Gary and Susan Wallem greet the children at the Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn during the holiday celebration that followed the parade and tree lighting on Dec. 1. (Dave Dresdow photo)

Locals fill in for the head elf during his busy time

By Tracy Ouellette

SLN Staff

The weeks from Thanksgiving to Christmas are the busiest time of year for Santa, Mrs. Claus and the elves at the North Pole’s workshop, as most people know. Unfortunately for the Clauses, those very same weeks are also the busiest time for Santa sightings.

The jolly old elf and the missus are needed at community parades, tree lightings, stores, shopping center and a variety of other holiday-themed events, which poses a problem, as Santa can only be in one place at a time.

The solution to this dilemma comes in the form of a legion of Christmastime helpers who don costumes over the holiday and fill in for the Kringles.

Gary Wallem has been portraying Santa at holiday events and gatherings for 50 years.

“I started when I was 17,” he said. “I was a freshman in college and there was a party for underprivileged kids and the guy who was supposed to be Santa didn’t show up. I was told, ‘Go put on the suit, you’re Santa.’ And 10 minutes later I walked out and said ‘Hi there boys and girls!’ And have been doing it ever since.”

Wallem said playing Santa has a magical quality to it and, much like in the movie “The Santa Clause,” when he puts on the suit, he becomes Santa.

“When I’m in the suit, I don’t portray Santa, I am Santa. When I talk to the kids, I love the one on one with their innocence and their belief,” he said. “I tell them stories and make sure they know that when they put out cookies and milk for me they need to put out carrots for the reindeer. I’m just the driver, Rudy and the others pull the sleigh and it’s hard work.”

Wallem’s wife, Susan, portrays Mrs. Claus with her husband and has been doing it for quite a few years.

“She didn’t want to at first, but I asked her to just try it once and if she didn’t like it, she wouldn’t have to do it again. She’s been doing it ever since,” he said.

Gary Wallem said he loves to dress up as Santa and bring joy to people, and while he’s cut back on how much he still does, he said he will Santa until the day he dies.

“I did it for everyone in the world for a while and that was a big mistake,” he said. “Now I just do it for the City of Elkhorn and a few friends. I want it to remain fun.”

He said the most rewarding job he’s done in the suit was when he visited a home for abused children in Illinois.

“It was in Lake Zurich and they called, so I said sure it’s only an hour and a half away,” he recalled. “I get there and there are 40 kids, who were abuse and afraid of adults, and they put me in the room with them and all the adults left to watch from another room.

“So, here I was, with 40 kids who didn’t know how to trust an adult and it was just me and them. Near the end this little girl came up to me and asked ‘Santa, can you do me a favor?’ I said sure, what do you need? She asked me if I could tuck her into bed. She held my pinky and wouldn’t let go until I walked her to her bed and tucked her in. I did and told her a story and then I cried the whole way home. I didn’t get paid a dime, but it was the most rewarding job of my life.”

As for the downside of playing Santa, Wallem said he’s only been “heaved on once, and peed on twice” and compared to some of the cranky adults he’s had to deal with over the years, those incidents were “nothing.”

One of the dogs waiting to have its picture taken Martin’s Hardware-Rental and Pet in East Troy photo bombs Santa, played by Josh May. May said taking photos with animals and children requires a lot of patience and good humor.

Pets and pics

Josh May, who plays Santa for the annual free pet photos at Martin’s Hardware-Rental and Pet, 3288 Main St., East Troy, also has been peed on a couple of time, but it wasn’t the kids who did it.

“Yeah, the pets pee on me and I got bit once too,” May said. “It wasn’t a bad bite, the dog just got a little excited and it was fun for him to pull on the fur on the suit and he kind of made me his chew toy.”

May, who works at Martin’s, said he’s been playing Santa for about four years and enjoys the interaction with the community.

“It’s fun to do and the kids love it, they get just mesmerized with you and then you realize you’re Santa and you better get into character and play with this,” he said.

Mike Martin and Rosemary Martin own the hardware store and have been offering the Pet Photos with Santa for eight years.

“We started back in 2010 as something to do for the community and because we’re pet people,” Rosemary Martin said. “The first year was a bomb with 12 dogs, but now it’s up to 180 animals a year with cats, goats, roosters, tortoises, guinea pigs and more.

“It’s grown to be a fun event for the whole store – we go all out, I personally make homemade cookies for the weekend and for the rest of the month. We have raffle prizes and everyone gets a goodie bag with tons of things for their pet.

The Martin’s daughters help out with the event each year, too. Jessica Martin, owner of Jessi Rose Photography, is the photographer, and Andrea McMasters is the event coordinator.

“It’s a family thing,” Rosemary Martin said.

The Pet Photo with Santa took place last week, but find the pet store on Facebook to keep up to date on its offering throughout the year.

Rick and Karen Heine don Santa and Mrs. Claus costumes when they man a Salvation Army Red Kettle as volunteers with the Delavan Lions Club at the Delavan Walmart.

The ringing Clauses

Santa and Mrs. Claus can also be found manning a Salvation Army Red Kettle outside of the Delavan Walmart on select weekends during the holiday season.

Karen and Rick Heine, of Delavan, have been dressing up as the Clauses when they are out ringing a bell to collect donations for about 4 years now.

“We’re Lions Club members and there are certain times members sign up to ring the bell at Walmart,” Karen Heine said. “I have a basket of candy canes and as if they want one, or I ask the parent if it’s a kid. One time a kid took the whole basket!”

Karen Heine said she and her husband have found that people tend to be more generous in their donations when the Clauses are asking.

“The kids see us and they say, ‘Mom! It’s Santa!’ and then the parents give them money for the kettle. Rick really gets into it too. He asks if they’ve been good and what they want for Christmas. It’s just a lot of fun. We look forward to doing it every year.”


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