“Santa played properly is a beautiful thing!” – Ray Eldridge, the roaming Santa of Meadville, who personified the role for many years from the 1980s through the early 2000s.
I broke the cardinal rule of writing over Christmas. I wrote for publication, I wrote for an editor, I wrote suppressing my better judgment of the story in hopes for it to be cleaner, so that, in the long run, it would get the story published. And it didn’t even work.It didn’t get published in the paper and seemed to be somewhat lost in cyber-space
So today I write again free of any of that, in hopes that people get a chance to read this story about a nice man and his wife portraying icons that are being portrayed by the thousands, but not portrayed the way this man and woman do each year.
Tony Rice, of Oil City, knows that he has been playing Santa now for 17 years. He knows this because, on the Saturday before Christmas, the young 18 year-old woman sitting on his lap asking Santa for college tuition instead of any toys, was only one the first time she sat on his lap as he donned the red suit his first time.
Davis visited the home of Jim and Julie Heasley in Oil City to sit with the children and hand out presents, something he has done every year since the Heasley’s oldest daughter, Rachele was only a baby.
Davis’ wife Dottie joined him a year later as Mrs. Claus and they have been a team ever since.
“I’d get handed a baby, the next year that baby was crawling around, the year after that they are trying to crawl up on my lap to tell me what they want for Christmas,” Davis said describing how he has watched the children grow up.
Davis said that it amazes him the things he hears from the people who sit on his lap and confide their wishes to Santa.
“The other day a little boy looked up at me and I asked him ‘what do you want for Christmas?'”
The little boy asks if Santa can bring his dad back home.
“Where is he?” Davis asks.
The little boy answers “He died!”
Davis grabs his chest as he tells this story. “What do you say to that?”
The 74-year-old retired – jack of all trades and Vietnam veteran says he has heard a lot of stories over the years.
His sidekick and wife of 47 years listens closely and tries to help. She told that little boy that ‘his dad is always with him wherever he goes.’
“You have to think fast with your answers,” Davis said.
“My payment for this isn’t monitory,” he said. Davis dons his suit several times during the holiday season, portraying Santa for a variety of groups and organizations.
“Going into nursing homes and you see someone, 85 or 90, sitting there on the side of their bed looking down and depressed. And then they see the red suit … their eyes light up and they get up and give you a hug. One person hugged me and said ‘I thought I would never see you again.’ That is my payment.”
Davis has hundreds of stories like this one. Another he told took place 3 or 4 years ago at a local retirement home. He said a man was being visited by his sister when he walked into their room. The sister asked if she could take a picture of Santa with her brother.
“The man couldn’t lift his head, so (Mrs. Claus) and I bent down to get close to him and she took a picture. (Mrs. Claus) said, ‘take another one,’ and this time she planted a kiss on [the mans] cheek and he smiled.”
Tony said that he saw the woman a month or so later and learned that the man had passed away. She told him what that picture meant to her and the family.
“It was the only time she saw him smile in a year,” she told him.
“There are things you hear doing this that will tear your heart out, but there are some things that give you so much joy you cannot even contain it.”
It’s not just a role reserved for Christmastime, Tony is recognized all year long.
“I might be in shorts and a cut off T-shirt and I hear ‘Hi Santa!’ I laugh and just go with it,” he said. On Saturday, as he was packing up his car to head to a party, a car pulled up beside him and the rear window rolled down and there was a young girl smiling from ear to ear.
“Hi honey. How are you? Are you ready for Christmas?” he asks as if he knows who it is.
“That happens all the time. I have no idea who that is. I don’t care. I love it.” he said.
At the Heasley house, the Saturday before Christmas, around 20 children and almost as many adults took turns sitting on Santa and Mrs. Claus’ laps for conversation and snapping a few cell phone pictures. “That one is going on Facebook,” said one of the teenagers to another teen sitting on Santa’s lap.
They took turns sitting on Mrs. Claus lap too.
“We have a ball,” Tony said.
“No, we’re just nuts,” replied Dottie (Dorothy Rice aka Mrs. Claus.) “We’re just never going to grow up.”
What started out as a fun thing to try 17 years ago, is taken a little more seriously now. The Davis’s have more than one outfit, a few spare hats, a custom made belt, bells and tons of candy. “We’re diabetic and we can’t even eat the stuff, but we have tons of it!” he said about the candy …. laughing.
“It’s the way you present it,” Davis said about being Santa. He said you can’t fake it and you just have to present yourself authentically.
“Years ago,” Julie Heasley said, “the neighbors across the street had kids who saw Santa as they looked out the window over at our house. He(Davis) saw them an he would not leave without going over to their house to say hello!”
“He’s the real thing,” added Jim Heasley.
They both are.