Must Be Santa
“We need a fat guy!” Chuck McPherson’s voice boomed above the joyful throngs scrambling across the municipal grounds of the West Cape May Fire Company as they queued up to take part in the annual West Cape May Community Christmas Parade. High school marching bands tuned their instruments in the crisp night air, as sequined dance troupes and brightly festooned floats all found their assigned places in the carefully planned lineup.
Just south of the firehouse, a host of families and onlookers happily crowded the sidewalks of Broadway as the annual West Cape May Christmas parade commenced on its two-community route through the twinkling streets of West Cape May and Cape May. As sung in the lyrics of countless Christmas songs, neighbors greeted neighbors, holiday well-wishes were shared even in the briefest of encounters, and wide-eyed children were charged with anticipation, knowing all too well who would appear in his iconic red suit high atop a wailing fire truck at the conclusion of the parade. Still, above it all rang Chuck McPherson’s call, “We need a fat guy!”
McPherson, who was chief of the volunteer fire company, took on the spontaneous and unlikely task of quickly recruiting a replacement for the real Santa Claus who had unexpectedly fallen ill just minutes earlier and was unable to fulfill his traditional role as the star of the parade.
“We need a fat guy!” McPherson announced one final time as he scanned the crowds, “Corey, get over here!”
At 6 feet tall and 264 pounds, Corey Bryan wasn’t difficult to spot. Corey has been a Cape Island fixture since he was a boy working at his parents’ late, great landmark Washington Street Mall eating establishment, The Lemon Tree. Most recently, Corey and his wife Dorey became founding partners in Nauti Spirits, a successful spirits distillery and farm in Lower Township.
“I don’t even remember why I was in front of the firehouse with my wife and kids,” Corey recalls of the night, over a decade ago, that would define him by his most memorable of community contributions. “I think the parade had already started and I heard Chuck looking for somebody fat and then he sees me! He told me that Santa was sick and there was no one else who would be able to take his place. It was like one of those movies where someone steps in and saves Christmas. They gave me Santa’s suit to wear, sat me on top of the fire truck, and off we went.”
Santa and his helpers around town are as much a part of Cape May’s Christmastime landscape as the holiday shoppers browsing along the Washington Street Mall, the glittering Christmas tree in Rotary Park’s bandstand, and the Winter Wonderland village sprawled on the lawn of Congress Hall. In many cases, the presence of Santa’s helpers, although welcoming and joyous, is often related to commercial ventures. Breakfasts with Santa in restaurants and hotel dining rooms help to generate needed revenue in the off-season. A popular candy store certainly isn’t empty when Santa is on hand to pose for photos, and a spectacularly attired, Victorian-style Santa in a retail shop promoting a line of nostalgic ornaments will most assuredly result in a day of healthy sales.
Despite the overwhelming presence of Santa’s helpers in Cape May, Corey’s altruistic efforts during Santa’s heavily scheduled season of appearances embody something extra special that warms the collective heart of our community during this most wonderful time of the year. No one recognizes and appreciates this yuletide phenomenon more than West Cape May’s mayor, Carol Sabo.
“The parade is very important to me. It’s one of the few non-commercial ways to bond families and community in the spirit of Christmas, and Corey is the right man for the job,” Mayor Sabo said in sharing her thoughts on Corey’s role in the parade. “We all know that there is only one Santa. Corey understands not only the true solemnity of helping Santa but the great importance of the occasion.”
With each passing Christmas, Corey continues to develop and refine an annual routine, preparing for the task of assisting Santa Claus by representing him to the local masses. “That first year when Chuck pulled me out of the crowd, they had to give me a fake beard to wear,” Corey said. “Months after the parade, I was told that Santa appreciated what I had done, and he asked if I would help him again at the next Christmas parade. That’s when I decided to start growing my own beard. It took me until the following year to get the timing just right. To get my full Santa beard ready for the Christmas parade, I have to start growing it out by the last week in July.”
Corey stroked his four-month strong growth of whiskers and added with a sigh, “And this will be the first year that I won’t have to dye it white.”
One reminder that Corey always shares with his friends and acquaintances before taking on the role of Santa’s helper each year is to address him properly. “When you see me passing by on that fire truck and you shout my name to get my attention, please call me Santa,” Corey said. “I am filling in for Santa, and Santa is my name.”
Santa Claus biographer Russell Ince was recently told of Corey Bryan’s annual role as Santa’s helper. Russell is the founder of The Christmas Imaginarium, an old-world curiosity shop and Christmas resource on The Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England. He is also the coordinator of The Order of Santa Claus, an international society of members who are sent secret monthly missions from Santa to spread Christmas cheer and goodwill throughout the year.
“A community is a group of people sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common,” Russell said. “When that shared interest is the wonder, joy, and magic of Christmas, there is one man who is instantaneously recognized by billions across the world as the ambassador for the values of Christmas, one man whose presence ignites smiles and happiness wherever he goes; that man is, of course, Santa Claus!”
