Behind the Scenes at Santa’s Village

Why just settle for Christmas in July when you can enjoy the spirit of the North Pole from May to December at Santa’s Village? And while the Big Guy still gets credit for all the holiday fun, here it’s really the elves who make the magic happen.

Lindsey Meyer, AKA Celeste the Snow Angel, touches up her makeup before a performance at Santa’s Village last summer. Photo by Bruce Luetters

It’s a sad but true fact that one of the occupational hazards of being a writer is that we are incorrigible eavesdroppers; no stray overheard comment is sacred, and each serves as potential grist to be turned into the next great blog post, article or even book.

My latest: Father’s Day weekend 2018. My husband and I were ensconced at a dinner table at the Mountain View Grand Hotel in Whitefield when a group of 20-somethings and a 40-something female minder gathered at a nearby table. They stood out from the harried parents of young children trying to keep their charges from careening around the dining room and the older, well-appointed couples trying to ignore them, so of course I wondered, “Who are they and why are they here?”

Though the resort lacked a theater, they looked to be performers of some type with poised yet hesitant looks, waiting for their next cue before picking up their forks. I kept one ear on my husband’s conversation and the other peeled to theirs, where I heard talk of citronella and small rooms and how dark it got at night as they tucked into their crab cakes and lobster cavatelli. Mid-meal, the 40-something ringleader clinked a butter knife against her water glass and she thanked the assembled for coming before launching into a firebrand speech to rival any preacher. Soon she was imploring her guests to “Always remain true to yourselves! I want you to promise me that you won’t ever give up on your passion!”Needless to say, my interest was piqued. Why this speech?

“This summer you will absolutely change lives and create lifelong memories for everyone you’ll meet!” The young people continued to listen attentively, and then the woman raised her glass: “To Santa’s Village!”

For those new to the area, that’s the everything-Christmas theme park up the road in Jefferson. So I was right, they were actors, about to spend their summer handing out candy canes to hordes of scabby-kneed rugrats waiting on line to see the Big Man himself — or so I thought. Not exactly life-changing. I glanced at their hopeful, well-scrubbed faces and thought, well, at least they’d have fun and it would be a credit on their resumé.

Santa’s Village is a throwback to New Hampshire’s pre-interstate tourist days, when a motor court in every town along Route 3 was the rule. Photo by Bruce Luetters

Back home I checked the online reviews, and in addition to mentioning the live reindeer, Yule Log Flume and the Elfabet game, the majority of commenters specifically called out the friendly employees and performers, often noting that their kids wouldn’t stop talking about them even six months later.

Curiosity piqued, I headed to Santa’s Village to check it out for myself.

Santa’s Village is a throwback to New Hampshire’s pre-interstate tourist days, when a motor court in every town along Route 3 and small family-run theme parks — like the shuttered Heritage New Hampshire in Glen and still-thriving Clark’s Bears (Clark’s Trading Post to old-timers) in Lincoln — were the rule. Santa’s Village in Jefferson opened in the summer of 1953, and has continuously offered generations of kids the chance to ride a log flume, pet real reindeer and, of course, meet Santa. And while December might be the month you most associate with the park, Santa’s Village is just as active during the warmer months.

ELVES UNSHELVED

The Tinker siblings — aka Josh Trattner, Rachel Biggs and Avery Rausch — out on the town Photo by Bruce Luetters

A rotating cast of six actors and actresses spends six days a week between Father’s Day and Labor Day serving as the interactive representatives of Santa’s Village, and Rachel Biggs, Avery Rausch, Lindsey Meyer and Josh Trattner were among those sitting at that dinner table who had signed on for the summer of 2018.

Amy Cannon, senior entertainment manager at RWS Entertainment Group in New York, was the toasting ringleader that night, and had interviewed 500 hopefuls for the six slots for the summer of 2018. “The actors we hire have to be warm and welcoming, friendly and outgoing,” she says. “After all, it’s Christmas every day at Santa’s Village, and the actors definitely have to convey that to guests.”

Biggs, 21, played Fred Tinker, sister to Ed and Ted in “Tinkers’ Tune Up,” a show about a trio of elf siblings who help keep the park running smoothly. She had no idea what to expect from Santa’s Village, but anticipated that the best part of working at Santa’s Village would be the opportunity to use her acting skills almost every day. “To perform makes my day,” she says.

