As a young New York actor, I found employment driving a cab, tending bar…the usual. Every December I’d get out my trusty red costume, fluffy white wig and beard, and make a decent month’s salary playing Santa Claus at corporate and home parties. The most rewarding gigs, however, were not for pay.
After Robert F. Kennedy was elected to the United States Senate from New York in November 1964, he announced that in memory of his brother, the President who had been slain the previous year, he would host Christmas parties for New York City school children. I phoned his office to volunteer as Santa. Several days later they accepted my offer. (I learned later that they had vetted me with the FBI, the NYPD and Actors Equity. Sheesh.)
The first event was at a high school in upper Manhattan. (Succeeding parties were in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.) Arriving at the appointed hour, I was met by a stern fellow with a squiggly ear wire who searched my suitcase before directing me to the faculty lounge. “The other acts are already there,” he said.
The other acts: Would you believe Soupy Sales and Sammy Davis, Jr.? I consented to share the dressing room. As I changed, we plotted an act. In the auditorium packed with kids, an aide introduced Mr. Kennedy, who introduced Soupy, who introduced Sammy, who introduced Santa Claus. (Guess who got the biggest ovation.)
Sammy sat on my lap and gave me his Christmas wish for success in his then-running Broadway show “Golden Boy.” (It ran well over a year.) Soupy asked for a network TV show. (Couldn’t help him there.) Then we did our act: a dance contest. Soupy did his toothy “mouse” shuffle, Sammy tapped up a storm, and I managed an awkward twist (it was ’64, remember). Just as my pillow slipped they let Santa win.
Then it was the Senator-elect’s turn. His wish was for the youngsters to stay in school and graduate. “I want these boys and girls to grow up,” he said, “and to teach in this school and design and build new schools where their children will become educated and go on to prosper.” There was passion in his voice.
Soupy and Sammy and I repeated our act in other schools over the next several days, and RFK gave essentially the same message to a few thousand other kids. What I remember most is the power he had over the young audience. Here he was ‘lecturing’ them in a sense – and there wasn’t a peep. Ah well…an epilogue is unnecessary. Bobby Kennedy sat on my lap and told those kids straight. He never would have conned them.
Seventeen Decembers later, still workin’ the Santa circuit, I volunteered to play jolly St. Nick at parties hosted by Dave Winfield. The new Yankee (it was his first year with the club) had established a charitable Foundation and would be distributing toys and turkeys to less-privileged New Jersey families. (I had met Dave when my son and I drove him from a Baltimore hotel to Memorial Stadium after he missed the team bus to the ’81 season’s last game, but that’s another story.)
Over the following five years we hosted hundreds of folks at a Hackensack Hospital family center, a social club in Fort Lee, and an Armory in the Bronx. People lined up for blocks – not just for food and gifts, but to shake the hand of a generous future Baseball Hall of Famer.
Granted, this wasn’t a former Attorney General cum United States Senator (and would-have-been President); but for a baseball nut like this Santa, joining Dave Winfield on the holiday circuit was like getting a present myself. It sure beat squeezing down a chimney.
A follow-up to the Soupy Sales connection…
On New Year’s Eve, 1999, 35 years after the RFK parties, Soupy was booked into the Count Basie Theatre for two shows as part of Red Bank, NJ’s “First Night” festivities.
Then-Mayor Ed McKenna introduced Soupy, who shuffled his way hesitantly to the microphone and began a rambling monologue, only about half intelligible. Worse, the half you could understand was mostly coarse, suggestive jokes from a half-remembered Catskills routine – hardly suitable for a family audience.
I hustled backstage, where Soupy’s wife Trudy was explaining to the irate Stage Manager that Soupy was having a reaction to medication he’d taken earlier in the day. I asked the Stage Manager to let me try to steer Soupy back to some more appropriate material. “You got exactly two minutes,” he said.
Aware that he was bombing, the unsteady Soupy welcomed on-stage company. I led him into a career-highlight discussion, including his throwing pies in faces, Frank Sinatra’s among them. We finished with Soupy’s signature dance The Mouse and exited to less than thunderous applause from the diehard fans who remained.
“No second show,” the SM decreed. What if the second show could be different, I offered. More organized…and clean. He relented, and Soupy and I retired to his dressing room to patch together an act.
We re-created some of Soupy’s best-known routines, including him asking TV-watching kids to send him their parents’ “green paper with presidents’ pictures,” which had earned Soupy a 30-day suspension after a few kids actually did. We recycled some Henny Youngman one-liners with references to White Fang and Pooky (if you know, you know), and segued into Soupy answering questions from the fans who had defied the no-show rumor on the street. Then we all danced and sang The Mouse:
Hey, do the mouse, yeah,
Hey, do it all around your house, yeah.
Don’t be afraid that you can’t do it; there is really nothing to it.
Just follow me and I’ll get you through it;
Have no fear when Soupy’s here.
Soon as we were offstage, Trudy gave me a hug and whisked Soupy into the waiting car. I was left wishing I had run out for a pie to take in the face. Too late now. Soupy died in 2009 at age 73.