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St. Albans Santa stars in 'Miracle on 34th Street'

WANT TO GO?

"Miracle on 34th Street."

WHERE: Alban Arts Center, 65 Olde Main St., St. Albans

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Dec. 14-15, 2 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 16

TICKETS: Adults $15, seniors and children under 12 $10.

INFO: 304-721-8896 or www.albanartscenter.com

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the Alban Arts Center wanted a Santa Claus for its production of "Miracle on 34th Street" that opens Friday, it went with a ringer: John Johnson, the official Santa Claus for St. Albans.

"I feel very honored to be part of the play and get the chance to follow in the big footsteps of Edmund Gwenn," said Johnson, sounding especially jolly.

Gwenn starred in the 1947 holiday film classic and, according to Johnson, helped set the standard for what a movie Santa Claus is supposed to be.

"He's an icon," Johnson said, and he would know. As far as local experts on all things Santa Claus go, Johnson might be it.

Outside his day job with HealthSmart Solutions and his bluegrass band, Hominy Falls, the 35-year-old St. Albans native lives and breathes Santa Claus. The beard is real. The belly is real. And when Johnson's not portraying Jolly Old Saint Nick, he's studying Santa lore, attending Santa Claus gatherings and even taking classes at Santa School.

"You have to keep up on the skills," he chuckled.

And what do you learn at Santa School?

"You learn to move. You learn how to hee-hee and ho-ho. We don't usually make any toys -that's been outsourced," he joked. "They teach you everything from the business of being Santa to maintaining the Santa look."

The education can get very precise. At the school Johnson attended in October, trainings were focused on portraying Saint Nicholas, the 4th century Turkish Bishop Santa Claus is based on.

"They taught us how to portray Saint Nicholas while still playing the jolly old elf."

Johnson's love of Santa Claus and Christmas goes back to childhood. He was 6 years old first time he put on a beard and a red suit for his first grade production of "The Night Before Christmas."

"The beard was made from cotton balls, and my mother made my suit out of red flannel," he said.

Johnson said being Santa was just a lot of fun. After that first performance, he was hooked. He played Santa Claus whenever he could, which turned out to be quite a bit.

"I finally bought my first professional suit when I was about 19," he said.

Johnson said being Santa has always been a joy. He looks it as a way to give back to his community during the holidays, as a way to add to the wonder, and he never gets tired of it.  He keeps the beard year-round and still studies the history and myth behind Santa Claus.

Most people, he said, really have no idea how much reality there is to the man.

"There's a little bit of truth in all of it," he said. "Even the flying reindeer or Santa living at the North Pole."

For example, with the North Pole, Johnson explained that in the early days of the Catholic Church, the story of Saint Nicholas followed the spread of Christianity from Greece and Turkey to the north through Norway and Russia.

"Until finally, Santa lived in the North Pole."

Johnson has portrayed Santa countless times, but he said he's really looking forward to putting his spin on the big man in the Alban Center's production of "Miracle on 34th Street."

"I don't want to do Edmund Gwenn," he said. "I want to try and bring my experience as Santa to it."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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