Playing (and living) the role

On Sunday I came across an article on Jean Robert-Houdin. How appropriate for Christmas, I thought.

Though I doubt you ever heard of him, his last name resembles one you know, and for good reason: Houdini (birth name Erik Weisz) took his stage name as an homage to Robert-Houdin.

So who was he?

Robert-Houdin is considered the father of modern conjuring.

A 19th century French magician, he radicalized how magicians performed, as well as how they were perceived. Before him, magicians were street and festival performers, and were viewed as tricksters at best, mountebanks at worst, and low lifes any which way.

Robert-Houdin changed all that, first by performing in the salons of the wealthy, and by later opening up his own theater. He introduced elegance to magic, as well as the standard dress for the stage magician – tuxedo or tails.

He also came up with the definitive rule of conjuring: “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.”

That may sound obvious, but it’s not. First, as an art, magic has nothing to do with fooling people. If all I wanted was to fool people I would’ve gone into either politics or religion, where the audiences are more gullible and the earnings can be astronomical.

Second, there’s no such thing as magic, and a beginning magician better learn that before he learns anything else. If magic existed, it’d be a snap to perform. What if I truly had magic powers? I could take any object — say, a bowling ball — hold it out in one hand, recite the proper incantation, and it’d float above my head, hang in space for a while, and then suddenly burst flames and vanish.

But since magic doesn’t exist, neither I nor anyone else can do something like that (though we can do something that LOOKS like that). Instead, any trick done well requires a whole lot of time, practice and patience. And that’s only Part One.

Part Two is magicians have to pretend they’re doing the trick due to other-worldly powers. They don’t say that, of course, but they have to somehow believe it so it’s conveyed to the audience. And if it is, only for a wee bit, that’s good enough.

So what does any of this have to do with Christmas? A lot, really. Or more exactly, it has a lot to do with Christmas’s leading actor, himself – Santa Claus.

A humble start…

A few week’s ago I wrote about how, as a little kid, I got an “audience” with Macy’s Santa in New York City. He was a wonderful Santa — actually, the best one ever. That was partly due to his costume and the setting — Macy’s spared no expense with any of it. But it was also due to the man himself.

See, he was no mere mortal picked at random to Ho Ho Ho for the little shmendricks. Instead, he was either a graduate of Charles W. Howard’s Santa School…or maybe even Charles W. Howard, himself.

Never heard of Charles W. Howard? Well, neither did I till my pal Steampunk Steve told me about him.

He was born in 1896, on a farm near Albion, New York. At age seven, his mother made him a Santa Claus outfit, which set him on his life’s course. Over the years he saw other men playing Santa in stores and decided he wanted to give it a try. He began in a local furniture store, then went on to stores in Rochester and Buffalo, all the while reading everything he could about Santa. As a result of his experience and reading he concluded most other Santas were unprofessional. So in 1937 he started The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, dedicated to turning out Santas of highest quality. He had a rough start, his first class consisting of three men, only one of whom paid the full $15 tuition. But he stuck with it and his persistence paid off. The school, now relocated in Midland, Michigan, boasts a yearly enrollment of 300 students. It also boasts of being “…the world’s oldest and best Santa Claus School in the world.” And who can doubt that? Certainly not me..

What started as a lark for Charles Howard morphed into a hobby, then an occupation, and finally his life’s calling. He was a perfectionist in every aspect of presenting Santa. In fact, he personally designed his suit, and when he marketed them, they cost twice as much as the other suits. Naysayers said the suits would never sell, but quality won out, and they were the preferred suit in stores all over the country. But as Catherine Cooper, the Orleans County Historian put it, to Howard, being Santa was not about making money. Instead, she said, “He truly believed Santa Claus should be perfect for children because he is the expression of love and givingness.”

…on the road to perfection

In 1948 Howard hit the biggest of Big Times, when he became the star Santa of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He also was one of Macy’s store Santas, and he stayed in both roles until the year before his death in 1965. So maybe that marvelous Santa I was with when I was six, was Charles W. Howard, himself!

Now here’s the weirdest part : Even at that tender age, I hadn’t believed in Santa for several years.

On a mid-December’s day, as a wee poppet of three, I was looking out the dining room window, when my brother came in. My bro, a battle-scarred Broadway School vet halfway through Mrs. Eldrett’s kindergarten, asked what I was doing.

“Looking for Santa,” I said.

“Oh?” he said, condescension oozing out his pores. “Well, there is no Santa.”

At that moment, my mother, standing behind him, snapped, “Don’t tell him that!”

Instantly, I knew he was right. And after Santa vanished from my life as a god-like figure, he never returned.

Yet there I was three years later, a Santa nonbeliever if ever there was one, sitting on his knee, utterly enthralled, basking in the strange, wondrous and joyful aura of someone I knew was a man, but who I BELIEVED was the real Santa himself.

And how could that have happened?

Robert-Houdin already explained it.

The man was an actor who played the role of a Santa — and he did it to perfection. So even though I had no Santa in my thoughts, I had nothing BUT Santa in my heart.

And that, my friends, is what the Magic of Christmas is all about.


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