In 1972 I won the coveted role of the talking Christmas tree at South Hills Village in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a classic suburban shopping mall whose other highlights were fast food French fries, soft pretzels, and Florsheim shoes.
I called myself “Tanya Baum” and spoke with a Hogan’s Heroes German accent. The kids were a little scared of me — I was a blabbering Christmas tree, after all — but I cracked myself up, which I had discovered was the secret to success in just about any job.
I made twenty-five bucks for crawling inside the tree suit and yelling seasonal greetings 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 flicked her lights on and off with hand controls. I could see how much I was scaring everyone by looking through the angel on the top of Tanya’s head.
I got the gig because my dad was 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 sang.
For years, Dad ran the McDonald’s sponsored “Wake Up Santa” breakfast at South Hills Village, “Wake Up Santa” became 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 decided it was 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 Santa to get the hell up. Apparently, nothing says “Christmas” quite like a snoring Santa refusing to wake up for the holidays.
Santa was played by a stout guy named Tony, who—during the rest of the year—worked as a manager of the shopping mall Baskin & Robbins ice cream shop. A few years into the Santa gig Tony started hitting the booze, and who could blame him? As a matter of fact, so did Bookie, the pianist in Dad’s band. Bookie, who eventually joined that elite group of juiced-up stride piano players in the sky, had a really LOUD voice. We called him the Acoustic Miracle, because his voice could penetrate any crowd without amplification. With a deep and guttural timbre, he growled his way through songs, announcements, and the occasional prayer. Dad had to turn Bookie’s microphone volume down to minus-two when Bookie was drinking, because you could never be sure what he might blurt or bray across the room. Even Bookie’s whisper had legs.
At one of our annual “Wake Up Santa” events, after we 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 with a palpable amount of exasperation and trepidation, “What’s your idea?”
Bookie, it seemed, had been imbibing with Santa at the local derelict bar down the road. Pre-breakfast holiday cheer. Who needs eggnog when you can have your Maker’s Mark, straight up?
“SANTA, YOU ASSHOLE!” slurred Bookie, in a stentorian tone. “If you don’t wake up, we’re gonna shoot you with the reindeer gun.”
Keep in mind—this was Pittsburgh in 1972.
Dad, sharp-witted but slightly hard of hearing from years of slamming the drums, put down his microphone, looked right into my angel-head eyes, raised one eyebrow and said: “Did Bookie just say what I think he said? Did he just call Santa an asshole and threaten to use a reindeer gun?”
“Jawohl!” said my Tanya Baum, because I took pride in my ability to stay in character. Dad and Ray were horrified, even though most of the parents and kids in the audience laughed. Nervous laughter, but laughter, nonetheless.
“Jesus Christ,” muttered 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 was the last year we played for the “Wake Up, Santa!” breakfast. Not because Grandpa Bookie called Santa an asshole and threatened to shoot him, but because my father, at one point in the show, made fun of the McDonald’s breakfast buffet—all you can eat for two dollars. One bite and that’s all you can eat— and insulted the scary, big-lipped floppy-footed Ronald McDonald clown, played by a local bartender unironically named Jerry Error. In his day job, Jerry often poured bourbon for Grandpa Bookie and Santa.
“Check out Ronald McDonald,” said Dad to the kids after a rousing rendition of “Jingle Bells,” pointing at Jerry Error, who kept tripping over his clown shoes while trying to perform some kind of holiday jig. “South Hills Village must be missing its idiot.”
“Jawohl!” I yelled. “Merry Christmas!”
Tanya Baum was the sanest part of that show.
Forty-five years later I 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 tipsy piano players. The jesting, jabs, and slapstick brutality seemed slightly amusing in 1972. By 2018 these shenanigans will cease to be funny, especially if Santa, the pianist, or an outraged, unhinged parent—or a 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.
Pittsburgh, I came to discover, did not have a monopoly on Christmas insanity.
Thirty years after “Wake-Up Santa!”, my daughter, Julia, was enrolled at a Montessori kindergarten in Germany, and every Christmas, the parents at the kindergarten performed a holiday play for the kids—a civilized, kinder-friendly policy that took pressure off the youngsters and placed 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 was scary, religious, or inappropriately both—I sagely decided to write a musical. Come on, Germany—let’s have some holiday fun! Good tidings and cheer!
I needed to attract other parents (moms) to take part in the musical, so my cast of characters included 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 had access to an adorable rabbit costume with floppy ears, so I added a giant bunny to the cast, along with a narrator dressed as a tree. Tanya Baum, it would seem, was now part of my DNA.
We had several disabled kids at the kindergarten, so I put the head fairy in a wheelchair, because it seemed like the Christian thing to do. Fairies and a rabbit may not have been traditionally Christian but they screamed “enchanted forrest,” which is very German. I’m not Christian or German, but I know a thing or two about playing to the crowd.
