Thursday, December 5, 2013

Coffee with … Santa Claus

By Alan K. Stout
Westside Bulletin Correspondent

Santa Claus is a professional toymaker best associated with his tireless work during the Christmas holiday season. Claus, who is believed to be several hundred years old, resides at the North Pole with his wife, Jessica, who is best known as “Mrs. Claus.” Their extended family includes a workshop staff of 1,000 elves and nine reindeer, one of which has a red nose. In a rare and exclusive interview with The Westside Bulletin, Santa recently offered some insight into his magical life and why he continues to do what he does every Christmas Eve.   

 How did you first get involved with the whole giving-out-toys-to-every-kid-in-the-world-on-Christmas-Eve thing? That’s a pretty big undertaking. “If you have ever seen the TV special ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,’ they did a pretty good job of getting the story right. I was adopted by the Kringle family as a baby, who were the finest toymakers in the world. When I got older, I offered to deliver the toys to the children at a nearby town, and over time it just grew into a rather epic yearly adventure. I remember the first time I did the whole globe in one night, I thought ‘Never again. That was a bit much.’ But the kids really loved it, and there was really no way I could stop. I’ve been doing it every Christmas Eve ever since.”

What do you still enjoy about it the most? “Just seeing the joy that the toys bring to the children. People assume that when I get back to the North Pole, I must be so tired that I sleep for three days. But I’m still too hyped up on adrenaline to relax, and after working so hard in getting ready for the big night all year, I want to be able to enjoy seeing the children open their gifts. So I tend to look in on them for a few days through my crystal ball, and I get to see the joy. A few days later, it all starts to catch up with me and I get some rest. New Year’s Eve is always a quiet and restful night at the Claus home. Our work is done.”

When do you start to get ready again for next year? “February 1. I always give everyone the month of January off. They put in some very long days, especially in November and December, so I give all of the elves a well-deserved break. Then, on February 1, it’s back to work.”

What is your favorite gift to leave for the children? “Dolls for the girls and trains for the boys. My staff and I have seen every toy trend come and go over the years, and my elves are the best, so they can make anything, but at the end of the day, you can never go wrong with a doll or a train.”

Do you really leave some kids coal at Christmas Eve? Growing up, I never heard of that actually ever happening to anyone. “It’s pretty rare, but it’s been done. Usually, it’s the parents that insist on it, and so I must oblige. Clearly, they want to use Christmas as a way to teach their kids a lesson and improve their behavior. I’m not a big fan of it and I don’t do it often. I think it’s been a good 10 or 15 years since it happened to anyone. But the possibility is always there. I do have a list, and I do check it once and then check it twice.”

What’s your favorite Christmas movie? “It’s funny, but I tend to prefer holiday films that don’t involve me or films in which I have appeared. I enjoy ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ but I’d rather watch something like ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ or ‘A Christmas Carol.’ I love those stories and how they reflect the Christmas spirit.”

What about the children’s holiday specials? Do you watch them?  “Certainly. I love them. And with those, I do like the ones that feature Santa. ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,’ ‘The Year Without A Santa Claus’ and ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ are wonderful. I also enjoy ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ ‘Frosty The Snowman’ and ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas.’ They’re all very well done.”

What’s your favorite Christmas music? “Well, honestly, the most moving Christmas music to me is the holiday hymns that you might hear sung by your church choir on Christmas morning. Those are the ones that best capture what the holiday is all about. Christmas is not about Santa. I’m just a small part of its celebration. The Christmas songs you hear in church are the ones that remind us why we celebrate. As for holiday albums, I love the classics – Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra – albums like that. I also love the Elvis Christmas albums. The King loved Christmas. Sometimes when they’re working in the shop, the elves will be playing some of the more modern holiday music, such as Mannheim Steamroller or Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and I’ll stop and listen to it with them for a while. I like it. But in the end, just give me Bing singing ‘White Christmas.’ I love the classics.”

What do you do to relax? “I really do love anything that has to do with winter and the outdoors. We love to go sledding and skiing and ice skating. You’d think at my age, I’d have slowed down a bit, but I haven’t lost a step. Give me a toboggan and a big hill, and I’m as happy as a child.”

Any nicknames? “No. Not really. Some people think Kris Kringle and St. Nick are nicknames, but they are also my official legal names. People in different parts of the world prefer to call me by different things. To some, I’m Santa. To others, I’m St. Nick. To others, I’m Kris Kringle. As long as I am welcomed there, it doesn’t matter to me. Sometimes, if I do something wrong at home,  Mrs. Claus will call me Kristopher. She is the only one that calls me that. If I track in snow through the house, and she yells ‘Kristopher!” from the next room, I know I’m in trouble.”

