Wake Up Santa: Three Variations on a Holiday Theme

Variation #1: Drunk Santa

Nothing says “Christmas” quite like a snoring Santa refusing to wake up for the holidays.

In 1972 I win the coveted role of the South Hills Village talking Christmas tree in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I call myself Tanya Baum and speak with a Hogan’s Heroes German accent. The kids are a little scared of me, but I crack myself up, which I discover is the main point to just about any job. I make twenty-five bucks for crawling inside the tree suit and yelling seasonal greetings at kids for a couple of hours. My Tanya is a little nasty. She has a slight prison matron edge to her, softened by her coat of fake blue spruce and tinsel. I turn her lights on and off with hand controls and I can see out of the suit by looking through the angel on the top of Tanya’s head.

I get the gig because my dad is the bandleader of a jazz-comedy group called The Steel City Stompers, a popular trio in Pittsburgh with Dad on drums, Ray Defade on saxophone, and pianist Bookie Brown. All three of them sing. For years, Dad has run the McDonald’s sponsored “Wake Up Santa” breakfast at South Hills Village—a shopping mall that features fast food French fries, soft pretzels, and Florsheim shoes. “Wake Up Santa” has become popular after several failed attempts at having Daredevil Santa skydive 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, untangled from his parachute, and transported to the hospital by ambulance. Daredevil 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 have decided it’s safer to place Santa in a comfy bed onstage inside the mall, with Dad’s band, Tanya Baum, and hundreds of Egg McMuffin-stuffed screaming children yelling for him to wake up.

Poor Santa. Being a talking tree is humiliating enough, but let’s face it, you have to be pretty desperate to take a Santa gig, especially one where you’re forced to lie in bed for hours while being tortured by little kids. Santa is played by a stout guy named Tony, who—during the rest of the year—works as a manager of the shopping mall Baskin & Robbins ice cream shop. A few years into the Santa gig Tony starts hitting the booze, and who can blame him? As a matter of fact, so does Bookie, the pianist in Dad’s band. Bookie, who will one day join that elite group of juiced-up stride piano players in the sky, has a really LOUD voice. We call him the Acoustic Miracle, because his voice penetrates any crowd without amplification. With a deep and guttural timbre, he growls his way through songs, announcements, and the occasional prayer. Dad has to turn Bookie’s microphone volume down to minus-two when Bookie is drinking, because you can never be sure what he might blurt or bray across the room. Even Bookie’s whisper has legs.

At one of our annual “Wake Up Santa” events, after we jump on Santa’s bed, play a trumpet in his ear, slap him in the face with a wet wash rag (a child’s suggestion), smack him in the stomach with a pillow (another child’s suggestion—the kids never, ever suggest anything gentle), and tickle his feet with reindeer antlers, Bookie raises his hand—and his voice—and says he has an idea.

“Yes, Grandpa Bookie?” asks Dad with some trepidation. “What’s your idea?”

Bookie, it seems, has been imbibing with Santa at the local derelict bar down the road. Pre-breakfast holiday cheer. Who needs eggnog when you can have Maker’s Mark, straight up?

“SANTA, YOU ASSHOLE!” slurs Bookie, in a stentorian tone. “If you don’t wake up, we’re gonna have to use a gun.”

Keep in mind, dear reader, this is 1972. A different time.

Dad, sharp-witted but slightly hard of hearing from years of slamming the drums, puts down his microphone, looks right into my angel-head eyes, raises one eyebrow and says: “Did Bookie just say what I think he said? Did he just call Santa an asshole?”

Jawohl!” says my Tanya Baum, because I pride myself on staying in character. Dad, Ray, and I are horrified, even though most of the parents and kids in the audience are laughing. Nervous laughter, but laughter nonetheless.

“Jesus Christ,” mutters 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 on the fa-la-la part. And look, kids! Grandpa Bookie is gonna wear the elf hat. Maybe that will wake up Santa.”

