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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2004

Being Santa

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Wayne Evans, aka Santa, with 5-week-old Valerie Zaper, daughter of Jeff and Julie Zaper of Whitehouse. Wayne Evans, aka Santa, with 5-week-old Valerie Zaper, daughter of Jeff and Julie Zaper of Whitehouse.
ALLAN DETRICH / BLADE Enlarge

Santa, above all else, loves children.

His is an enviable position. While other adults are decorating, shopping, wrapping, and cleaning, Santa is generating marvel, possibility, and awe. In his brief but powerful visits with little ones, he is able to tap into their happy innocence.

But there are some things we might not have considered about Santa: His doctor may have advised him to lift no more than 15 pounds, or he might have had a knee or hip replaced in recent months. If so, he'll be especially careful with the children who occupy his lap and watch out for "kickers."

And it's not just elves who toil long hours. At Westfield Shoppingtown Franklin Park, one man performs Santa duty seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., breaking only twice a day to "feed the reindeer."

His toughest customers will be those about 3 1/2 and younger, for whom a big furry guy in red is likely to appear just as frightful as the Grinch.

Occasionally, Santa is visited by an adult who's had a drop too much of cheer, and who might whisper a naughty request in his ear.

And posing for those increasingly popular photos with pets, Santa sometimes gets scratched or nipped.

But the jolly old elf is nothing if not good-natured. Part psychologist, part actor, he's quick on his black-booted feet. He doesn't make promises ("I'll have to get with your parents on that" or "I'll have my elves check on that"), but he's generous with hope. Invariably, he loves his job and he gets as good as, if not better than, he gives.

In a quest to find out what makes the big guy tick, The Blade spoke with several people who portray Santa, or "Santa's helper," as he tells those who question his authenticity.

Probably the hardest-working Santa in these parts is Wayne Evans, who puts in 11 hours every day at Westfield Shoppingtown. Like many Santas in public places, he's employed by a photography firm. "I'd do it year-round if I could," says Mr. Evans, 63. He's tall, with a deep voice and a mane of white hair. The beard of his chin is as white as the snow, thanks to a little bleaching that covers the "pepper."

He never attended Santa school, but he's got the right stuff for the shtick, and he loves children "and most adults," he says. He expects visitors to be nervous, so he modulates his "ho, ho, ho" to their level of courage.

"I've had 2-day-olds to 82-year-olds," he says. "I like holding the little ones and kissing them on the head."

Mr. Evans estimates about 80 percent of youngsters between 7 months and 3 1/2 have Santa phobia. He recommends parents stay with an unhappy camper or join him on the oversized chair.

Out of costume, people ask him if he's St. Nick. "I say, 'Some people think I am. If I had a driver's license, would that help?'" And in a twinkling, he pulls out his wallet and fishes around for his "International Sleigh Driver's License" signed by Governor Frosty the Snowman. "The wife made it on the computer," he says.

A resident of Columbus, he lodges in an extended-stay hotel while in the north. He portrayed Santa part-time at malls and for private parties, charity events, and for friends, before his recent retirement from sales and technical service for underbody vehicle coatings and sealants.

When Harry Chorzelewski dons a Santa suit, he is transformed.

"I'm not really crazy about kids, but when I put that costume on, it's different. I get a feeling, a glow," says Mr. Chorzelewski, 79. "If I could, I'd make everybody happy, if I were only a millionaire."

"I've had 2-day-olds to 82-year-olds," he says. "I like holding the little ones and kissing them on the head."

As a child, his mother took him to see Santa at Tiedtke's department store in downtown Toledo. "She told me a story about Santa needing helpers and you have to be a good boy and then he'd pick you," says Mr. Chorzelewski, of Whitehouse.

He's played Santa for 66 years, starting when he was 13. "I had a nephew born. I played Santa with a Santa mask."

When he was stationed in Hawaii with the U.S. Marines, his mother mailed him a Santa hat and mask. And in the late 1940s, he and his brother-in-law chipped in to buy a beautiful $400 red velvet suit for use at family gatherings. "It's good for about 10,000 kids," he says, adding that the knees are just about worn out.

He likes attracting children's attention with a hearty "ho, ho, ho!" and asks if they've been good. If they haven't, he suggests they "keep working on it and your mom and dad will be a lot happier."

He likes attracting children's attention with a hearty "ho, ho, ho!" and asks if they've been good. If they haven't, he suggests they "keep working on it and your mom and dad will be a lot happier."

If they ask Santa to reunite their divorced parents, he advises being nice to them, telling them how much you love them, or saying a prayer.

After his right knee was replaced and he was limping, he explained that Rudolph kicked him in the leg. Last year, he missed the first of more than 65 seasons as Santa because of a bad leg and emphysema, but with a new left knee, he's back, part-time, at Southwyck Shopping Center and at parties.

By Dec. 24 has he had his fill of holiday music? "No. I love it. I bought a karaoke machine at a garage sale and sing Christmas carols in July."

Near and dear to the hearts of many is the illustrious "Steamtrain" Maury Graham, King of the Hoboes and a ringer for Santa. After riding the rails as a teenager and again in the 1970s, he became a sought-after speaker, especially around campfires.

With a full beard, flowing hair, and kind eyes, he looked every bit the elf. He presided at malls and parades, and in 1984 a panel of children voted him the best Santa in town. After a 1991 stroke left him unable to drive, people were so disappointed that he wouldn't be Santa that his wife, Wanda, donned the Mrs. Claus outfit she made herself and chauffeured him to parties. In 1997, a more debilitating stroke took his memory and speech.

Nevertheless, she carried on. "[It's] the joy that we bring people. And when children see Santa come through the door, children just shout for joy," says Mrs. Graham, 86. "It's a lot of fun. We just don't want to think when we'll have to give it up."

Now, children are placed carefully on his lap for a photo, and he takes their lists. "He always loved children," she says.

Mr. Graham is 87. The Grahams live in Napoleon, and will make five elfish appearances this month.

Jim Hipp of South Toledo has played Santa for a large party of family friends for about 30 years. He knows who's who, and usually gets insider tips on family members that he uses to good advantage at the annual fest. He leads the group in carols, then distributes presents from a sack the family has filled.

"You have older people and younger people and they all laugh," says Mr. Hipp, 76.

In addition, he'll play Santa for friends and neighbors, who have sometimes requested a visit in order to make believers of their children for just one more year.

Ross Carr asks little ones if they've been good and older kids if they're doing well in school, and asks if they play sports. An angry boy once jumped hard on his knee and complained that Santa didn't get him what he wanted last year. "It could be a kid striking out at the world, anybody and everybody," says Mr. Carr, 70. "I say, 'Well, maybe I ran out or maybe too many people wanted it. Did I bring you something? Did you like that?'"

He's especially touched when children - precious few - thank him for the gifts they received last year.

Last year, he was recovering from a bout with bladder cancer and couldn't be Santa. This year, he's working part-time at the Southwyck mall. "I look forward to it and I'm sorry when it ends."

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com

or 419-724-6075.


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