Hobbies? “I collect vintage toys. And when I say vintage, I mean vintage. Though I’ve been making toys for a few hundred years, they actually go back much, much further. Dolls, toy animals and toy soldiers have been found on archaeological digs, and it is believed that the word ‘toy’ was first used in the 14th century. Any toy that pre-dates the Kringle-era of toy-making, I’m interested in.”

Favorite food? “I love sweets. Can’t you tell.” (He breaks into his famous “Ho-Ho-Ho” laugh.)

Favorite city? “They’re all special and unique. Obviously, with my work, I’ve been to all of biggest cities in the world, and also to every little town and village. New York and London really do Christmas well, but it doesn’t matter to me where it is – big town or small - as long as they are celebrating the holiday and I am made to feel welcome, I feel at home.”

Favorite vacation spot? “We actually stay north year-round. Sometimes if we want a little hustle bustle, we’ll visit Montreal or Toronto, but we tried the Bahamas and the Caribbean a few times many years ago, and it’s just not us. We’re winter people.”

Favorite color? “Red, of course.”

Favorite author? “Charles Dickens.”

Favorite book?  “ ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.”

Tell us something about yourself that people might not know. “Most people seem to know that my crystal ball allows me to look in on children from time to time to see if they’re being naughty or nice, but what they might not know is that it also allows me to see into the future. For example, the 51st President of The United States is currently six years old. And what she wants for Christmas this year are a few Hello Kitty items. There’s also a boy I know who is now four, and 20 years from now, he will pitch in the World Series. Right now, he’s into ‘Batman’ and ‘Star Wars,’ but I think I better also leave him a ball and glove.”  

Defining moment? “It was a few days after we did that first one-night global trip many, many Christmas Eves  ago. The thank you letters had started to come in from the children, and I read every one of them. And each one touched my heart. At the time, I didn’t know it was something I’d do every Christmas Eve. It was just something I wanted to try once. We had plenty of toys at the shop, and I wanted the children around the world to enjoy them. And so off we went. And a few days later, when I started reading those letters, I knew I had my life’s work and my life’s mission. There is nothing like the smile of a child, and as long as the Good Lord allows me to remain a small part of his special holiday, I will always be there for the children on Christmas Eve. Always. Some people say that I am a blessing, because I make children happy, but I feel I am the one that has been blessed.”

Monday, August 26, 2013



"Joe B." is leaving the Times Leader. He will be missed, but not forgotten

Times Leader features staff, 1999  

It's hard to imagine The Times Leader without Joe Butkiewicz. When I see the paper on my front porch every morning, I think of him. For 30 years, he was a constant presence in the newsroom, and I was fortunate enough to have been there with him for about half of them. At first, he was my co-worker. Later, for about seven years, he was my boss. Then, as we each moved in and out of different positions at the paper, he became a trusted colleague. Ultimately, what I will always consider him to be is a mentor and a friend. And since this is his last week at the TL, I would be remiss to not share some thoughts on the man that I have come to respect as much as anyone I have ever known in my own 20-plus years of journalism.
When I say "Joe B," as everyone calls him, was a constant presence in the newsroom, I mean it. When I first started at the paper in 1993, he was already a 10-year veteran, a features writer and a film critic. And I can still recall those days in the early '90s when much of the newsroom staff would gather outside of the editor's office to discuss the latest highly-hyped blockbuster while Joe held court. His opinion mattered then, and years later when he became the editorial page editor, it mattered even more. With his commentaries on life in NEPA, his voice was, in essence, the voice of the newspaper. And in recent years, as he has served as executive editor - a.k.a. the big boss - his experience and leadership became its daily conscience.

My own nickname for Joe is "Chief." No real reason for it, other than from 1996-2001 and from 2005-2007, he was my boss. And I liked him. In fact when he was the Arts & Leisure Team Leader, or features editor, I think we all would have run through a fire for him. He led by example and he worked harder than any of us. He also let us develop our respective beats, while also creating a culture where we all knew that we could - and should - contribute to all of the features pages.
In 1998, when Chief envisioned changing our Friday "Weekend" section into a tab, he knew exactly what he wanted. He knew it would be better for the readers and that it offered more creative ways for stories to be presented and designed. We all bought into his plan and helped launch "The Guide," which can you still find in your Times Leader every Friday. If you like it, you can thank Joe B.

As a boss, Chief was the type of supervisor that you didn't want to let down. If he gave you the ball, you didn't not want to drop it. He always reminded us that everything we did - everything - was about the reader. "The Reader, the reader, the reader," he would sometimes say, or write in an editing note on a story. Sometimes, back in the '90s, when Joe liked one of your stories or how you handled a certain situation, you might find a little note, typed on his stationary, lying on your desk. Later, they came via e-mail. In my home, in a drawer in my office, I still have them all. When Chief said you did good, it made you feel good.
When it came to arts and entertainment, Joe was not concerned with following trends. Yes, I was assigned a story on the "Macarena" sensation - I mean, we had to do it - but he also liked the paper to be first in informing people about things they might find interesting. I remember in 1996 there was a very good local band that was about to release an excellent new album. I had an advanced copy, and I thought that while the group did not have the following of a band like The Badlees, it too had a chance at a national record deal. I pitched the band and its CD release as a cover story for the "Weekend" section, and though I told Joe I thought they were fabulous, I also felt I should tell him that the group wasn't really packing the clubs just yet.

