewish. I don't believe in you. You're just a fat man in a red suit. I'm going to pull your beard off in front of everyone."
"Ho... Ho... Ho," I laughed, positively relieved. This was a job for a true public relations specialist, trained to make folks instantly see the bright side. I needed to make the kid feel the joy of the holiday season, to get in the spirit of things, and to feel part of things. Leaning over, I whispered, "You touch this beard and I'm going to drop kick your ass halfway across the floor."
I fired off another "Ho... Ho... Ho...," for the benefit of the general public. "You'll get everything I promised," I said out loud to the kid. He backed away, never taking his eyes from my feet.
I figure that kid is about 36-years-old today. Ke was probably in therapy for years. I wonder if he gets as many laughs from that story as I do. I wish I knew where he was now. I'd buy him a drink.
Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Happy Chanukah!
Roy Groething has been my friend for over 38 years. He is under the impression that he is Swedish. He is Swedish like I am a son of old Erie. Yet every year he holds a traditional Swedish Yule event, during which the personification of Santa Lucia, a beautiful, young, blond princess (crowned with light) is honored for her virtue. This is my salute to Santa Lucia, and my depiction of what happens when a virtuous princess spends harsh winters drinking beer, fishing through the ice, and eating lutefisk (fish that died of natural causes, then got cooked in Draino, according to an old Swedish recipe). Photo by Leslie Marsh.
© Copyright Jack Riepe 2004
From "Mid-life Crisis: Let The Ordeal Begin"
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