LEWISTON -- Charles “Vince” Canosa started donning a Santa suit to entertain family members about a half-century ago, and he recalls those days with great fondness.
“I was about 19 or 20 and I did it for my sister’s kids for a while, and would wake them up with the Santa suit on,” he said. “And then later, my wife, Darlene, had a very special aunt, Aunt Eleanor, and I’d dress up and go to her home and take a picture with her every year. She used to love that.”
A choice of a career with the Army over continued substitute work as a schoolteacher in the 1970s led this Niagara Falls native to the U.S. Army Active Guard Reserves, where he would eventually revive his Santa role at military parties. He also played St. Nick at the old Sacred Heart Church, as well as later stints at Divine Mercy Parish.
But it took three Lewiston boosters to launch this latest chapter in what he calls his “third career,” playing Santa for larger crowds starting four years ago.
The Niagara River Region Chamber of Commerce needed to replace its long-time St. Nick, when the then-Santa's grandchildren started recognizing the man behind the beard (Jeff Jordan of Lewiston), chamber President Jennifer Pauly recalled. That’s when Tom and Cheryl Deal, of Deal Realty, volunteered the name of their part-time salesman, Canosa.
“He’s fantastic,” said Cheryl Deal. “He has the authentic suit and he plays such a great character. The community just took to him. We had well over 400 children visit with him this year at the Lewiston Christmas Walk.”
Canosa, now 71 and retired as a sergeant major after 30 years of active guard duty, models his Santa on the jolly gentleman at the old Biers Department Store in Niagara Falls.
“Do you remember him?” he asked recently, blue eyes alight with the memories. “He was the greatest dude. He’d have a packet of magic dust and he’d tell the kids to sprinkle it in front of their houses and if they were good, it would shine and Santa would find their house, but if they were bad, he wouldn’t stop there.”
Taking Canosa’s cue, the Deals started packaging some white “magic dust” for Santa with a little poem, to distribute to kids at the Lewiston Christmas Walk.
Deal said she thinks it’s important that Canosa is carrying on the standard set at the popular but long defunct department store.
“Vince takes so much time with the children and really listens to them and I think that’s enormous,” she said.
The chamber’s Pauly couldn’t agree more.
“Lewiston is very fortunate to have Vince as part of our community,” she said. “He is hands-down the best Santa in the region! He takes his time with the children, asks them questions and has braved a helicopter ride and 20 degree weather for me to make the Lewiston Christmas Walk an annual success. He makes the event happen.”
Jessica Dolly also appreciates the time and care Canosa has shown her daughter, Lyla, now 6.
“What I loved about him was his genuine interaction with each child,” she said of the recent Lewiston event. “He wasn’t there to put on a loud, boisterous show and just smile for the hundreds of cameras. His pure, initial intention was to gently show her that he was so excited to see Lyla again this year, and to truly listen to the things she had to report to him. And, it was one of the most heartfelt hugs I’ve ever seen a Santa give.”
Canosa, with short white hair, a mustache and trim goatee, recently took some time to chat about playing Santa, before he and his wife readied to travel to Indiana for a brief visit to see their daughter, Edith, and her family. Their son, Vincent, is planning to travel to Lewiston from Atlanta for the holidays with his family.
“They know I play Santa here,” Canosa said of his four grandchildren. “Their parents tell them I’m helping Santa because he can’t be everywhere.”
You have a pretty extravagant outfit. How long does it take you to get ready?
It takes about a half-hour. First I have to put on the belly, then a long-sleeved shirt, then a big shirt over that, then the vest. Then I glue on the mustache and beard -- so the kids can’t pull it off. Then I put on my boots and hair and hat and jacket and then I’m ready.
My sister-in-law, Gloria Jones, made me a new outfit from scratch three years ago, It’s crushed velvet. She thought this would look more authentic. I have a vest so that if I get too warm, I can take off the jacket and still have the vest. That’s a heavy jacket and I get really warm. I’ve never been cold with it on outside.
I don’t grow a beard, myself, although I have this little one, because I don’t want to see kids around town and have them get confused (if they recognize him).
What’s the key to successfully playing Santa?
Well, you have to like children. I just enjoy the kids. I’ll walk down the street and think, ‘I remember that kid.’
And I don’t use a fake voice and say ‘Ho, Ho, Ho.’ I just talk like I’m talking right now. If a child is really small and starts to cry, I let the mother stay. I don’t want to scare them. If we’re having a picture taken, I’ll stand and get the parents in there, too -- try and get everyone involved.
And, I do listen to the children. You know, kids will tell you anything -- things their mothers and fathers have never heard.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve heard?
I’ve had a little girl two years in a row now, about 10, and she’s never asked for a toy. The first year, she asked for her mother and father to get back together. This year, she asked for peace on Earth.
At what age do the kids start getting a little skeptical these days?
About 10. I had a kid staring at me at a party and I asked her, ‘You don’t believe in me, do you?’ And I asked her to pull on my beard and tell me if it would come off. I asked her if she believed I was Santa after my beard didn’t come off and she said, ‘You might be.’
How many gigs do you do a year?
I started with the Christmas Walk this year (on Dec. 3-4), then I was at a private party at Power City Eatery, then at a Divine Mercy Church party. I did a private party for Dr. (Salvatore) Manente and a party at the NAAC (Niagara Arts and Cultural Center), for the Niagara Falls Boys' and Girls' Club.
The Boys and Girls Club is special to you. Why?
I went to college for two years and then I was drafted into the Army in 1966. I came back in '68 and met my wife in '70 and we got married in 1971. I worked and went back to college and got my teaching degree at Buffalo State College in '75. I subbed for a couple of years and I was working at the Boys and Girls Club for (Robert) “Knuckles” Bradley. He’s like a brother to me.
When I took the job with the active guard reserves, I told him I couldn’t work at the Boys Club anymore, but Knuckles let me come when I could and I ran a couple of clubs there, including a woodshop/ceramic club. We had a shop and the kids made nativity scenes and we’d sell them. I put that money in an account and at Christmas time, I’d divide that money among the kids and take them shopping. I told them they had to buy one thing for their parents and then they could buy anything else they wanted.
Finally, in 2005, I couldn’t do it anymore. But for the past 25 years, I’ve gotten names, ages and sizes for between 13 and 20 kids each Christmas time from the Boys Club and passed those names on to other people, mostly in the military. The Town of Niagara Lions took five names and the Deals took three names this year. I take whoever is left.
One year, I had two little girls who asked for socks for Christmas. That broke my heart. That’s why I keep doing it.
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