Continued from yesterday… the story of Groucho Claus, part two.
Many a man who didn’t love his magic and have such a burning desire to impress people, to see that shot of disbelief on their face when their eyelids shoot up almost impeccably, trying to hide their surprise that you fooled them, their ‘how did you do that’ expression?; many without that passion would have refused outright to play Santa. There are no tricks to hide behind with Santa. There is no magic apart from what you create with your presence. Santa doesn’t do balloon animals or play games. The best he gives out before his big run is lollipops, and even these are discarded momentarily, eclipsed by the awe of being in Santa’s presence- a big man, tall and fat, who knows everything you do, and lives a house with hundreds of toys… it’s only when Santa walks away and the bubble pops and reality comes back that children remember sugared treats and coloring books.
Groucho loved his magic, and he wanted to perform. It’s one of those things, a repertoire with an audience… it’s a little like riding a bike. You either get it, or you don’t. And it may just work out that one minute you won’t get it, you’ll be all flying pedals and scabbed knees and training wheels… and the next day you have it and it yours for life, that freedom, that exhilaration.
A rush like no other.
You knew, you could see it in him, that Groucho knew that. That he was forming the framework in his mind, all the little bits of coordination needed to peddle and steer and concentrate all at once… he could see how it worked. He could feel he was just on the edge of getting it, just on the very brim of spilling into a comfort zone like no other.
But playing Santa, that didn’t really help Groucho’s situation at all.
While this fledgling magician was physically well suited to Santa, being a big guy with a deep voice, he was only young and that lack of confidence showed through every cheaply woven fiber of his stifling Santa suit. And there was another problem, which probably wouldn’t have been a problem except for the fact that Groucho didn’t quite feel comfortable in Santa’s big black boots to start with.
This fledgling magician cum Santa Claus was dark skinned. Not quite what I guess some people would call ‘black’, that deep chocolate colour, but a darker than olive skin that turns a greeny yellow in winter when there’s no sunlight to nourish the melatonin. I’m not sure what Groucho’s heritage or background was- it never came up, and I never felt the need to ask- but his dark skin attracted the unwanted attention of children who were themselves on the cusp of the Santa-disbelieving age, and looking for anything to prove themselves correct. (Eleven year old boys are the worst for it… it doesn’t matter if the beard and belly are real, it wouldn’t matter if the man could fly, reindeer or no reindeer- eleven year old boys would still be caterwauling how he’s “Not the real Santa” to any other child willing to listen, sometimes even leading to acts of violence against Santa’s fake, moth eaten beard and devastated tears from terrified pre-schoolers.)
Kids are scary creatures. Give them an inch, and they will take a mile. Show weakness and they will devour you whole. Show them confidence, an answer to every possible question, and a presence bigger than they are, and they will reward you by suspending disbelief for a few minutes, a couple of hours at the most- they will play your games, work with your stories… never doubt you for a second because they don’t want to doubt you, they don’t want this magic to end any more than the performer themselves does when they’re in the silver gossamer of the middle of the web.
But show your pint sized party guests any weakness- a chink in the fairy sparkles, so to speak, and they will lose their faith- often, you can see the moment it happens, when a very fleeting cloud of disappointment is replaced with that petulant “I knew it” expression. It makes you work harder for your money. It also makes you feel kind of dirty, crushing tiny dreams and hope that almost existed. These kids almost believed you to be a fairy, an elf, a princess, truly magic. “Not tricks,” as one little boy who watched a magic show reiterated to his father, “real magic!“
A misplaced whisper, a bumpy uneven belly, a luke warm “Merry Christmas!”- all of these show children, who can see through almost anything, you are definitively NOT real. And you will pay for that, whether those kids end up with their names on Santa’s Naughty List or not.
For the better part of November and and the first week or two of December, Groucho struggled through gig after gig as a dark, sweaty Santa. No consideration was given by the agency I worked for the heat of the Australian summer- costumes were made of thick, heavy material and the ‘Aussie Santa’ in a traditional coat, beard, and hat, teamed with boardshorts, sunglasses and thongs (flip flops, people, not undies) that other agencies offered was never considered as an option, and may not have been that popular anyway. People like their Santa’s as traditional as possible… and there is not much to be said that is rational about a drunk, obese peeping Tom who time travels and shape shifts anyway, so what difference does his attire make to seasonal believability?
Being fairly tiny and with enough performing confidence to cover a small multitude of Santa mishaps, I often played the candy cane carrying elf to Groucho’s bad Santa. Think of Santa’s lowly paid helpers as security detail- in case any feral children actually did reef off Santa’s beard, it was the elf’s job to either distract the assembled crowd with magic and copious amounts of sugar; or beat off hordes of small children with their waist high candy canes. Depending on what the situation required.
The second weekend of December in that particular year; long before I had children and far before The Purple Life; I was again elfing with Groucho Claus. There was a feeling that had been floating around the office for days now- Groucho was, quite possibly, on his last performing gig, festive season or not. One more dud job, one more complaint about a lacklustre Santa or a clown who couldn’t control the kids and he was as good as unemployed. It wasn’t something anyone wanted to see happen, even the boss, who had the compassion of a black widow spider. One less performer meant one more headache, one more new staff member for her to hire. Groucho was a nice guy, and damn good with his cards. But it takes more than that, to pull something like this off… I think that’s the story in life, a lot of the time.