"That's doesn't concern me at all," he said. "Let's be the ones to tell everyone about them."
They were our cover story. And sometime later, Mere Mortals were voted NEPA's best original band.

Joe always supported my projects. When I got involved with "Concert For Karen" and "Concert For A Cause," he came to the shows and always bought a t-shirt. When I later worked with the Newspapers in Education program and helped present the annual Times Leader/Scripps Spelling Bee, Joe was there. His position at the paper did not really require him to attend such events, but he did. And it meant a lot. On one occasion, when Joe was features editor, we got word from a publicist that a story I had written and had moved on the national wire had run in some of the largest newspapers in the country. He took the list of papers it had appeared in right into the editor’s office to let her know. Thinking back, I now realize that the fact that Joe was happy for me and proud of me meant more to me than the thought that the article might have been read a million people.
In 2000, I wrote a "Look Back" story at Christmastime. I won't bore you with the all of the details, but when people ask me what is my favorite story I've ever written, it is the one. My first draft, however, was quite different than the one that was published. And the suggested changes that helped make it my favorite came from Joe B.

Perhaps such tales are why I worked for Joe not once, but twice. In 2001, Joe left his position as features editor to become editorial page editor. In 2004, I left the features desk to become Newspapers in Education Manager. I liked the job very much and was in the position for about a year when I was called into the publisher's office. Ironically, I had literally just gotten back from a week-long conference in Charleston, where I met with other Newspapers in Education managers (NIE) from around the country.
 "Did you know that while you were away, the editor of The Weekender resigned?" asked Pat McHugh. I told him I did. In fact, he was a good friend. "Would you consider taking the position?“ he asked. “With your experience as an entertainment writer and copy editor, I think it's a great fit."

I paused for a minute. Though I figured that was probably what he was going to ask me when he called me in, and I knew it was a nice opportunity, I really did love the NIE program. Noticing my hesitation, he leaned forward, smiled, and offered this:
"I should tell you that while you were gone, I made some changes. Joe B. is now overseeing all of the weekly newspapers, so if you do this, you'll be working for Joe."

He had me. He knew he had me. And for the next two years, Joe and I had some fun times working on The Weekender. In fact, I think we surprised people. Though some may have thought that two old Times Leader guys coming over to The Weekender might have led to the paper losing some of its edge, Joe and I stirred stuff up all the time. One week, with a somewhat racy cover, we actually got the paper booted right out of every Turkey Hill in NEPA. We in turn used the publicity to our advantage and had everyone in town looking to pick it up. Not bad for two Catholic kids from Kingston.
More than anything, however, Joe is a very serious journalist. As noted, the reader is always his main concern. Such was the case when he reviewed films and wrote slice-of-life columns, and when he wrote features and editorials. I also saw it firsthand once again when, in 2011, I sat with him on the newspaper's endorsement board for what was an incredibly important election. And throughout his entire tenure of his final position at the paper - as its executive editor - he worked well with everyone from the reporters to the designers to the online staff. And I assume that's because they all felt the same way about him as I did.

Joe always referred to tough days and the challenges of working at a newspaper as "The Bear." Sometimes, he said, The Bear will win. Sometimes, he said, you will win. Joe slayed many a bear.
A few more Joe B. stories:

Back in the early '90s, there was a forecast for a major blizzard that was expected to start mid-afternoon. We all knew it was coming. Steve Corbett, our loud and outspoken metro columnist, was seated at his desk near the window when he shouted, "I just saw the first flake!"

 "That's your reflection," deadpanned Joe B.
Not only did the comment itself crack me up, but I was even more impressed at the speed at which it was delivered. Steve fumbled for a witty comeback, but came up empty. I was a young and quiet kid at the time, sitting off in the corner, but I think in my 18 years at The Times Leader, it was the hardest I ever laughed. Steve did, too.

In 2011, I left the paper to work with Big Brothers Big Sisters of The Bridge. Joe and I have stayed in touch, and earlier this year, I told him we were about to start getting ready for "Bowl For Kids' Sake," our biggest annual fundraiser. The Times Leader has always been a major sponsor of the event, but I knew there had been some big changes in the marketing department at the paper, and I wasn't sure who I should talk to about running some promos for the event. Joe thought about it for a minute, and finally said, "Just get them to me." This was certainly not the responsibility of the executive editor of the newspaper. And while some might say he had bigger fish to fry, Joe does not think that way. He knows a newspaper has a responsibility to a community. Our "Bowl For Kids' Sake" promos ran in the paper, and I know that this was not simply because of our relationship. He's done it for many other community groups as well. He knows it is just as important as the page one headline.

