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ON THE SCENE: Do you believe in Santa Claus?

June 29, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Do you believe in Santa Claus? If not, maybe now's a good time to reconsider your beliefs because Santa is still alive and well at the North Pole in Wilmington.

Yes, Santa has had better days, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s when thousands of people a day came to visit his charming village at the Santa's Workshop theme park on the slopes of Whiteface Mountain, pet his reindeer, and sit on the jolly old elf's lap with a list of desired gifts in hand.

The story of Santa's Wilmington home can be read in a charming book authored by Bob Welch titled "The Man Who Dared to Dream" and seen in a new documentary, "North Pole," that got it's North Country premiere Saturday, June 23 at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, two initiatives that are hitting the markets at the same time by divine coincidence.

Article Photos

Patti Reiss Brooks and John “Santa Claus” Smith
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

What one learns through the book is that the creation of Santa's Workshop was but one aspect of a life-long passion of Julian Reiss to connect people and treat them all with love, kindness and decency. Reiss believed that all people mattered, an outcome perhaps of surviving tuberculosis at a young age.

His ability to not just see the value in other people was perhaps first demonstrated by his courting and marrying Daisy Margaret Smith, a young woman who was neither Catholic, German like the Reiss family, nor of the same social class. Even worse, she was only 16 when they met while Julian already had four years of college under his belt. His family was aghast by the idea sending him abroad and throwing several other obstacles in their path, all to no avail.

The first challenge the young couple had to face was Julian coming down with tuberculosis, amplified by the birth of their first child, a son they named Tom. It was a combination of stressors that caused them to move to Lake Placid so they could be near the Trudeau Sanitorium in Saranac Lake and remain accessible to their families in New York City.

Fast forward to the early 1940s. Julian, then the owner of Northland Motors in Lake Placid, decided to share the profits of the business with the employees, a nearly unheard of practice at the time. Not only did he decide to share the profits, but a healthy percentage of the profits doling out $225,000 in the first seven years, over $3.5 million in today's dollars. The outcome was his business did better, and staffing challenges were near non-existent. As a result, Julian was often called on the speak out in the benefits of this approach. His goal was simple: to break barriers between the rich and poor and enable those of lesser means to gain the resources they needed to ensure their children could get a good education.

In 1945, New York became the first state to pass a law forbidding discrimination in the workplace be it by race, religion, or national origin. Then Gov. Thomas Dewey appointed Julian to a five-person State Commission on Anti-Discrimination. Their job was to educate, motivate and inspire businesses to end practices of discrimination voluntarily. While the commission had some notable successes, Julian, a more hands-on type of person, resigned. He felt he could be more effective off the commission. Therefore, after two years he stepped down and traveled across the state with two like-minded friends, the Rev. Joseph Cantillon and the African American civil engineer Archibald Glover, giving hundreds of presentations over the next decade.

It is against this backdrop of social activism that Julian, in response to a wish expressed by his daughter Patti, created Santa's Workshop at the North Pole, made possible by partnering with the gifted artist Arto Monaco of Upper Jay and Harold Fortune of Lake Placid, who was a marketing and public relations genius. Their ad hoc approach toward selecting and landscaping the site, designing and constructing the buildings, and opening the business was beautifully illustrated in the documentary "North Pole."

Two other aspects well-captured by the film, which took Ali Cotterill and Christa Orth six years to make, are Santa's impact on young children, and the passion of the visitors, some who have coming since opening day, and staff, the elves that are the backbone and heart of the enterprise.

"Santa loves everybody even if they do something bad," said one child in the film. "Santa goes to all the houses all over the world," said another. "He goes around giving out presents every year," said a third. "He has a magic sled, and when people are sleeping, he goes down the chimney and drops toys," added a fourth. "When I met Santa, I asked him for a remote-controlled car." "A basketball." "Clothes and shoes." "I want a Christmas miracle!"

The film shares how vital Santa's Workshop has been to Wilmington and how the community nearly lost this asset when Julian's son Bob sold the historic theme park in June 2001 to Gregory P. Cunningham Jr., a developer who had been convicted on an embezzlement-related forgery charge in Binghamton. Once the Reiss family realized that Cunningham intended to salvage the business, it took three years of legal struggle to wrestle it back and a volunteer effort by many in Wilmington to help them reopen and find an investor who valued the spirit of Santa.

"Our original idea was to do a film about the history of theme parks in the area," said Cotterill, the director. "Our first scene for our first shoot was at Santa's Workshop, and we were enchanted. We felt it was exceptional and rare that there still was a place like this, so we decided to make the film just about it and use it as a metaphor for similar parks."

"The film gave me a lot of family pride in what my grandfather and father accomplished," said Kathryn Reiss after the screening. "It was wonderful to see it from how it impacted so many people."

A standout in the film is meeting Bobby Getchell Jr. and members of his family who have been coming to the theme park nearly every year since it opened in 1949. Santa was not surprised that it was Bobby's mother who launched the family's passion for visiting the North Pole.

"Mothers carry on the tradition of Christmas," said Pete "Santa Claus" Wyatt. "They buy and wrap the presents, make the cookies, cook the dinner, and decorate the tree. They do the whole thing. While there are guys who are believers, it's mostly the women. If you ever get a chance to see kids going up to see Santa, watch the mom. I'll be talking to the child and if I say to the mom, 'Would you like to get in the picture,' it's 'Oh yes,' and boom they're right there! They're still believers."

While Paul Reiss only worked at the village during its first season, his job directing cars into the parking lot, for many young people in Wilmington the theme park has offered them their first job. Others like Julie "Jingles" Robards have worked there for years, she bouncing between singing songs, being the theme park's historian and Santa's secretary. Former Olympian and Wilmington town Supervisor Jeanne Ashworth worked there, as did Susie Doolittle of Keene Valley, who learned her mastery of making cookies and candy for Santa.

"I was an elf for about 10 years working in the candy-making store," said Doolittle. "I have a special dirndl-style dress, apron and matching hat that Jeannie Ashworth's mother made for me. I wasn't much of a sweets person until I worked in that candy shop, but there I became very addicted to chocolate walnut fudge."

"It a magical place," said Santa. "There is a spirit is there that I'm sure has to do with the design that Arto Monaco developed when they built it. It's still fantastic."

"It's the real deal," said Lauren Getchell, a third-generation visitor to the park.

The theme park is now open for the summer. Go, take your kids and grandchildren, and then visit again.



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