The happiness ignited by Santa is felt by Corey each year. “I can only relate the experience of helping Santa in the parade to that of being a rock star,” Corey said. “It’s such an adrenaline rush. During the entire route of the parade, people of all ages are cheering for Santa. I’ve always said that Christmas is about the kids, but now I realize that in everyone there is a child still filled with wonder!”
Peter Andrew Danzig, a Philadelphia-based psychotherapist and professional toy analyst, is quite fond of Cape May and the West Cape May Community Christmas Parade. He points out that Corey’s annual experience of the crowd’s roaring response is anything but unusual. “Their reaction is pure nostalgia!” Peter said. “That’s the ability to remember a similar time most likely without pain. The importance of seeing Santa is that it tells us that everything he represents is possible in a disconnected world.”
Recognizing Santa in the community isn’t one-sided, according to Corey. “During the parade, I look out at the crowds, and I recognize just about everyone,” Corey said, “And I know the good that each one of them does in this town. With each face I see, I am up there on that fire truck saying to myself, ‘He’s Santa. She’s Santa. There’s another Santa. There’s the guy who works 50 hours a week and still finds time to coach the kids in pee-wee football, he’s Santa. There’s the cashier from the supermarket who volunteers her time at the church food closet so those in need have something to eat, she’s Santa. And there’s Officer Tony Genaro, who leads the kids in the DARE program, now he’s a real Santa if there ever was one.’ Then we turn the corner and I see a hundred more Santas. That’s how I recognize Santa in town, he really is alive within each of us. I may be the fat guy filling in for the night and wearing the red suit, but the people of this community are the ones who keep sharing that Christmas spirit 365 days a year.”
Corey’s advice to his fellow Santa helpers in Cape May is to see the child in each person and to be patient with the children. “Let the kids come to you,” Corey said, speaking of the moments he is greeting children before and after the parade. “The very young ones are not quite sure and if you just show the same patience that the real Santa shows, they will approach you. And more than anything, give each child and each adult some sort of Christmas love to pass along to the next person they meet.”
Perhaps Russell Ince best sums up the importance and sacredness of Corey’s role and the role of so many who find it in their hearts to be a helper to Santa. “Members of the Santa Community, whether they be Santa, Mrs. Claus, or elves, are privileged to hold such an important and influential role,” Russell said. “But with that role comes great responsibility. The biggest responsibility is to represent a world that is filled with hope, kindness, magic, and mystery. In a modern world where sadness and fear are peddled on every corner and the internet and science claim to have an explanation for everything, it is more important than ever that kindness, magic, and mystery are not forgotten.”
Santa’s Bumpy Landing
Nothing is more electrifying and spectacular than seeing Santa Claus waving from the top of a polished, red fire truck ablaze with flashing lights, his arrival heralded with a thunderous symphony of sirens.
In previous decades, only the most dramatic modes of transportation — second only to sleigh and reindeer — were chosen for Santa’s annual debut.
Longtime resident Lynn Smith recalls Santa’s arrival by train, a Christmastime event that took place through the 1950s. “The train would arrive on Washington Street where the terminal was,” Lynn said. “All of us kids would be there waiting. Santa would come out of the back of the train with a sack over his shoulder, greet us, and give out candy canes.”
Shortly after Hunt’s Beach Theatre on Beach Avenue was constructed in 1950, the Hunt family began hosting an annual Christmas party for children. “The Hunts were a good family,” said Cape May historian Harry Bellangy. “I believe they hosted the party along with the Kiwanis Club. They’d show cartoons, have games with prizes, and a bicycle was always raffled off to a lucky kid. And of course, the big draw was the presence of Santa.”
Lynn and Harry remember one year, in the early 1950s, when the Hunts decided that their sleek, state-of-the-art movie theater called for a more modern mode of arrival by Santa. It was an idea that would go down in infamy on Cape Island.
It seemed simple enough: a two-person single-engine plane, with Santa Claus as its passenger, would take off from the Cape May County airport. It would fly a few miles to Cape May, land on Beach Avenue directly in front of the movie theater and Santa would emerge to the crowd of cheering children.
Pete Scolari piloted the plane in what was to be Cape May’s new signature holiday event. Scolari was no stranger to sensational ways of getting around. As the owner of a Cape May sub shop, Scolari’s regular means of transportation through town was a Volkswagen with an equally large submarine sandwich mounted to its roof.
Lined at the curb in front of Hunt’s Beach Theatre on the day of the planned event, the children looked to the sky for Santa. Within minutes, the small plane appeared, not far in the distance, and began its descent with the intention of using Beach Avenue as its runway.
As the plane descended, its wing hit one of the power lines parallel to Beach Avenue. Scolari struggled to keep control of the small craft. As many have retold over the years, he safely guided the plane to a controlled crash onto an empty lot next to the theater. Miraculously, both Scolari and Santa Claus emerged unscathed from the mangled wreck and Santa crossed the street to greet the crowd of stunned onlookers.
Lynn often speaks lightheartedly of the Christmastime catastrophe and his mother’s shocked response. “I remember seeing Santa’s plane hit the ground and just lying there with the wing broken,” Lynn said. “The next thing I remember is my mother saying, ‘We have to go home now.’”