The untold story: Behind the scenes with Radio City’s Santa Claus
He’s managed to avoid all the pitfalls of celebrity — the all-night Christmas parties, eggnog addiction, after-hours poker binges with the elves.
While he’s struggled with his weight, he’s managed to stay jolly and fat for the little ones while keeping his cholesterol under control.
And despite being enticed by millions of milk-and-cookie-bearing wives and mothers at 3 in the morning each Christmas Eve, he has remained faithful to the Mrs. — herself kind of an icon — in what has to be one of America’s most successful celebrity marriages next to Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson.
So after all these years in the business, how has Santa Claus managed to avoid career burnout?
SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!!!
He isn’t really Santa, after all. He’s Charles Edward Hall, who is celebrating his triumphant 30th season playing the role of Santa Claus in “The Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes.” And while he has never even considered packing in the old red suit and beard for a life of leisure in Palm Springs, by the same token, he’s only human.
“Charles has burnout, sometimes. But Santa does not,” he said, speaking last week during a break from technical rehearsals for the show, which began performances on Friday.
“When I have my own personal problems and sadness and confusion and all the human emotions that we all go through on any given day, I tell people I have to go and have a little sit-down talk with Santa Claus,” said Hall, almost drifting into his Santa voice.
When you listen to Hall speak, it becomes clear that it requires deep belief to portray Santa properly — so deep that you sometimes wonder if he might really think he is Santa, the way Edmund Gwenn did as Kris Kringle in “Miracle on 34th Street.”
“I have grown to know this iconic figure,” he said. “He is as much a part of me as I am of him. That’s the glorious thing about having played a role for so long. How do you sustain a character? How do you keep yourself from beating your head against the wall and saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore??!!’ You simply have to find ways to be creative. And find ways to enjoy, and appreciate what you do.”
In a way, how Hall approaches the role of Santa is a lesson for how we should approach our daily lives. After all, it’s not what you do; it’s how you do it. “I can have a rough day,” Hall said, “but when I get that suit on and I feel that energy and love from millions of people each year, it’s an unbelievable and wonderful feeling.”
More than that, he said, he realizes that he has more than just a part to play. Tired or not, he has a moral responsibility.
“I’m not playing a clown. I’m playing a role that is as serious as Eugene O’Neill or Shakespeare,” Hall said. “And I approach it that way, as an actor. People expect something from Santa. They expect all the joy and the love and the happiness he’s known for. That’s actually what keeps my Santa alive and fresh.”
Last week’s technical rehearsal on a Thursday afternoon saw the Radio City auditorium peppered with supporting players who were limbering up in the aisles during scenes in which they weren’t needed, while Santa and the Rockettes stopped and started through various scenes on stage using some set pieces and lighting but no costumes.
Hall, 52, appears kind of slim on stage in his street clothes for a guy playing Santa Claus. One is reminded of the scene from the iconic Rankin/Bass clay-mation movie, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” in which Mrs. Claus tries to fatten up a skinny-looking Santa at the breakfast table, begging him, “Eat, Papa. Eat!”
Hall laughed a little to himself. “If I was as big as Santa, I would not be able to do this,” he said. “When adding on the fat suit and the hair and the coat, I carry a few extra pounds with me. And that is one of the most difficult parts of the job — working with the costume and the heat. Searching for fresh air. Because of the physicality of it, we are always aware of what we do with our bodies. It’s a juggling act, keeping yourself healthy enough and happy enough to do this show every year.”
While there was a time when he would do as many as five shows a day, now, he keeps it to four, allowing an understudy to cover the fifth one so he can pace himself and get through the long run in one piece.
Raised in Frankfort, Ky., Hall graduated from Murray State University and with his mentor, Robert E. Johnson, started a small theater company there, at Lake State Resort Park. “I still go down there in the summers. I write plays, and we produce them in our little nonprofit theater. It’s great,” he said.
He landed roles in Los Angeles in “Barnum” and in the national tour of “Pippin,” with Ben Vereen, before eventually auditioning for the Radio City Christmas show, which in its then-incarnation was much more Ebenezer Scrooge-oriented, he said.
“I remember calling the casting director and asking if they would be interested in a younger man for Scrooge. She remembered me from doing ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ at Radio City,” he explained.
While he nailed Scrooge, he was also asked to read for the then-smaller role of Santa, which the same actor cast as Scrooge doubled in.
“I said, ‘OK, show me the script.’… They said, ‘No, just improvise it. Just be Santa.’ And it was such a changing, turning moment,” he said. “It was as if the whole world suddenly opened up to me, and I understood who Santa was.”
He remembered that he conjured a Christmas memory from when he was 6-years-old and thought he had a chance encounter with Santa himself while dashing home one snowy night back in Frankfort.
“That spirit was able to connect within me, and all of a sudden, I was Santa Claus. … I have no idea what I said or what I did. The spirit of Christmas just came over me. I loved it,” he said.
The role of Santa grew through the years in updated incarnations of the Christmas Spectacular. While Hall is too modest to credit his performance for the Santa role’s expansion, the rest, as they say, is history.
While Santa’s role may be pivotal, he still doesn’t have star billing. It is, after all, “The Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes.” And Hall is OK with that. What are the Rockettes really like? “They are smarter than you think,” he said. “And they are funnier than you think.”
Does he know every Rockette’s name, by heart, each year? “Of course.” he smirked, then paused. to add, “maybe by the end of the season.”
Few actors have the luxury of finding such enduring, stable work. Playing Santa has helped Hall raise two children, Blake, 24, and Katie Rose, 17. Though there is a tradeoff for everything. “I would have to spend Christmas Eves and Christmas mornings with them before running off to do the show. But over the years, they became OK with it,” he said.
Then there is his extended family at his home away from home — Radio City. Many of the Rockettes, members of the ensemble and crew have also been with the show for years. Others are relative newcomers. It’s that mix that also keeps things fresh.
“It’s a great joy,” Hall said. “Everybody is so excited to be here. “It’s like coming home for the holidays.”