The Incredible, Exploding, Jewish Santa Claus

Parents, grandparents—whatever. If your young ones are as bored hearing the same old “Night Before Christmas” as you are reciting it, here’s a heartwarming Christmas tale sure to have the kiddies buried under their blankets, screaming in terror. Enjoy!

Traverse City, Michigan marked the close of two weeks of Christmas magic shows performed twice daily by our itinerant troupe of magicians and clowns for the benefit of charitable groups across Indiana and Michigan. I was the Musical/Technical Director, doubling as Chian, Mysterious Prince of the Orient. Benjamin Hoffman and his partner Doug were the fat and skinny members of a clown team. Because Ben possessed the necessary corpulence he arranged with Hal, the show promoter, to portray St. Nick, or Santa Klausky, as he preferred to be called, for a few extra dollars. Hal provided him with a brand new, $400 crushed-velvet Santa suit.

Before each show Ben would circulate through the audience, mingle with the small fry, and accumulate Christmas wishes. In Santa attire, he delighted in broadening and emphasizing his mild Yiddish accent while performing sleight-of-hand. As clowns during the show, he and Doug did their slapstick routine. At the end, Ben was back in the Kris Kringle suit to hand out small gifts to the kiddies as they exited. Ben’s final appearance was always dramatic. As the curtains parted he entered at center stage in the midst of a small snowstorm, precipitated by a homemade snow gun. The gun was a short, triggered black pipe loaded with an explosive charge and packed with white confetti. When fired overhead, it looked like snowfall. Ben didn’t realize he was about to carve out his own niche in local folklore by way of a cataclysmic event that today is still recounted around crackling hearths over mugs of hot, spiced cider, throughout the great North Country.

From the onset of the tour, Ben had been having his share of bad luck. It snowed all the way on his drive from New York, making travel hazardous and slow. Somewhere in Ohio he had to buy four new tires for his used van he’d just purchased a week earlier. Then, late one snowy Michigan night as our caravan wound its way over icy roads to the next town, the reflection of Ben’s headlights disappeared from my rear view mirror. I swung around back down the two-lane road and saw a rather macabre sight. It was Ben, standing by the side of the road with his thumb out, his clothing in tatters. Blood dripped from various cuts and abrasions. I didn’t see Doug anywhere. I pulled over and rolled down my window. “Excuse me, but would you happen to have a three-foot bandaid?” Ben asked, grinning. I drove him and Doug to the nearest Emergency Room. Between the two of them, they sustained a sprained ankle, fractured arm, and required sixty-five stitches to close up new and non-essential openings in their bodies. The van had to be torched to pieces to remove the show equipment they carried.

Without further mishap, we arrived in Traverse City. I’d been warned that, for some unknown reason, the children here were always unruly—almost to the point of being bloodthirsty. Earlier I’d thought of using wolfsbane and a crucifix to maintain order, but missed the opportunity to pick up either. “Listen to those weird sounds, Santa,” I said to Ben. He peeked through an opening in the curtains, out into the audience. “Like something from Dawn of the Dead. I’m not going out there. That much of a crazy I’m not,” he said. “It’s showtime,” Hal called from the left wing of the stage. “Ben, you’d better get out front before they eat the seats.” “All right, already, I’m going.” He swung his trick bag up over his shoulder, smoothed his white beard, and cast a glance heavenward. “What’s a nice kosher boy like me doing in dreck like this?” he mumbled, and walked around the curtain, down the stairs, and out into the snarling, cloying juvenile mass. I took the stairs on the opposite side and seated myself at the organ. Ben squeezed through the rows of the auditorium seats while children clawed at his beard and red jacket. As he neared the end of the row close to where I played background music, one rampageous little girl kept jumping and grabbing at the hair on the back of his head. He finally wheeled around, leaned over and, in a pleasant tone with a sugary smile, asked, ”What’s your name, little girl?” “JOANNE!” she screamed. “Joanne, you little shmegegge, how would you like it if Santa Claus beat the shit out of you already, hmmmm?” She didn’t answer and slowly melted down into her seat.

