There's something about the holidays that brings out the best and the worst in each of us. Our inner Tiny Tims and Scrooges, Santa's little helpers and Grinches, George Baileys and Clark Griswolds. Of course, there's a big difference between acting out an archetype — say, a Magi or an angel with an enlightened gift or a selfless act — and actually taking on the role of a holiday character. Most of us have played Secret Santa at one time; only a few of us (like John Haldane) actually become Santa each year during the holidays.
"I think it's helped me get past the stress of the holiday because I have an opportunity to go out and give," says Haldane who, since 1995, has dressed up as Saint Nick for parties, retirement homes, hospitals and all manner of special requests. "Frankly, I receive a lot more than I give," he says.
Haldane took on the Santa role after receiving a sign from his late mother — a strange request from beyond since, according to Haldane's wife, he was "the biggest Scrooge at Christmas." Now, he says, every year when he plays Santa, it's like his mother is with him, reminding him to "take what's best in the holiday, slow down and give something back."
From holiday to humbug
Local actor and comedian Tom Chalmers, on the other hand, has made a holiday tradition of channeling all that seasonal angst into awesomely grouchy characters like Crumpet the Elf. Crumpet, the sole role of the essay-turned-stage-performance The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, is based on Sedaris' own experiences working as a Macy's department store elf during the Christmas season. Bitter and darkly humorous, the play has become a delightful antidote to all the cloying bell-ringing and angel-wing-getting holiday cheer.
"I'm a performer, and doing The Santaland Diaries is an awesome experience," says Chalmers. He'll play the role again this year, at Asheville Community Theatre. "I'm always happy to do so, putting on those red-and-white tights." It's a part he's played since 2005. For awhile, Chalmers was worried that he'd only be known as "that elf guy."
Now, having tied for best local comedian in this year's Xpress readers' poll, and with successful runs of his own shows — the dark comedy Harm for the Holidays and his Listen to This: Stories in Performance series at 35below — Chalmers has made peace with his elfin alter-ego. "I'm sure there are better things to be known as, like 'that Nobel Peace Prize guy,'" he quips. "But 'that elf guy' — that's fine. People say it with a little bit of delight in their voice and not shaking their fists at me."
Another local performer known for an edgy role is Mike Vaniman. He is about to embark on his ninth turn as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Montford Park Players' production of Charles Dickens' iconic A Christmas Carol. He first auditioned for Scrooge in 2002 and "kept getting picked to do the role, so I guess people like me as Scrooge."
And, even though Scrooge is the ultimate holiday curmudgeon, Vaniman says, "It's a wonderful role, you get to do some wonderful transformation. I sure like it at the very tail end where he's light as a feather and merry and a school boy, but I think my scenes with Marley are my absolute favorite. They're partners and friends, but very critical of each other."
He's seen transformation with the production, as well, from children in younger roles growing up to take on older characters, and an array of directors, settings and stages leading to different types of productions. A show at the Asheville Arts Center had 12 actors; one production, directed by Hazel Robinson at Asheville Community Theatre, topped out at around 54 actors.
On a personal level, Vaniman says, "The childhood wonder is long gone, being a daddy and that kind of thing. Being in a show is kind of like taking membership in a transient family. You get this gang of people together and you're all working for this one goal, striving toward it."
And there's something else: "The story is somewhat amazing. It's still current. Greed has been at the forefront of modern happenings," says Vaniman. "My only questioning is that there has to be a supernatural event to make Scrooge change — geez, people, we’re the Christmas past, present and future."
If you wave at a kid from a sleigh…
Haldane certainly has the Christmas present down to a science. He keeps up-to-date on the latest holiday films and references them often. His wife made his suit, and his beard and mustache were crafted by the same designer who worked with Tim Allen in The Santa Clause (he can grow his own hair and beard, but achieving the perfect white color is another story). His favorite audience is families ("There's an intimacy there"), but no matter who Haldane visits on official Santa business, his technique is the same: "I touch them heart to heart."
And where did he learn to be a Santa? From other character roles, including clowning at hospitals in China as part of a delegation headed by Patch Adams. "Patch taught me that every person is the same," he says.
Chalmers made a similar discovery through his narrative, holiday-themed shows. "There's a heightened expectation for the holidays," he explains. "Because of that, you leave yourself vulnerable to disappointment, illness, lack of focus and injury." All of which lend themselves to dark comedy. But Chalmers also gets the earnest wonder of the season. Last year he took part in the Asheville Holiday Parade as Crumpet, fully expecting his performance to be a dour parody.
Surprise: "I realized no one knew who I was or what the show was. If you wave at a kid, from a sleigh, dressed as an elf, it really makes them happy. It ended up being a fun thing to do."
As long as people need reminders about the season's big messages, there will be actors donning striped tights, red suits and whatever else it takes to get that message out there — whether it's Tiny Tim's "God bless us, every one," or Chalmers' personal experience-based "It's dark, but we made it through."
Says Vaniman, "I've been growing my mutton chops since early October." By press time he'll be Scrooge-perfect.
Learn more about John Haldane’s Santa Claus visits at the-santa-claus.com. Mike Vaniman joins the Montford Park Players for a production of A Christmas Carol at the Masonic Temple, Dec. 9-19, $6/$12, montfordparkplayers.org. Watch Tom Chalmers as Crumpet the Elf in The Santaland Diaries at ACT, Dec. 16-19, $15, ashevilletheatre.org.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.