Some of Trattner’s friends were a bit mystified when he took the role since he admits he’s not a kid person; plus, he’s Jewish. “But my parents always said, ‘You’re an actor, so act,’” says Trattner, 24, who played Ted Tinker. “I thought it’ll either be great and the entire cast will bond over how great it is, or it’ll be awful and we’ll all bond in misery and I’ll get out of here with some great friendships.”

Ted Tinker (Josh Trattner) applies a few finishing touches prior to the show. Photo by Bruce Luetters

When Meyer, 24, learned she won one of the slots at Santa’s Village, she was most excited about working with a troupe of other actors even though her character, Celeste the Snow Angel, primarily works solo. “Theatre is the most collaborative art form there is, so it’s wonderful to be able to work as a team,” she says. Celeste’s story line is this: She was a snowflake who landed in Santa’s hand, and then Santa and Mrs. Claus transformed her into a snow angel with the wave of a wand.

Rausch, 22, who rotated between playing Ed and Ted Tinker, had previously worked at another RWS client, a water park in Erie, Pennsylvania, in revue-style shows, and says he was thrilled when he’d won a place at Santa’s Village. “I was so amped because they talked this park up a ton at RWS,” he says. “They fight over who gets to represent us every summer, they love this park so much.”

So how hard can it be to play an elf or snow angel?

Harder than you think. First of all, the schedule is pretty grueling: six days a week of seven-hour days, with at least an hour for makeup and costume before the park opens. And in addition to performing in shows, the characters also gather at meet-and-greets throughout the day. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Trattner says.

WHAT THE ELF?

The biggest challenge was that they were required to remain in character the entire time that they were on the clock, except for a brief moment to duck into the dressing room to inhale their lunch.

“We’re never out of character when we’re outside with guests,” says Meyer. “It’s not like I can take a break from Celeste and ask ‘How’s it going?’ We’re always on, which can be a challenge.”

The “Tinkers’ Tune Up” show reveals what goes on behind the scenes at Santa’s Village. Photo by Bruce Luetters

The upside of being Always On is that their acting chops got a real workout. “I didn’t realize how much I’d be improvising,” Rausch says. “Kids say the darnedest things and you just have to go with it because, after all, they think we’re elves. They’ll ask, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be working on Santa’s sleigh right now?’ or ‘What do you feed the reindeer?’ I have to make stuff up constantly. Sometimes it goes really well and sometimes it goes horribly, and I just have to accept it and move on.”

Occasionally a mischievous parent or older child will try to burst the imaginary bubble. “Parents will ask how I got this job, and I tell them that I came from the sky and it’s so lovely to be here at Santa’s Village,” says Meyer.

In addition to performing as their primary characters — the Tinkers and Celeste — the actors also play swing-out characters, meaning they spend the day mingling with children throughout the park. Biggs’ swing-out character is named Mary Mint, and one day she met a little girl named Gracie who said she was a princess and she asked Biggs if she was a princess too. “If she thinks she’s a princess, of course she’s a princess,” Biggs thought at the time. “So I told her, ‘Sure, I’m a princess,’ and whenever I ran into her that day I said, ‘Good to see you, Princess Gracie.’”

Later in the day, the girl whispered to Biggs, “My papa passed away.” A man standing nearby then pulled Biggs aside to tell her that his father — Gracie’s grandfather — had just passed away. He had called her a princess, and they had been sad all week and brought her to Santa’s Village to boost her spirits.

“I’ve lost two of my dear family members, which just bonded me to this family, so I thought I have to make the rest of this girl’s day magical,” says Biggs. So they rode Princess Gracie’s favorite ride together and danced at the afternoon block party, where it snows at the end. “Her parents were smiling at me, I could tell it meant so much to them,” she says. “I gave her a big hug but had to turn away because I was choking up thinking about the impact I was having on her life.”

Avery Rausch had his own choking-up story. He was playing Ed one day at a meet-and-greet when a boy around 6 came up to him and said, “I’m a big fan of yours,” which caught Rausch off guard because while Ted is a happy elf, like Will Farrell as Buddy the Elf in the movie “Elf,” “Ed is kind of a grouchball, the humbug elf,” says Rausch. “When I’m Ted, people love me, but no one has ever gotten that excited about Ed before.

