Village had wildness, but Santa and most memories pure
Perhaps Christopher Dearman of Huntley will merit a slot on Santa's "Nice" list this year, but the 36-year-old author admits to some truly coal-worthy naughtiness in his new tell-all book, "Santa's Village Gone Wild!"
"They were a blast," Dearman says of the two teenage years when he was among the army of local high school kids working at the iconic amusement park in East Dundee. "Everybody I talked to said that job was the best or one of the best jobs they've ever had. Waking up every morning and going to work in an amusement park, you have a smile when you go to work."
Santa's Village put a smile on Dearman's face long before the summer he started working there at age 15.
"My parents took me there every year," remembers Dearman, who grew up in Elgin. His favorite attraction was the Fire Truck ride, where children manned hoses on a firetruck as flames shot out of a miniature house.
"Other kids were squirting other people, but I was diligently putting out the fire," Dearman remembers. "I used to love that as a kid. Once I got a job working at the park, one of my goals was to drive that thing."
But by 16, Dearman had a completely different view of the Fire Truck ride. He was disillusioned to learn the fire went out on its own, worried to hear the firetruck had iffy brakes, and pleased to discover that combining little kids, hoses, and young, pretty mothers made for a splashy, wet scene appreciated by high school boys.
Lighthearted stories in the book about trying to distribute the weight on the Ferris wheel, loading The Skyliner, or trying to make a troublemaker sick on The Tarantula are interspersed with confessions of lecherous moments, underage drinking, drug use, stealing and after-hour escapades far from the park. Dearman was fired (justifiably so, he admits) during his second season.
"There were definitely some high jinks that went on there like any place that employed teenagers," Dearman says, noting he's heard similar stories from teens who worked in fast-food restaurants, warehouses or other summer jobs. "The same things happened. Santa's Village just gives us a better atmosphere to tell them."
For the more than 20 million visitors and 11,000 young people who worked summers at the park from the day it opened in 1959 until it closed in 2005, the book should bring back fond memories, suggests Phil Wenz, who portrayed Santa at the park for those last 21 years.
"Overall, it's more of a sonnet of the park and the people who worked there," says Wenz, who wrote the book's foreword and park history in addition to giving his Santa perspective. Part of the profits will be donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
"When it opened in 1959, it was touted as a million-dollar playland," says Wenz, who admits to being "very protective over Santa's House." He still has many of the props, included the famous North Pole, which stayed icy even on the hottest days of the summer.
Only a few years older than the teenage workers when he started at the park, Wenz says he never dreamed of participating in, and rarely saw evidence of, any bad behavior. He does, however, acknowledge that people tend to be on their "best behavior" around Santa.
"I'd go in at 6 in the morning and clean the house every day," Wenz says. He'd start his makeup by 8 and be ready when the park opened at 10. He might not leave until 6:30 p.m.
"It's a vocation," says Wenz of the Santa gig he first performed when he was 4 years old and still dons to make his living in Chicago and around the nation. "I'm not sure if I chose this job or it chose me. It's the only job I've ever had. I'll be 48 next month and I'm pretty much Santa at this point in my life."
Wenz says many of the kids who worked in Santa's House have gone on to careers as doctors, nurses and other professions. Dearman says he's hearing more stories from people who log onto his www.santasvillagegonewild.com website. Wenz' website at http://santafromsantasvillage.webs.com also includes lots of memories of Santa's Village.
The old amusement park reopened this year as a petting zoo with rides under the name "Azoosment Park." and is owned by former Santa's Village teen worker Jason Sierpien and his wife.
"You'll hear sleighbells ring there again," Wenz predicts.
Dearman says Santa's Village always will have wonderful memories for kids and family. With all the wild teenage "firsts" he experienced in that park, his most memorable is from his childhood.
"It's still the Fire Truck ride," Dearman says. "That was unique. You can't go to Six Flags and put out a fire."