Though he was no longer my supervisor, I worked with Joe right up until the day I left the paper. For about two years, I wrote a Sunday feature called "MEET." It was Joe that asked me to write it, and again, I enjoyed working with him. And after 18 years, on my very last day at the paper, even though he worked in another building, it was Joe that came over to my office at the end of the day and walked me to my car. It meant a lot. 
It's funny, but whenever I worked with Joe and I would thank him for something he did for me, or taught me, and I would try to give him a compliment, he would deflect it by saying 'You're only as good as the people you work with." That might be the only thing I disagreed with him on. Joe has never given me bad advice on anything, and your boss can make you better. And he or she can't do that if they're not pretty damn good themselves.

 Again, Joe cared the most about the readers. (The reader, the reader, the reader.") But he also cared about his staff. I've shared a few of my stories here, and I know many others who worked with him can easily do the same. When I was covering rock music for the paper and Joe was my supervisor, there were certain things he expected. He wanted concert reviews that were both reporting (the attendance, the set-list) and commentary (crowd interaction, sound quality.) And you better hit your deadline. But every time I headed out of the newsroom to cover a show at Montage, or the arena, or the Kirby, or Philly, the last thing he'd say was, "Have fun."
Chief, we always had fun. And that, in large part, was because of you.

Joe leaves The Times Leader on Friday. On Saturday, the presses will roll on. Which is exactly what he wants. I'm sure he hopes the TL carries on for another 106 years, and that the co-workers he leaves behind continue to have fulfilling careers. What I want for him as he enters a new phase of his life is the same thing he wanted for me when he was my boss and I was his music critic.
 Whatever you do, Chief, have fun. Have plenty of fun.

 Nobody deserves it more.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Live from Graceland, Elvis Radio dedicates a special song
 (Click square in lower right to enlarge video)

Everybody that truly loves music has a story of the time they first fell in love with it. For me, there were a few steps along the way which brought me to where I am today. My first concert in 1982 - The Who at the old JFK Stadium in Philadelphia - changed my life. And seeing both Bruce Springsteen and KISS in concert for the first time in 1984 also had an undeniable impact. Later, seeing U2 also showed me that rock and roll, when presented in a certain and very special way, can literally take you to another place.

But my initial spark with music went back much further. About 10 years further, to be exact. It was then, in the early '70s, while sitting with my grandfather and listening to his albums, that I first heard Elvis Presley. As a kid, I spent an incredible amount of time with my grandpa. He watched me every day after school until my Mom got out of work, and in the summertime, he watched me all day. My memories of that time are all fond ones. He pretty much let me have the run of his house. My friends were welcome there, and he even put a little swimming pool in his backyard for me. He was a kind man, and when it was just him and me hanging out, we didn't watch a lot of TV. We listened to records. Mostly Elvis Presley records.

Elvis in the '70s was larger than life. Though only in his mid-30s when the decade began, he was already a living icon. His 1973 "Aloha From Hawaii" concert was viewed by more than a billion people around the globe. He was still cranking out hits such as "Burning Love." And even the mass popularity of a show such as "Happy Days" - which made frequent references to The King - helped give a young lad such as myself a better understanding of how long Elvis had been such an important figure in pop culture. His death in 1977 was met with a sense of national grief which, to this day, was unlike anything I've ever seen.

All of that had a strong influence on me. It changed me. And I know that it changed me for the better. Later, as a teen, I would would go to rock concerts and have some of the best times of my life. In college, I picked up an old bass guitar and played in a few bands. In my twenties, I began to cover rock and pop music for newspapers, and in my thirties, I helped launch a weekly radio show and even entered the recording studio a few times to record a few tunes that I had written, or songs by some of my favorite artists. One of those songs was by Elvis Presley.

All of it goes back to me and my grandpa, sitting in his parlor, listening to Elvis records on his fabulous console-style, floor-model stereo. The man took his music seriously, and I think about him every day, and of what a wonderful influence he had on my life. And so I was moved when, this past Saturday, Elvis Radio - which broadcasts right from Graceland - read a request and dedication that I'd sent in and played a song in memory of my grandpa. It was a tune called "We Can Make The Morning," from the album "Elvis Now," which was one of his favorites.

Thank you, to Bill Rock and Elvis Radio for allowing people to share such stories with one another, and now through the above link, allowing me to share it with you. It meant a lot to me. And from his parlor in Pennsylvania 40 years ago, to Memphis, to the radio satellites, to the heavens, I like to think that it meant a lot to him, too.

To quote The King: "Thank ya. Thank ya very much."

Again, it meant a lot to me.