The old man had been an actor all his life and that was a rare thing. What was rare was that he'd never done anything else. He’d never sold shoes, never waited tables while he was “at liberty,” never driven a cab.
Unlike some of his pals he hadn't hung around New York waiting for a big part; never waited to be 'discovered' by some critic or producer who would pick him out of the crowd as Broadway’s newest star. He simply went wherever the work was.
As a young man he was told it wasn't clever career management to leave the center of the theatrical world and go careening around the sticks with some wandering repertory company. Why not pick up some cash waiting tables and bet on the big break?
He'd think about that for a moment and say, “Given the chance I'd rather just go acting.” And that’s what he did, moving across the country to wherever there was work for a journeyman performer with a decent wardrobe and the knack for learning his part quickly.
When acting jobs weren't available he’d direct. He’d go wherever there was a little theatre, community group, or church pageant that needed to be put in order. He taught acting at a museum theatre school, and acted in radio soap operas. But whatever he did he was always a creature of the theatre, a man for whom the practice of his craft was more important than the conditions under which he practiced it, or the fame of the place he did his work.
He lived in a Volkswagen van in the parking lot of a Texas theatre one boiling hot summer because he wanted, he needed, to “go acting.”
As the years rolled by and the casting calls became less frequent he had pretty much decided that he was no longer “at liberty” but simply retired. And that was why, the Christmas season of his seventy-second year, he took a job as a department store Santa Claus. It was another chance to go acting.
He was glad of the work but now the old actor had a problem. He’d been doing a favor for a lady friend and the new job would mean he’d have to stop doing that favor.
The lady had a son, a rising star in the banking business. A nice enough ‘kid,’ as the old actor always called him, but as articulate as a barrel of hair when facing any group greater than one. The actor had volunteered to be the kid’s speech coach and over the weeks a polite distance between the two grew into the closeness of mutual affection.
The young man was sad to think the actor’s new job would interrupt their sessions together, but he was happy for the old man. The job was a nice Christmas present.
“So what’s the part, Coach?”
“It’s a character part. I’m going to do Santa Claus at Bulloch’s department store.”
The kid was well and truly knocked down by this. He was embarrassed for the old actor; at his taking what seemed like a humiliating end-of-the-road job.
“How can you do that?” he asked. “You’ve spent your entire life as an actor, you’ve never driven a cab or waited on tables, or sold socks ...and now you’re going to play Santa in a department store?”
“Ah, kid, it’s a pretty good job. Costume and makeup are provided and I get a private green room. Think of that! Besides, there are no lines to learn, I’m only on for about a half-hour at a time and I get one free meal a day in the employee cafeteria. Best of all, I’m making better than Equity minimum.”
“Well, I think it’s humiliating,” said the kid, who didn’t realize until that moment how much he loved the old man.
“It’s humiliating to think that someone like you who’s worked in the theatre with some of our finest actors has to play a department store Santa. Good Lord! Imagine stuffing a pillow in your costume, wearing those awful fake patent leather boots, the phony beard and ...and...that ridiculous red suit! How can you do that?”
The old actor thought about this for a while, just a little hurt that the kid was raining on his parade.
“You know, I want to give you a little advice. There’s a lesson to be learned here that’ll do you more good in the long run than anything I can teach you about speaking in some bank board room. It’s advice about life, and it’s just as good for bankers as it is for actors. It's all about what you call that ridiculous red suit."
The old actor leaned into the young man until they were practically nose to nose and in a sotto voce growl said…
“Listen, kid, if you want to play Santa Claus, you gotta wear the red suit.”
My father died two years after the Santa Claus gig, his last chance to go acting. The young man is the vice president of a southern California bank.
Originally published in The desert Leaf