This is the last year we play for the “Wake Up Santa Breakfast.” Not because Grandpa Bookie called Santa an asshole and threatened to use a gun, but because my father, at one point in the show, made fun of McDonald’s food and insulted the scary, big-lipped floppy-footed Ronald McDonald clown, played by a local bartender named Jerry Error.

***

Tanya Baum was the sanest part of that show. Forty-five years later I will wonder if Santa is still at the mall—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, jabs, and slapstick brutality seemed slightly amusing in 1972, in the naive days of The Three Stooges and Tom and Jerry. In 2018 these shenanigans will cease to be funny, especially if Santa, the pianist, or an outraged, unhinged parent—or child for that matter—might actually be packing heat.

I’m sure the live music is gone, even if Ronald McDonald is still stomping around. Maybe the mall has gone back to the skydiving Santa theme, just to keep things edgy. Or maybe Santa now sits in a throne and kids come to perch 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 blast Santa out of cannon—I’ve read about places doing that. That’s one way to wake up Santa, even if he’s drunk.

***

Variation #2: Fairy Santa

2001: My daughter, Julia, attends a Montessori kindergarten in Germany, where children routinely spend three years playing outdoors on a freezing playground, counting golden beads, and doing multiple craft projects involving yarn. Every Christmas the parents at the kindergarten perform a holiday play for the kids—a civilized, kinder-friendly policy that takes pressure off the youngsters and places it squarely on the sloped shoulders of the parents (moms). Appalled by the lack of suitable holiday plays for kids—most of the material in circulation is scary, religious, or both—I decide to write a musical. Come on, Germany—let’s have some holiday fun! Good tidings and cheer.

I need to attract other parents (moms) to take part in the musical, so my cast of characters includes a bunch of whacky fairies, since fairies are cute, entertaining, and provide multiple costume opportunities for those of us longing to relive our prom queen days. I also have access to an adorable rabbit costume with floppy ears, so I add a giant bunny to the cast, along with a narrator dressed as a tree. We have several disabled kids at the kindergarten, so I put the head fairy in a wheelchair, because why not?  Fairies and a rabbit—not very “Christmas-y,” but fine with me. Enough of that manger stuff.

I need a plot. Remembering my days with Drunk Santa at the Pittsburgh shopping mall, I decide a snoring, sleeping fairy might be a good starting point. I name her Fatigue. Here’s the dope: Fatigue’s fairy sisters—Faxana, Flip, Faloona, and (my favorite) Farteena—spend thirty minutes trying to wake her so they can all fly home together for the winter holidays. They tickle her, yell, use magic wands that don’t work, and try to shock her awake with the smell of a dead fish. Nothing works. Finally, a giant, orphaned rabbit, named Hobo, joins them and wakes up Fatigue with a kiss on the nose. They sing a song and invite Hobo home with them for the holidays. The end.

Art of the Steal: Hobo and the Forest Fairies is a fancy-dress bourbon-free version of “Wake Up Santa.”

Note: I will have few moments in my career as rewarding as observing the face of a physically-disabled little girl watching our clever fairy scoot around in her wheelchair.

The show itself has wheels. Over the course of several years, it will be produced as a radio play by Germany’s largest radio/television conglomerate, released as an audio CD, then, in an event that will take a few years off my life, staged as an annual holiday musical at a German castle. What starts out as a slap-dash shoe-string budget musical for a bunch of really cute kids turns into a small fairy empire.

The live, professional production of the show debuts in 2009 at Schlosshotel Lerbach. To keep costs down and maintain control over my script, I cast myself as Flip the Fairy, a Barbie-blond with good intentions and a brain the size of a cranberry. I wear a prom gown, lavender rubber boots, and a huge wig that makes me look more like a country-western has-been than a fairy. Julia, who has grown into a relaxed, well-adjusted teenager—in spite of her wand-toting mother—plays Fatigue, the snoring, sleeping fairy. My biggest concern during the five-year run of the musical is that she will literally fall asleep onstage.

