Memories Of My Recently Deceased Dad Being The Best Store Santa In Duluth + Superior
I had originally written this in December 2022, as I wanted to share my memories of being a kid in the Northland who was in a very cool and unique situation thanks to my dad. I also know there are a lot of people who knew my dad and even visited him as Santa.
However, this year it was even more important for me to share as my dad passed away on May 24, 2023, and because of the time of year, the memories have come flooding back.
Every year, the arrival of Santa is a big deal because it announces that the Christmas season is here. Kids get really excited as their parents get them in line to tell Santa what they want and to get a treat and a picture. I should say most kids, as some treat a visit with Santa with screams and tears one usually reserves for the dentist.
As a toddler growing up in the 70’s, I was no different. Christmas was my favorite time of the year and I really looked forward to seeing Santa at Goldfine’s By-The-Bridge department store in Duluth. I never was afraid of seeing Santa and as I got a little older, I realized why I loved spending time with him.
Goldfine’s was located at 600 Garfield Avenue, which is now where you’ll find Goodwill. However, before closing its doors in January 1979, the popular department store was the place to find just about everything you needed at that time in Duluth. They also had a fantastic Santa in the 70’s! Well, perhaps I should clarify that he was a “Santa’s Helper”, you know someone authorized by the big guy himself to gather requests from children all over the world 😉. I’ll just call him Santa here and that Santa was my dad.
My dad took the role of Santa very seriously. He invested in a top-of-the-line Santa suit, complete with a wig and beard made of yak hair, which looks just like human hair. Having dark hair, my dad would use white grease paint on his eyebrows. While he wasn’t an overweight man, he did have a great trick of putting a pillow into the top of his pants to cover his belly, which he would secure with a belt hidden under his Santa coat.
While he very much looked the part, what sold it was he was an actor. He was in countless productions at the Duluth Playhouse and he could do a lot of different voices. If you grew up in the Duluth area in the 70’s and through the 80’s, you likely heard my dad on the radio. His on-air name was David John and he even did a morning show called “David John & Granny” where he played both the host and ‘Granny’, who was not only an old lady but an old lady full of insults and inappropriate comments. People never knew that he was the voice of ‘Granny’ so, needless to say, he could easily do a convincing Santa voice and belly laugh. Good enough to even fool his own kids for years.
Of course, when me and my two sisters went to see Santa at Goldfine’s we all didn’t know at the same time that we were really going to visit our dad. My sisters were both older so they’d find out before me. All I knew at a very young age was that seeing Santa brought me a lot of excitement and a lot of comfort. It would all make sense once I knew the reality of who I was visiting with.
I can’t remember how old I was, but I do remember when I caught on. After a visit to Santa one Christmas season, I told my mom “Santa has Dad’s eyes”. Not even the expensive costume, the grease paint, or the convincing voice could hide my dad’s eyes from me. It was shortly thereafter that my mom told me what my sisters had already come to realize.
As I got older, I realized that having a dad who is also a legit Santa in the area had plenty of perks. Once Goldfine’s closed, my dad was hired to be Santa for the Mariner Mall in Superior, which was built in 1980.
I went from visiting Santa to working for him. My dad would have me join him on weekends to help hand out Dum-Dums suckers to the kids who visited with him. This was a sweet gig for a young teen because back then the Mariner Mall was a real mall, with everything a mall in the 80’s needed to have. There was an arcade, there was food, there was the Mariner 4 movie theater, and more.
I would bring my friend Curt to help hand out suckers most weekends. After a few hours of helping out, my dad would give us money to eat and $20 for the arcade. I pity anyone who never knew the ultimate satisfaction of being a kid sliding a twenty-dollar bill into an arcade token machine. There wasn’t a sweeter sound in the world than that of all those tokens dropping into that tray.
As a huge bonus, my dad was friends with Denny and he happened to be the manager at the Mariner 4 Theaters. Knowing that Curt and I would be at the mall every weekend and usually with significant time to kill, Denny agreed to let us into any movie we wanted to see whenever we were there. He’d just give us a friendly nod and smile and let us in and his staff would do the same. Sometimes we were even given free popcorn and pop. What a setup!
It also allowed us to see movies we likely wouldn’t have been able to see had we had to first ask our moms. For example, I got to see Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in ’48 Hours’ when I was 13. We just walked into that theater no questions asked, I was Santa’s kid. I remember loving it and thinking there was a lot of swearing, but it was very funny and violent. I was used to seeing movies that weren’t age-appropriate anyway. My dad took me and my sisters to “Animal House” when I was 9, but that’s another story.
This Santa setup lasted several years until, sadly, my dad decided it was time to stop being a Santa in the Northland. We don’t know where that Santa suit or yak hair beard and wig ultimately ended up. I do have the picture that you see above of my dad with me and my sisters as well as a lifelong love of Cream Soda flavored Dum-Dums.
Today, there are still amazing Santa’s out there helping out every Christmas season, some even have real beards! However, they aren’t my dad and the 70’s and 80’s have long since passed in the Northland. One walk today through the Mariner Mall building in Superior gives a sad, yet precise picture of how times have changed.
The bottom line is that growing up having a dad who was literally Santa provided me with memories I’ll forever cherish.I guess I'm a chip off the old block as something, or likely someone, inspired me to dress as Santa this year for Halloween.
While the suit, beard, and wig were nowhere near the quality of what my dad had worn all those years, I did remember how to get the pillow secured as my belly and to make sure my eyebrows were painted white. My daughter helped me with that part.
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Gallery Credit: Angela Underwood