Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An Unforgettable Christmas Show




Many years ago I was coerced into covering a gig for a magician who was double booked. It was a Christmas party for 300 children and their parents in the basement of a Catholic church. After I said yes, the magician then added that in addition to my regular show I would have to communicate with Santa "via satellite" (I later found out this meant pressing play on a VCR and pretending to speak and interact with a TV screen that featured one of the worst Santa impersonators I have ever seen) and would then "magically produce" the real Santa from a large box. The magician dropped the box off at the church the morning of the show and I arrived to find the box ready backstage along with a TV and VCR onstage plugged in and perched atop a four wheeled cart. A note stuck to the TV stated that Santa would be arriving 30 minutes prior to my performance to run through the illusion and to get into costume.


The kids and parents arrived, ate pizza, drank pop, inhaled Christmas treats and began to run incessantly around the large basement of the church. It was 20 minutes to showtime and Santa was nowhere to be seen. I checked backstage, in change rooms, washrooms, closets and Saint Nick was a no show. One of the parents corralled the children to sit on the floor in front of the stage and I made my entrance. The show had begun. And it went well. There is usually a tremendous amount of excitement and energy at Christmas parties that involve kids, mostly because they are anticipating the big man bringing the gifts. They know that after the magician the man in red suit will be there with the loot, so if you keep the show moving along they're more than happy to put up with 30 minutes of minor miracles.


Well I concluded the show with Chico The Mind Reading Monkey who stole the show as usual and after I put him away I then moved over to the cart with the VHS cassette ready to roll. I declared to the crowd that we would be contacting Santa via satellite to find out his location. I pressed play and some poorly created graphics gave us the faint impression that we were attempting to contact Santa using the TV screen and some (then) unknown technology. Well the over acting of a middle aged man in an ill-fitting Santa suit had some of the youngest kids convinced that Santa was very close and would be landing on the roof of the church at any moment. The screen went blank. This was the cue to produce Kris Kringle from the magic box.


I scurried backstage to find the big magic box empty. I ran from change room, to closet to washroom to find no one. After a couple of minutes, panic set in. Three hundred kids had grown impatient and were chanting "Santa, Santa, Santa" in a unified chorus. I ran out into the parking lot and witnessed an overweight man struggling to squeeze into a red suit while seated in a small Toyota. I banged on the window and gestured for him to come quickly. He literally rolled out of the tiny car onto the pavement. I grabbed his arm and helped him up to his feet and introduced myself. He grunted and I took him through a backstage entrance into the darkness of the wings.


He started to walk out onto the stage when I grabbed his arm and told him that he had to get into the magic box. "What?!" he huffed. He clearly had not been informed. I explained that he was to be magically produced from the box that we were now standing beside in the darkened wings. At this point the kids were in hysterics. They were screaming, "We want Santa, We want Santa" with an intensity that had me concerned for our safety. "Okay what do I have to do?" heaved Santa. I quickly explained that he had to lie down inside the box and squeeze himself in as tightly as possible. I would tip the box over and a flap would hide his body from the eyes of the audience making the box seem empty. I would then give him a verbal cue to stand up and reveal himself. Simple. Somehow Santa squirreled himself into the box after some serious effort. I pushed the box on caster wheels out into the stage lights and the crowd went crazy. Kids were literally screaming themselves hoarse and a mosh pit of sorts had formed at the front of the stage. I clapped my hands a shouted into the mic, "Ladies and Gentleman, I know you have been patiently waiting for a very special guest!" Several kids were stomping in unison in front and many were being pulled back by their parents from climbing onto the stage. "Let me see if I can make him appear by magic!" I exclaimed. There was a sudden hush over the audience. I grabbed the top and sides of the large colourful box and began tip it over to show an "empty" interior. I'm not sure how I managed to screw up the illusion, but for some reason the extra wall or flap that was supposed to hide Father Christmas simply wasn't there. So as I tipped it over to display the vacant insides of the box all the audience saw was a panic-stricken, poorly attired Santa in a fetal position trying with all his might to look small. There was a moment where you could hear a pin drop while the audience was trying to compute the strange and terrible image they were witnessing compressed inside of a box decorated in circus paint. Suddenly a small boy in the front cried out, "It's Santa!" and all hell broke loose. Kids had broken free of the their parents arms and were taking the stage by force, I dropped the box back down and turned to face the throng head on. There was a muffled scream from inside the box and I realized that the bottom edge of the box had landed directly on Santa's ankle. I held a couple kids back and proceeded to lift the contraption off Santa's ankle and he gingerly pulled his foot back into the safety of the box. In an attempt to gain control I grabbed the mic from the stand and called out in desperation for the parents to, "Please help get the children back to their seats or Santa will not appear."


It took a few moments to clear the stage and regain a certain sense of calm, but it happened and I began to make some magical gestures over the box. I probably looked like the saddest magician in all the world at this moment. Everyone had already seen Santa in a crumpled form at the bottom of the box. And now I was pretending that they hadn't. That the illusion was still a reality for me. And it would take all of my magical movements and passes to conjure up Old Saint Nicholas from this empty magic box. Well after my charade of stupidity I finally called into the box in a loud stage whisper for my assistant to rise up. Well with some considerable strain our Santa rose to his feet. The audience burst into immediate applause and shouts. Now Santa didn't look good. He didn't even look passable by any child's standard of a regulation Santa Claus. But the journey had been a long and arduous one. And nobody seemed to care that Santa's beard had come loose and was dangling by a sagging white elastic hanging from his left ear. Or that the corner of a pillow was peeking out of the bottom of Santa's red suit. In fact Santa looked more like a man on the brink a heart attack, then the right jolly old elf we were hoping for. Nonetheless I offered my arm to help Santa out of the box and over to a large chair by the Christmas tree and mountain of gifts he would soon be passing out to the excited boys and girls.


Now I should have taken into account that the box was on wheels. And I should have considered the weakened ankle that only moments ago had been crushed by the large magic box. But I didn't. Just as Santa had placed one foot over the edge of the box and was at that crucial point of no return, the box went sailing backwards sending him flying face forward into a bellyflop flat onto the stage. He landed directly on his stomach. There was a moment of complete silence in the room and then a collective "oooooooohhhhhhhhh" from the adults. I stood frozen in time still pathetically holding Santa's hand. I dropped to one knee asking if he was okay. Nothing but rasping breaths were coming from the big man and I gathered that it would take a few minutes to him to resume composure after being completely winded by the fall. We all waited with baited breath. Finally Santa struggled to his knees and allowed me to help him the rest of way to his feet. He hobbled painfully leaning on me to his throne and some quick thinking parents began to announce the names of the children, one at a time, to come to the tree and receive their gift. The children took compassion and when they approached Santa they averted their gaze when they came to accept their handout. It was impossible not to feel the pain, the shame and the utter defeat in our Santa.


But we survived yet another Christmas and celebrated to best of our collective abilities.


One and all.