All bets are off when the audience consists of pre-school kids. Our musical director (the tree) must put on his tree suit in front of the kids, because they freak out if a mighty oak enters the room and starts singing a sensitive ballad. My shrill, slightly sharp, Beverly Sills version of “Silent Night” and the cartwheeling giant rabbit cause more than one child to burst into tears. But the kids love the magic wands—one of the wands is a Star Wars laser sword—and they flip over the huge rubber fish and stuffed alligator. And they particularly love Fatigue, who is already asleep onstage, snoring away, when the kids enter the theater. Some of the kids poke at her and wonder out loud if she might be dead.

We have hecklers and worse. One time a kid in the audience gives me the finger and bites me on the knee during our rendition of the “Stank Fish Tango.” Another time a little girl–who has eaten too many of the free butter cookies—exits stage left and throws-up directly in our entrance/exit path. Sometimes the kids hoot and holler; sometimes they remain eerily silent.

The show, of course, is in German. Wach auf! means wake up. But my American accent makes wach auf sound like fuck off, not a phrase one wants to hear in a children’s musical.

Faxanna, Flip, Flop, Faloona, and Farteena. After each performance our motley crew of fairies stands in the castle hall and greets our guests, most them the same age that Julia was when I wrote the play for her kindergarten. Our run, which lasts long enough to get my daughter through high school, ends in 2014 when the castle closes. Good timing—my sixtieth birthday is looming, and I’m bit long in the tooth for a fairy costume. I enjoy tulle as much as the next gal, but the Dolly Parton wig is itchy and does nothing to help my hot flashes. Also, I have my career and reputation to consider. I don’t really want to be known as Robin Goldsby, Menopausal Fairy.

I look back on that show as both harrowing and full of joy—an American holiday tradition that I swiped and re-invented for myself and my daughter because I didn’t much like the existing models. Festivus for the rest of us.

I cry when I get rid of the costumes. I have seven sets of feather wings and nowhere to fly, so out they go, along with the lavender rain boots. I save the rubber fish, because you never know.

Farteena,” a German mother tells me, two years after our last performance. “She was my favorite fairy. I think of her so often. What a beautiful name.”

***

Variation #3: Emergency Santa

“Robin,” says Mr. B, the F&B manager of the 5-star hotel where I play the piano. “We have a problem. Santa is stuck in the snow.”

It’s December, 2017. I am huddled in my parked car, waiting for the train to arrive and whisk me off to Excelsior Hotel Ernst. I’m scheduled to play tea-time piano for a group of civilized adults. In another area of the hotel, thirty excited kids and their parents are arriving for a children’s tea with Santa. But Santa, bless his heart, is stuck in the snow.

“How is that even possible?” I yell. “He’s Santa.  He can’t get stuck in the snow.”

“I don’t know,” says Mr. B. “But he’s stuck. Can’t get his car out to get to the train.”

I happen to know that the actor playing Santa, a corpulent celebrity named Manfred, lives in my neighborhood. I am not stuck in the snow, so how can he be stuck in the snow? I don’t want to get Santa in trouble, so I say nothing. Besides, maybe he really is stuck—I live in the valley and he lives high on the hill, two apparently different ecosystems. Sometimes it’s downright tropical in the valley when the hill people are scraping ice off their windshields.

“Do you have any ideas?” asks Mr. B. “We have all these kids coming and they are going to be very disappointed if Santa doesn’t show up. We certainly can’t tell them Santa is stuck in the snow.”

Here we go again.

“Who has the Santa suit?” I ask.

“We have it here at the hotel.”

“Good. I know what to do. Move the piano into the ballroom and find an employee to play Santa.”

“No one wants to play Santa,” he says. “They are shy. Plus they are all too skinny.”

“Get Patrick the waiter,” I say. “He has acting training.”

“But he is the skinniest of all of them.”

“Doesn’t matter. We can stuff him. We also need a bed or a large chair. Someplace onstage where he can sleep.”

Obviously, my entire life revolves around one plot.