“But this kid just loved me, so I told him I was so glad to hear that, and he told me his name was Trevor. So we went on the train ride together and rode all the way around the park and he was just talking the entire time and so happy to be with me, he truly believed I was a magical Christmas elf.”

The Elfabet game is one of the most popular games at Santa’s Village, a scavenger hunt where kids collect punch holes in their very own Elfabet Card — with 26 letters of the alphabet — from elf statues situated all throughout the park. Each child writes their name on the card, which they wear around their neck. When they collect all 26 letters, they trade it in for a “diploma” saying they graduated from Elfabet University. “When we pulled into the train station, Trevor took off his name tag and handed it to me, saying, ‘I want you to have this to remember me by,’” says Rausch, who couldn’t help crying. “I’ll keep it forever.”

Fred Tinker (Rachel Biggs) greets a couple of guests. Photo by Bruce Luetters

The influence that Biggs and Rausch had on a little girl and boy comes as no surprise to Elaine Gainer, whose parents Normand and Cecile Dubois founded Santa’s Village in 1953. “We provide an important service,” says Gainer, who started working the pony ride when she was 4 years old. “Though when you’re serving up hotdogs and ice cream cones all day long, you don’t realize the impact that you’re having for each individual, and how many people are enjoying this day.”

“That’s what makes it worth coming into work every day, because you see the difference that it makes,” says Jim Miller, one of Santa’s Helpers who handles marketing for the park. “It’s just one day for the family, but you can see how great that day has been for everybody in that family.”

Gainer estimates that between 65 and 70 percent of their guests have visited Santa’s Village at least once before, many of whom are frequent fliers. “If they come once, they usually come back for five, eight, 10 years, as long as their kids still like to have fun and enjoy Christmas,” she says, which explains the abundance of multigenerational families who visit. “We get a lot of grandparents who are here with their kids and their grandkids, and they were probably here as kids too.” And while other theme and amusement parks pick rides and attractions for a particular age group, Gainer believes that Santa’s Village has lasted so long because they choose to generalize, not specialize. “We don’t have rides specifically for teenagers or toddlers, we choose rides according to what would be best for the entire family,” she says.

Mike and Elaine Gainer are the second of four generations to work at Santa’s Village. Elaine’s parents, Normand and Cecile Dubois, started the park in 1953. Photo by Bruce Luetters

Santa’s Village has a payroll of approximately 400 over the course of the summer, with about two-dozen full-time employees year-round; they began recruiting professionally trained actors in 1999. “I always tell all the actors that they have to have passion whatever they decide to do in life, and they bring their passion and expertise to the stage every day,” says Gainer. “I don’t know how they do it.”

ELF IMPROVEMENT

At the end of the summer, it was clear that the young actors who had spent long summer days playing elves and princesses had indeed changed countless lives.

They also developed a real fondness for New Hampshire. As the result of living together in a small cabin nearby, they became intimately acquainted with the virtues of citronella — hence the reference at the Mountain View dinner.

Along with their “show-biz” elves, Santa’s Village has a staff of real-life elves who keep everything running smoothly, like Dave Cameron seen here in the park’s mechanical shop. Photo by Bruce Luetters

“I knew Santa’s Village was in the middle of the woods but I love the outdoors and being in a small town,” says Meyer. “After a really busy season, it was refreshing to be here.”

“Sometimes the fridge got a little cramped and we had to play Tetris with the food,” says Biggs, “but it’s crazy that we went into the summer not knowing each other at all, and by the end I felt like I knew them so well.”

And somewhere along the way they came to realize that Cannon’s pronouncement about changing lives would apply to their own as well.

Trattner says he was pleasantly surprised by the skills he developed over the summer. “My voice grew stronger and I’m able to sing higher than I’ve ever been able to because I warmed up every day before I sang. I’m very excited to start working on my audition cuts,” he says.

Rachel Biggs checks her wardrobe before the next “Tinkers’ Tune Up” show. Photo by Bruce Luetters

“I’ve learned skills that I feel like can’t even be taught,” says Meyer. “Kids regularly came up on the stage in the middle of the story to grab me, and I had to learn how to deal with that in a loving, princess way so I could continue the experience for everyone else.”

“Instead of doubting myself about the choices I make, I feel like I’m going to walk out more confidently in what I do,” says Biggs. “Since I connected with so many people and changed lives at Santa’s Village, I now know that I am so strong and I can do anything.”

Categories: Guide to Summer, People, Things to Do

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