Saturday, January 12, 2008

Fort Wayne's Santa Claus


I swear. Every single one of you better go dig up your own version of this photo. I know you have at least one. Send 'em over. We'll post them.

This is me - Kristina Michele Frazier and my best friend Babette. Now, I don't remember Babette's last name and honestly, I haven't seen her since 1971. I met her when we were living in an apartment building (managed by my grandparents) on
Clay Street. I *think* I've marked the right location (or close enough). It was demolished many years ago.

If you lived in or near FW during this time period, you could count on a couple of traditions.

  • Your mom, dragging you downtown for a picture with Santa.
  • Standing in line to get that picture of Santa.
  • Getting tired of standing in that line for that picture with Santa.

I don't know what anyone elses experience was but it's not like Santa and I carried on these deep, meaningful conversations. Everything was about "the picture". You weren't there to discuss a list or to ask how Rudolph was doing. The Christmas machine at Ayres (I think that's what it was by then) was all about moving you through that line.

Your picture would come in a bi-fold, Christmas-card like holder. When you opened it up, your picture was framed by paper and you could lift up the flap to pull your picture out. If you did that though, you found out that you were 'just' a number. gasp!




To his credit, Santa always tried to be pleasant about the thirty million pictures he had to sit for every holiday season. He would always greet you with a hello there. Although we didn't discuss my angst over toys or world hunger, I was always in awe of him. He was tall and very knowing-looking. *****************************************************

You probably, that the man behind the suit was Fort Wayne's own Phil Steigerwald. It wasn't until years later, that I found out that my Santa was an important man (beyond the obvious!) in our community.

Oh yeah! Mr. Steigerwald was a talented vocalist (even singing the national anthem at the annual Fourth of July fireworks display when it was held at McMillen Park). He also owned his own reality gig (Fairfield Realtors), represented the 5th District on City Council in the 1960s and 1970s, and served as the treasurer of the Allen County Republican Party.

Did you know that he first started his Santa role in 1942? Mr. Steigerwald was just a sophomore at South Side High School when he was first asked to dress up as the jolly guy.

And my perception of his awe-inspiring presence? Wasn't just my imagination. He stood at 6 feet, 2 inches tall.

If you remember the Sears Department Store on Rudisill - that's where he began enchanting the children of Fort Wayne. He eventually moved to the Wolf & Dessauer Department Store (downtown) and when L.S. Ayres purchased W & D, our Santa stayed put. So what if the store had a different name. Santa was a steady presence for the young and old.

Sadly, our Santa died in January 2004 at the age of 76 from complications due to diabetes. I have to wonder - will any other Santa be able to emerge and capture the hearts of the Fort Wayne community? Those big, coal-black colored boots will be pretty hard to fill.

8 comments:

d said...

Mom always dragged us to the Northcrest parking lot to see Santa arrive by helicopter. He then took his place at the back of Grants(Grants or Kresge(sp) I always get those two confused).

daron

Anonymous said...

My Grandfather was the Santa as J.C Penny's in Southgate Plaza. Would love to have any photos any might have of him. We were not allowed to know he was Santa.

Diana Ahlersmeyer said...

OMG, this truly takes me back to my childhood. My mother was always more excited to see Santa than I was. You can imagine my chagrin when we got close enough he yelled in his booming voice "Mary Lou! How have you been?" When we got up to the front of the line, she hurried over and SAT ON HIS LAP! How did he know so much about her? Phil and my mother were long time childhood friends, raised in the same neighborhood and went to school together. I miss my mom and THAT Santa.

Katherine Walker said...

My grandpa was THAT santa. :-) Phil Steigerwald is my grandfather and especially since his passing it makes me so happy to hear stories like this. I always knew he was special, but I love knowing he was special to so many others.

Jack Dold said...

I've been searching for anyone who remembers the "Suet Derby," promoted by Bob Sievers of WOWO. Each year, (during Lent, I believe) Bob would announce the beginning of "The Suet Derby" on his radio show. Bob, Phil and Msgr. Stanley Manoski would "weigh in" and see who could lose the most "suet" by Easter. I can't remember the other participants.

Jack Dold, Auburn

Anonymous said...

Phil Steigerwald was the best Santa ever. I'm over 60 years old and I still have fond memories of watching Santa's television show after school. I still remember his signature line, "No peeking !" Wolf and Dessaur was a magical place at Christmas time.

Unknown said...

I'm in my mid 50's now and I still remember Phil Steigerwald being Santa all those years that my mom used to take us Sears, Wolf and Dessaur and L.S. Ayers. He was the best Santa ever. There will never be another Santa like Phil. He had away with kids that to this day makes you wonder how he did. I wish my kids could have Sat on his lap and told him what they wanted for Christmas like I did.

Unknown said...

I'm in my mid 50's now and I still remember Phil Steigerwald being Santa all those years that my mom used to take us Sears, Wolf and Dessaur and L.S. Ayers. He was the best Santa ever. There will never be another Santa like Phil. He had away with kids that to this day makes you wonder how he did. I wish my kids could have Sat on his lap and told him what they wanted for Christmas like I did.