That second weekend in December, all those years ago, that Santa and this particular elf were booked to do a four hour ‘roaming’ spot for a street parade in a major suburb of Sydney. It was one of the jobs that you live for as a clown… it was genuine good fun and didn’t feel like work at all. A ‘roaming’ job is just that- you roam through the crowd and interact with people. As Santa and an elf, it was relatively easy- smile, photo, hand shake, “What would you like for Christmas, little one?” (never distinguish male children from female children in your spoken endearments, you’d be surprised how often you get it wrong), reward brave child with a candy cane, “Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas!”. The order of events sometimes changed, and there wasn’t always a photo requested; but that was a round abouts the routine, approximately 40 times an hour, seeing goodness only knows how many children in a shift.
This particular street parade was, for lack of a better word… splendid. Fabulous. Beautiful. None of those words quite seem to do it justice. It was billed and promoted as a non-secular holiday celebrat
ion, with the main street of the suburb- which was, not too many years ago, renown for it’s drug problem more than anything else- closed off to traffic. The entertainment ranged from rides to face painters, stilt walkers to jugglers, live shows to promo trucks spilling with free promo gear. There were stalls selling balloons, showbags, all kinds of novelties and every kind of food you can imagine- pizza, sausage sandwiches, Dutch pancakes, Chinese cooked on the spot, gozleme and churros. As promised, there was no particular religious theme, and because of that- maybe in spite of it- the whole multicultural community was in attendance; a heady blend of language and colour, music and scents.
Indian women in decadent saris sat with daughters dressed in the same perched on their laps. The local refugee advocacy group had a stall set up next to a booth promoting awareness of the local Jewish community. Afrikaans dance groups performed directly after the local Christian school’s choir sung carols.
And everyone just got along.
It was beautiful.
In the midst of all this electric laughter, families with strollers, elderly couples holding hands with their grandchildren, even a pair of Buddhist monks in saffron robes… amongst all that excitement, there was still a place for Santa. In fact, amongst all that energy, everyone, young and old, of every nationality; they all had a soft spot for Santa.
Muslim mothers in veils handed tiny boys and girls into Santa’s big hands. Asian couples who could only speak a few words of English beamed as their children squealed in delight at Santa telling them he would visit their house soon, just a few weeks now. Two men with thick European accents, pipes in their mouths and their faces carved with the lines of a thousand stories, posed and mocked for the camera, throwing their arms around a slightly bewildered Santa.
But Santa was only slightly bewildered. Because at some point during those four hours, something in Groucho had changed.
We had been so busy, and the day went so quickly, I didn’t even notice exactly when it happened. I know when I noticed that I noticed it, though. At one point in the flickering slideshow of faces, there had been a little Asian girl in a beautiful red dress who shyly and slowly approached Santa with her parents urging her on; dipping her toes in the pool of spectators surrounding Santa, and, when she was sure the water was warm, gradually inching her way closer and closer. Groucho saw her, and leaned forward to take her hand, crouching down to meet her at her eye level and chatting to her softly.
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but most Santas wear thin white cotton gloves. It was a sensory memory that took me back, made me realise the power Santa has with small children, all over again. Watching that scene take place, live in front of me… I remembered that feeling. The sensory emotion, a skin memory, of being a tiny child who still fervently believed. I remember the feeling of slipping my hand- which must have been quite small, but of course it never felt that way to me- into the soft but firm, warm, white cotton glove of a man playing Santa. The power in it. As a child, Santa is a veritable god.
After watching this tiny girl have a mirror experience to the one I’d had so many years before, I took a closer look- a few seconds in between the bedlam of crowds of children and festively cheerful adults. Something had shifted over the last few hours- Groucho had just got it.
Fueled by nothing more significant than a change of mindset and the intravenous shot of confidence that comes with it, this man-child had gone from a guy in a suit with a shabby beard to the real live Santa Claus. He walked with authority. He ‘Ho ho ho’-ed loudly. He met people’s eyes and stood tall. He talked to people, words running from his lips as his mind mulled the important things- who was next in line for a greeting, whether the crowd was building up too much while they waited- the hallmark sign of a performer who’s mouth can work independently of their mind, and do a good job of it.
Did the colour of his skin have anything at all to do with it…? Maybe. I don’t really know. Am I considered racist for even discussing it? Possibly. I don’t know if the chicken or the egg came first… if no one mentioned that Santa was the ‘wrong colour’ because we were surrounded by people of every shade, tone and background and no one cared in the least, and that phenomenon contributed to Groucho finding the outspoken entertainer within; or if it was a matter of that outspoken entertainer being a bigger presence than either his skin colour or his substandard costume. In truth, it probably doesn’t matter either way. That ‘click’ sound was as loud with Groucho as with anyone else I saw- from that Santa gig forward, the seed of confidence seemed to stick firmly, and he just watered it as necessary to help it grow.
I wish I had a better ending to this story… that Groucho is now a household name, someone you know and admire. I don’t have an ending like that. I don’t know what happened to Groucho, whether he still performs his magic professionally or as a hobby, whether he chose to don the Santa suit again the following year.
All I know is that for a moment there, for a day, he was the very embodiment of Santa Claus… and that was an incredible thing to watch. And if people say Santa is just a myth, a figment of the imagination… well. After the magic that was Groucho Claus, I think I can say differently.