Tanya Baum, The Acoustic Miracle, and the Ghost of Christmas Past

Robin Meloy Goldsby remembers a Pittsburgh shopping mall, a tree named Tanya, and a pianist with a booming voice and a fondness for Maker’s Mark.

When I was a teenager, I won the role of the South Hills Village talking Christmas tree. Not knowing that I would some day end up living in Deutschland, I called myself Tanya Baum and spoke with a Hogan’s Heroes German accent. The kids were a little scared of me, but I cracked myself up, which, I’ve since discovered, is the main point to just about any job. I also made twenty-five bucks for crawling inside the tree suit and yelling seasonal stuff at kids for a couple of hours. My Tanya was a little nasty. She had a slight prison matron edge to her, softened by her coat of fake blue spruce and tinsel. I could turn her lights on and off with hand controls. And I could see out of the suit by looking through the angel on the top of Tanya’s head. Tanya was the shiznit.

I got the gig because my dad was the bandleader of a  jazz-comedy group called The Steel City Stompers, a trio popular in Pittsburgh. For years, he ran the “Wake-up Santa Breakfast” at South Hills Village—a shopping mall that featured frozen cokes, soft pretzels, and Florsheim shoes. “Wake-up Santa” became popular after several failed attempts at having Santa parachute into the mall parking lot, an annual disaster that once culminated in Santa crash-landing in a tree next to a gas station two miles down the road, where he was rescued by a crane and transported to the hospital by ambulance. Santa wasn’t very good at judging wind currents. Or maybe it was Rudolph’s fault—when all else fails, blame the damn reindeer. The shopping mall officials decided it would be safer to place Santa in a comfy bed onstage inside the mall, with Dad’s band, Tanya Baum, and hundreds of screaming children yelling for him to wake up.

Poor Santa. I mean, let’s face it, you have to be pretty desperate to take a Santa gig, especially one where you’re in bed for hours. We tortured that unfortunate fellow. A few years into the gig he started drinking long before the event even started. As a matter of fact, so did Bookie, the pianist in my dad’s band. Bookie, who has since joined that elite group of juiced-up stride piano players in the sky, had one of those really LOUD voices. We used to call him the Acoustic Miracle, because his voice could penetrate any crowd without amplification. With a deep and slightly guttural timbre, he growled his way through songs, announcements, and the occasional prayer. Dad had to turn Bookie’s microphone volume down to minus 2 when Bookie was drinking, because you could never be sure what he might bray across the room. Even Bookie’s whisper had legs.

At one of our annual “Wake–up Santa” events, after we had jumped on Santa’s bed, played a trumpet in his ear, slapped him in the face with a wet wash rag (a child’s suggestion), smacked him in the stomach with a pillow (another child’s suggestion—the kids never ever suggested anything gentle), and tickled his feet with reindeer antlers, Bookie raised his hand—and his voice—and said he had an idea.

“Yes, Grandpa Bookie?” asked Dad. “What’s your idea?”

Bookie, it seemed, had been hitting the holiday sauce with Santa at the local whiskey joint down the road.

“Santa,” announced Bookie, in a tone that could only be described as stentorian. “If you don’t wake up, we’re gonna kill all the kids.” (Keep in mind, dear reader, this was 1972. It was a different time. Or was it?)

Dad, sharp-witted but slightly hard of hearing from all those years of playing the drums, put down his microphone, looked right into my angel-head eyes and said: “Did he just say what I think he said?”

“Ja!” I said, as Tanya Baum. I prided myself on staying in character. We were horrified. Aghast. But most of the parents and kids in the audience were laughing. Sort of a nervous laugh.

“Jesus Christ,” said Dad. “Okay kids, never mind Grandpa Bookie—now it’s time for ‘Deck the Halls.’ Bookie, get back to the piano! NOW! Stick out your tongue out on the fa-la-la part. And look, kids! Grandpa Bookie is gonna wear the elf hat. Maybe that will wake up Santa.”

That was the last year we played for the “Wake-up Santa Breakfast.” I like to think that Santa, forty years later, is still there—sleeping off an early morning bourbon buzz, oblivious to the innocent, but violent threats of little kids, and the earsplitting rants of bored and tipsy piano players. The jesting and jabs and slapstick violence seemed slightly amusing back then, in the naive days of “The Three Stooges” and “Tom and Jerry.” These days it wouldn’t be so funny. Especially if Santa, the pianist, or an outraged parent (or child for that matter) were packing heat.

I’m sure the live music is gone. Maybe the mall went back to the parachute theme, just to keep things edgy. Or maybe Santa sits in a throne now and kids come to sit on his lap while nymphs (or are they elves?) in red velveteen mini-skirts and thigh-high white boots dance to Mariah Carey Christmas songs blaring from speakers covered in plastic holly. Or maybe they shoot Santa out of cannon—I’ve read about places doing that. That’s one way to wake up Santa, even if he’s drunk.