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Getting in the Holiday Spirit

George Wendt, Charles Edward Hall, Jim Sherman, and Jeff Skowron discuss the ins and outs of playing iconic holiday characters. logo
George Wendt in Elf
(© Joan Marcus)
To put a fresh face on Old St. Nick, stage actors have to reach deep into their bag of inspiration. Or they could just take a cue from the new Broadway musical, Elf which cheerily dispenses this advice: "To thine own elf be true."

In trying to convince untold numbers of kids each holiday season that you're the real deal, some actors often mine their first memories of visits from Santa. George Wendt, who plays Mr. Claus in Elf recalls a kindly local doctor who donned the red suit and dropped by homes on Christmas Eve -- when he wasn't delivering babies, including Wendt and his six siblings.

But there's more to the part than donning a red suit and some padding (although Wendt claims he's fat enough on his own). Laughs from the audience can also be tricky to land, even with Santa's supernatural sense of comic timing. For one thing, many of the zingers in Elf are deliberate winks at grown-ups only.

"I always think about the adults, though I don't know why," says Wendt, who has some of the best lines in Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan's script. "Some of the stuff I get into, like 'Am I still relevant?' and things like that, don't really concern kids. Except bringing toys." And while bellowing a hearty "ho, ho, ho" is part of the job description, the actor admits it's not always easy to get the laugh down cold. "It's not my strong suit," Wendt remarks with a faint chuckle.

Charles Edward Hall, a near-quarter-century veteran of the famed Radio City Christmas Spectacular, bases his characterization on his Uncle Walter in Kentucky, a portly man who would grab a beard and cap and tap on young Charlie's window before dashing away. As for his often-booming tones, Hall says he channels former president Richard Nixon by rounding his "o's".

And what about those whiskers? To get himself into the spirit, Jim Sherman, who portrays the big guy in Miracle on 34th Street at Chicago's Porchlight Music Theatre, begins growing his own white beard in early August. For his part, Hall thanks a yak for creating his facial hair. "The beard is real. I just happen to take it on and off, " he notes.

The internal can be just as important as the external, says Sherman. "You've gotta get inside the character and you'd better love it, particularly for somebody like Santa Claus. Because you can't fake Santa Claus. Although Santa Claus is a secular manifestation of Christmas, it's the belief that kids have of good things and happy times. And that's what I enjoy and that's where I take this character. I wouldn't want Santa Claus to be anything but somebody that every little kid would like to have as a grandfather." (Indeed, the 72-year-old Sherman knows something about being a grandfather -- his dynasty includes seven children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, with two great-grandchildren on the way.)

Jeff Skowron in
How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
(© Craig Schwartz)
For other actors, there's a peculiar challenge in portraying the decidedly un-grandfatherly Grinch, the notorious Anti-Claus who delights youngsters in an unsettling way in the musical Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. Jeff Skowron, who now does the honors at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego -- where the show originated -- admits to a little a bit of a mixed feeling about the role; he says he feels a little awful that his villainous version of Santa puts "a look of horror on (kids') faces when you're talking to them."

Skowron's ratty caricature of a red suit in "Grinch" isn't one of his motivators; but the green makeup is an essential -- if not always present -- routine for becoming the Mean One. On three-show days, the 40-minute process is repeated before each curtain. "I sweat so much that the makeup comes off," he says, grimacing audibly over the phone. "I actually have to wash everything off and start over for each show. It's nothing you can reapply, it looks too messy."

While Skowron can exit through a crowded lobby and not be recognized, after the final bows at Miracle on 34th Street, Sherman greets audience members from his onstage throne for another 45 minutes. As for Wendt, he's probably more recognizable out of his Santa suit thanks to his Emmy Award-winning portrayal of barfly Norm in TV's Cheers.

For his part, Hall is not only stopped by children near his home in midtown Manhattan, but he interacts up to four times each day with the enthusiastic Radio City audiences. "When you have 6,000 people opening their hearts, it's amazing," says Hall. "It's why we're in theater. Santa is a much better person than I am. And he holds much more magic than I do. But I'm learning."

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