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'I Played Down the "Ho, Ho, Ho"'

Hansford Rowe

Since the Great Depression, to thousands of Virginians the Santa Claus was always at Miller & Rhoads downtown. Even now, after the demise of the department store chain, the "Legendary Santa" holds forth seasonally in the vacant building, formerly occupied by Thalhimers, adjacent to 6th Street Marketplace. Since the mid-1950s, the Legendary Santa has been presented by only two Richmonders, who happen to be brothers: Dan and Hansford Rowe. Hansford Rowe, an actor, now lives in Valencia, Calif. near Los Angeles. He has appeared in films including "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "Baby Boom" and TV shows including "LA Law" and "The Bob Newhart Show." He relinquished the Santa role to his brother, who has kept it since 1968. The first Santa was Timothy Light. He reigned from 1934-'39. I was born in 1924 and I remember going to see Santa Claus at Miller & Rhoads and sitting on his lap. He had natural, long hair and beard, which he kept year-round. His wife braided his hair so it would keep its natural wave. Ill health kept him from continuing. William Strother was the second Santa. He was the one who became famous. He really created the position of Father Christmas for thousands of Virginia parents and children. Bill Strother symbolized that Santa. He started the system whereby Santa knew all the children's names. He owned the chair for 15 years before being killed in an automobile accident. I was the third Santa. I worked at the Virginia Museum Theater [now TheatreVirginia] as the theater manager, and I asked the museum to let me have time off to take the job. I was an actor and had done a lot of plays. Miller & Rhoads officials and I went to New York City on a sleeper train to get my outfit. I went to the finest hair maker: They made my wig and special eyebrows. It costs thousands of dollars. It really, really looked authentic. They also took me to a boot maker, and they made me a pair of boots that came up to midthigh and a big, big leather belt with a fancy buckle. They made me to look very authentic. I think my brother still wears those boots. Miller & Rhoads did things right. But even so, it would get very hot. When I started sweating, it was damaging to the beard and mustache. But the store was very cooperative and they would keep the room temperature cool when it got too hot. When I had to go to the men's room, I'd make like we had to go check the reindeer on the roof and ascend the chimney. We had this chimney rigged up so it looked like I was going up the chimney. Then I would re-enter Santa's Wonderland the same way I had left. The store and I wanted to develop the idea of a Santa who was a person. I played down the "ho, ho, ho" business and became more fatherly. I thought it would be best if Santa didn't talk too much. When the children talked it became magical. The line would snake for two and three hours with children waiting to see Santa Claus. But it wasn't as bad as it seemed, because for half of the wait the children could see the other children with me. Meanwhile, they could talk to the Snow Queen: They were always lovely, lovely girls. I continued Bill Strother's secret system of knowing the children's names that we worked out. It was a quite wonderful experience, but I won't divulge the system to infidels. Also, I sometimes knew something about a kid, since I'd know their parents. I'd say something like "I'll be out to see you on Dickens Road." Or I'd ask, "You're still sucking your thumb?" — I could catch a look and see that [the thumb] was reddish. Or I'd see a scratch on the arm and ask, "How's your cat?" I tried to present myself as authentic and be realistic and honest about it. Maybe that makes it even more fraudulent. In 1965, I left Richmond and went to New York to be a professional actor. But each year I'd come back. But after the third year, I was making a living in plays and in commercials, and I told my brother, Dan, about the position. He's not an actor, but he's a natural performer. And he's short and roly-poly so he makes a perfect Santa Claus. I trained him how to come down the chimney. He's been Santa now for over 30 years. And unlike me, Dan has never taken a day off. I found that over Christmas I always got sick. The kids came with such an array of runny noses and coughs. They are treacherous, however. A little girl with a translucent complexion approached and looked up at me with these beautiful eyes, and then gave me a big cough. And some parents had been standing in line so long they wouldn't risk losing their place to take their child to the bathroom. They would bring their child up with a diaper full of excrement. As the child would sit, it would squeeze out. I'd finish with a lapful of baby manure. And sometimes all of a sudden my leg would get warm and I would realize I was being peed on. But we had a ready change; sometimes I had to change both jacket and trousers. On most days I'd take a blessed hour off and go to the Miller & Rhoads Tea Room where Eddie Weaver played the organ. Sometimes I could remember the names of children I'd seen earlier and call out their names. They really liked that. And after the announcement, [I'd say], "Santa's going to drink his milk now," accompanied by an amplified gulping sound [demonstrates]. I'd go down and cut the "reindeer cake." When you go and do Santa for a full day you are in a goldfish bowl. It was very exhausting — physically so, reaching over and lifting each child onto my lap. But it was very rewarding. I loved going to friends' homes and seeing pictures of me with the children. Sometimes children would come to see me for seven, eight or nine years. My own sons, Blake and Hansford, would come to see me but didn't know until they were 6 or 7 because I would change my voice. Then they had strange suspicions: One of them remarked, "Santa Claus wears the same watch as my

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