A seasonal departure from play reviews to reviewing having played… Santa Claus
As a young New York actor, I found employment driving a cab, tending bar…the usual. And every December I’d get out my 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 Santa 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 and volunteered as Santa. The next day they called back to accept 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 school in upper Manhattan where a stern fellow with a squiggly ear wire searched my suitcase and patted me down before directing me to the faculty lounge. “The other acts are already there,” he said.
The other acts were Sammy Davis, Jr. and Soupy Sales. I consented to share the dressing room. I dressed and we plotted a dance-contest act before heading into the packed auditorium. 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: a long run in his current 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: Soupy did his “Mouse” shuffle, Sammy tapped up a storm, and I managed an awkward twist (well, it was ’64). 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, “to teach in this school 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.
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. I planned to greet him between his shows.
Then-Mayor Ed McKenna introduced Soupy, who shuffled his way to the microphone and began a rambling monologue, only semi-intelligible. Worse, the parts you could understand were mostly 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 Stage Manager that Soupy was having a reaction to medication he’d taken earlier in the day. I asked the SM to let me try to steer Soupy back to more appropriate material. “You got two minutes,” he said. I joined Soupy on stage.
Aware that he was bombing, unsteady Soupy welcomed the 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 mild applause.
“No second show,” the SM decreed. What if the second show could be different? I offered. More organized…and clean. He relented, and Soupy, Trudy and I retired to his dressing room to write a routine in 20 minutes.
We re-created some of Soupy’s best-known TV routines, including him asking kids to send him their parents’ “green paper with presidents’ pictures,” which had earned Soupy a 30-day suspension. We recycled some Henny Youngman one-liners and references to White Fang and Pooky (if you know, you know), and segued into Soupy answering questions from the 200 or so die-hard audience fans. Then everyone sang and danced 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, asked for my mailing address 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.
Back in the 1980s I played jolly St. Nick at parties hosted by Dave Winfield. (See photo up top) The Yankees right fielder had established a Foundation in Fort Lee NJ to distribute toys and turkeys to less-privileged 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 final game.)
Over the following five years we hosted hundreds of folks at the Hackensack Hospital Family Center, a social club in Fort Lee, and an Armory in the Bronx. People lined up around entire blocks – not just to pick up food and gifts, but to shake the hand of a future Baseball Hall of Famer. And 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.
One more Santa story:
June Havoc’s “Marathon ’33,” one of Julie Harris’s ten Best Actress Tony-nominations, opened on Broadway in December 1963. Produced by Actors Studio and directed by the author and Lee Strasberg, the play was about June’s survival in dance marathons after shedding her Baby June persona (cue “Gypsy” first act curtain). I appeared in the original company as bodyguard to a shady “lawyer” who was extorting the marathon management.
Despite John Chapman’s rave in the NY Daily News for the play and for Julie Harris (“her finest performance to date”), Marathon ran only 48 performances. (Cast member Doris Roberts opined years later that the play had been decades ahead of its time, but that’s another story.)
On December 23 I suggested to stage manager Martin Fried that it might be fun to surprise Ms. Harris during her solo curtain call the next night, Christmas Eve, with an on-stage visit from Santa Claus.
Marty told me he’d think it over and to bring in the suit. The next day he gave it the nod. “Julie’s a good sport,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll be okay with it.” That evening I skipped curtain call, quick-changed into Santa costume and entered just as Julie’s applause was dying down. She looked up, obviously startled, as the applause ramped back up.
I sat on a chair and Julie perched on my lap. After some banter, during which she assured me she had been a good girl all year, we exited into the wings. “What a delightful surprise,” she said. “Thank you, dear.”
That could be the whole story, but it’s not.
A couple days later, Marty overheard me telling the story to someone. He took me aside. “You really think I’d let you surprise the First Lady of the American Stage during her curtain call?” He chuckled. “It could cost me my job…and surely yours,” he said. He had run the idea by Julie, who agreed after determining who it would be. (You’d get that in if it were your story.)
What a pleasure it was to learn, when we talked backstage at “The Belle of Amherst” years later, that she remembered the incident. So now, for that and other remembrances, a belated “Thank you, dear.”