On the train ride into town—about thirty minutes—I outline the program. My husband sends me music to some German children’s Christmas songs, all of which have three chords and four hundred verses. I stop at the Christmas market and pick up a couple of elf hats, race into the hotel, and assemble the skeptical banquet team for a panicked talk-through. I tell them that Emergency Santa (Patrick) will be asleep on his giant chair and that we, with the help of the kids, will spend thirty minutes singing and trying to wake him up in time for Christmas.

Ten minutes till show time. I can hear the kids buzzing and jostling for position on the other side of the door.

Movie-star handsome Patrick, my Emercency Santa, might be slightly hungover from the night before, but he’s more than willing to help. Plucked from obscurity to step in for Stuck Santa, Patrick, in his skinny black jeans, looks like he stepped out of a Prada advertisement. Or at least he does until he puts on the red suit. The banquet director stuffs numerous pillows into his jacket and adjusts his fluffy white beard.

“You can do this Patrick,” I say, switching to a firm director voice. “We are going to sing the Santa song, and then you stagger by the window and yawn, like you can hardly manage to carry that big ass sack of toys. This is no time for subtlety. You are exhausted. Wiped out. Can barely keep your damn eyes open. Enter the room, stumble over to the Santa throne and fall asleep. Snore into the microphone as loudly as you can. We will spend the next thirty minutes trying to wake you up. It might get rough—kids can be brutal—but stay asleep no matter what. Until the kiss. Then you wake up.”

Patrick tries to sip coffee through his Santa beard and stares at me like I have reindeer poo on my head.

“You sure this is going to work? I mean, have you done this before?” he asks.

I place my hands on his shoulders, look into his twinkling eyes, and say: “Trust me, Patrick. I’ve been in the “Wake Up Santa” business for forty-five years. It never fails. Wach auf, Santa!

“Ha!” says Patrick. “With your accent it sounds like fuck off, Santa.”

“Exactly,” I say. “Go with it.”

The kids enter the room. I put on my elf hat and play the piano. They sing along and eat cookies. I play the Santa song and Patrick, the world’s skinniest Santa, wobbles, teeters, and lurches past the window.

“Oh no,” I say to the kids. “Santa looks very tired. I wonder what could be wrong.”

Right on cue, the ballroom door creaks open and Patrick, going for gold with his portrayal of a drained and weary Santa, moans and crawls—crawls!—to the stage, dragging his overloaded bundle of toys behind him.

Best Emergency Santa ever.

Wach auf!

Along with a couple of banquet waiters, I drag Santa into his chair. He snores like a drunken elf. We do everything we can think of to wake him. We sing. We yell. We tempt him with over-priced macarons and tap on his head with pine cones from the expensive centerpieces. We get parents to do the reindeer dance. Volunteers from the audience don the elf hat and jostle Santa, to no avail. Finally, after we reach the thirty-minute mark—the longest half hour of my life—I suggest a kiss and a sweet little boy puts on the hat. Smooch! Santa wakes up. The children cheer.  This might be a decidedly upscale group of privileged European children, but really, at this moment they seem identical to their Pittsburgh shopping mall and Montessori kindergarten colleagues.

Kids are kids. Fun is fun.

Ho-ho-ho. Original Santa might have gotten stuck in the snow, but Emergency Santa, one pillow shy of a proper jelly-belly silhouette, has saved the day. After the show, Patrick returns to his glass-polishing post in the kitchen, I return to my piano in the posh lounge, and the kids, high on chocolate and sugared tea, head into the winter wonderland, clutching swag bags of candy and small toys.

On his way out, the little boy who kissed Santa asks my permission to keep his cheap, felt elf-hat.

“Of course,” I say. “It’s yours—the holiday chapeau! You saved Christmas for all of us.”

“Look,” he says, pointing outside. “It’s snowing! Santa is going to have a great trip around the globe this year. He loves snow!”

“Yes,” I say. “Let’s hope he doesn’t get stuck.”

“No worries,” said the boy. “Santa always shows up, even when he’s really tired.”

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channel.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Or you can always show up and listen in person! Check out the SCHEDULE page to find out where and when.

Personal note from RMG: I spent much of my summer holiday sorting through recordings and I’ve come up with a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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