I needed a plot. Remembering my days with Drunk Santa at the Pittsburgh shopping mall, I decided a snoring, sleeping fairy might be a good starting point. I named her Fatigue. The plot: 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.
Basically, Hobo and the Forest Fairies was a fancy-dress, bourbon-free version of “Wake Up, Santa!”
Amazingly, like our disabled lead fairy, the show itself had wheels. Over the course of several years, it was produced as a radio play by Germany’s largest radio/television conglomerate, released as an audio CD, then, and eventually staged as an annual holiday musical at a German castle. What started out as a slap-dash shoe-string budget musical for a bunch of really cute kids turned into a small fairy empire.
The live, professional production of the show debuted in 2009 at Schlosshotel Lerbach, where I was also the house pianist and artistic director of a concert series. 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 wore a prom gown, lavender rubber boots, and a huge wig that made me look more like a country-western has-been than a fairy.
Julia, who had grown into a relaxed, well-adjusted teenager—in spite of her wand-toting mother—played Fatigue, the snoring, sleeping fairy. My biggest concern during the five-year run of the musical was that she would literally fall asleep onstage. Each year she seemed to skate closer to the edge as the novelty of playing the snoring fairy wore off.
The show, of course, was in German. Wach auf! means wake up. But my American accent made wach auf sound like fuck off, not a phrase most parents want to hear in a children’s musical.
“Fuck off!” I yelled at our sleeping Fatigue during one of our dress rehearsals. “Fuck off!”
“Mom!” Julia said, sitting up and using her stern teenager voice. “I know you’re really into your role and everything, but you can’t yell fuck off in a play for five-year-olds.”
Our musical director (the tree) needed to put on his tree suit in front of the kids, because, understandably, the kids freaked out if a mighty oak entered the room and began singing a sensitive ballad. My shrill, slightly sharp, Beverly Sills version of “Silent Night” and the cartwheeling giant rabbit caused more than one child to burst into tears. But the kids loved the magic wands—one of the wands was a Star Wars laser sword—and they flipped over the huge rubber fish and stuffed alligator. And they particularly loved Fatigue, who was already asleep onstage, snoring away, when the kids entered the theater. Some of the kids poked at her and wondered out loud if she might be dead. Julia was actually quite a good actress.
We had hecklers, and worse. One time a kid in the audience gave me the finger and bit me on the knee during our rendition of the “Stank Fish Tango.” Another time a little girl–who had eaten too many of the complimentary butter cookies—exited stage left and threw-up directly in our entrance/exit path. Sometimes the kids hooted and hollered; sometimes they remained eerily silent.
After each performance our motley crew of fairies — Faxanna, Flip, Flop, Faloona, and Farteena — stood in the castle hall and greeted our guests, most them the same age that Julia was when I wrote the play for her kindergarten. Our run, which lasted long enough to get my daughter through high school without hating me, ended in 2014 when the castle closed. Good timing—my sixtieth birthday was looming, and I was a bit long in the tooth for a fairy costume. I enjoyed tulle as much as the next gal, but the Dolly Parton wig was like having a squirrel on my head and did nothing to help my hot flashes. Also, I had my career and reputation to consider. The fairy thing was taking over. And I really didn’t want to be known as Robin Goldsby, Menopausal Fairy.
Now 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 cried when I got rid of the costumes. I had seven sets of feather wings and nowhere to fly, so out they went, along with the lavender rain boots. But I saved the rubber fish, because I figured “Stank Fish Tango” might one day find a place in my act. You never know. Two years after our last performance, a German mother told me wistfully: “Farteena was my favorite fairy. I think of her so often. What a beautiful name.”
There is no stopping Christmas.
“Robin,” says Mr. B, the Food and Beverage manager of the five-star hotel where I currently play the piano. “We have a big problem. Santa is stuck in the snow.”
It’s December 2017. I am huddled, freezing in my parked car in Honrath, waiting for the RB25 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, defying all odds, 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. “It makes no sense. 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, and 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.”
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
“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 plan the program. My husband sends me music—over my phone— to a dozen German children’s Christmas songs, all of which, like most Bob Dylan tunes, 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, get Mr. B to print out the music so I can actually see it, 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 Emergency 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.
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 pinecones 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. I really wish I had thought to bring the rubber fish.
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. Santa might have gotten stuck in the snow, but Emergency Santa, one pillow shy of a proper jelly-belly, has saved the day. After the show, Patrick returns to his glass-polishing post in the kitchen, I return to my Steinway 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.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says the boy. “Santa would never get stuck in the snow.”
An excerpt from Goldsby’s newest book, Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life. Courtesy of Backbeat Books.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist and popular solo piano streaming artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life