The afternoon show with the out-of-control audience had tested the patience of us all and had now, thankfully, reached its finale: the always awe-inspiring reappearance of that Great Gnome from the North. Ben stood backstage next to me in my Chinese get-up, muttering and cursing the maniacal children out front, all the while stuffing gunpowder into his snowstorm cannon. “So those little creeps want to make a schlimazel out of Santa Klausky, eh?” he grumbled. “I should give them something they won’t forget. I should blow the whole bunch of them into August with this thing.” Ben stuffed in more powder, packed the pipe solid with white confetti, and walked to the center of the stage. He held the pipe in front of him at the ready and waited for the curtains to part.

The M.C. strode across the stage in front of the curtains. “Well, that’s about it for today, boys and girls. But wait a minute…What’s that I hear?…Is it sleigh bells?…Why, yes, it’s…it’s…” He was cut off in midsentence by a deafening, thunderous explosion, the apparent detonation of some unthinkable doomsday device. The front curtains ballooned outward, then belched a great cloud of white smoke and confetti onto the front rows. On cue, a stagehand pulled the rope that slowly parted the curtains. The smoke began to clear, revealing a hazy, blackened something that resembled a large, fuzzy lump of charcoal. The smoke dissipated further and I could see the fuzzy charcoal was actually Ben. He looked like a fat Wile E. Coyote whose latest scheme to catch the roadrunner in some devious trap had gone horribly wrong. His hat and eyebrows were gone. What remained of his Santa beard smoldered and stood out at right angles to each side of his head. The bright red Santa jacket was mostly a memory, save for the cuffs and some shreds around his waist, which hung down over the wide black belt. In front of his smoking chest hairs he held the charred remnants of the trigger portion of his snow gun. The rest of it had been vaporized. Burnt confetti drifted slowly down on him from somewhere up in the curtains.

The M.C. ran back to him. “What happened?” he cried to Ben. He turned to me then back to Ben. “Are you all right?” Ben cautiously began to move. His head went slowly downward as he surveyed the damage. When he saw that his chest hairs were still glowing, he dropped the trigger and frantically beat out the embers on his front. “Close the curtains!” the M.C. yelled, waving his arms. I had lost my Chinese hat and both my contact lenses in the explosion. I pushed the awe-struck stagehand out of the way and groped for the rope. I pulled the curtain closed as fast as I could. Again the M.C. asked Ben, “Are you all right?” “You should be so all right,” Ben sighed. “What happened?” “The meshuggena snow gun blew up!”

The crowd in front, dead silent since the big boom, began to murmur back to life. Gradually they started to applaud and cheer. Hal burst through the curtains, almost running into Ben. He took one look at Ben and stepped back. “My God! Are you okay?” In the instant before Ben could reply, the image of the once-beautiful Santa suit must have sprung to prominence in Hal’s brain. Reality hit. Tears welled up in his eyes. “My suit…my $400 Santa suit.” He turned to me with a glazed expression. “Did you know this suit wasn’t even two weeks old yet?” Out front, the children screamed, “Yea-ay, Santa! More! More!” Ben, still smoking, turned and painfully walked toward his dressing room. Hal followed, shaking his head, saying to no one in particular, “I picked out the fabric myself…my…my suit…”

Contrary to what his appearance suggested, Ben suffered only minor burns and the loss of some body hair. The last I saw of him was at the bus station as he and Doug boarded to head back east. “This tour was really a nightmare for you, wasn’t it?” I asked. “A nightmare? What nightmare? Just because I have a broken arm, cuts and burns from head to foot, no more hair on the front of my body, which hurts too much to grow it anyway, no more van with the new tires, and I’m about $2500 in the hole? Listen, a tour like this I don’t need every day. Not even every other day. I will tell you this. Never again will this Chiamyankel even utter the word ‘Christmas.’ And if I do, may my tapeworm develop constipation.” He stepped into the bus. “Travel well.” He smiled back at me.

I haven’t seen him since, but his legend, the legend of the incredible exploding Santa, persists. How ironically prophetic Ben was when he grumbled that he’d give those Traverse City kids something they would never forget.

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