Yes, Albion, you once had the nation’s No. 1 Santa Claus.
His name was Charles W. Howard, and he founded the Santa Claus School in his hometown of Albion in 1937, teaching hundreds of men the techniques and nuances of becoming better department-store Santa Clauses.
His students included actors Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, although he taught them both by mail. He also took his teaching skills on the road, to Australia and, of course, to Santa Claus, Ind.
And starting in 1948, he served for 18 years as the featured Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the nation’s annual kickoff for the Christmas season.
‘Tis the season to remember Howard, 50 years after the Albion native’s death.
As a Santa Claus instructor and owner of the Christmas Park amusement park that drew thousands of visitors to Albion each year, Howard indirectly touched millions of people with his appreciation for the bearded fat man, according to old news reports.
“Recognized as the nation’s No. 1 Santa Claus, Mr. Howard had devoted the past four decades of his life to improving the image of Santa Claus throughout the world,” the Buffalo Evening News stated in his May 1966 obituary.
Howard had a simple philosophy: “He who thinks Santa enters through the chimney errs. Santa enters through the heart.”
Since he’s been gone for half a century, few people can remember the heyday of the Santa Claus School here.
“It has been a forgotten gem,” said reference librarian Cheryl Mowatt of the Hoag Library in Albion. “Some people think it’s time to make Albion known as the home of Charlie Howard.”
Three local residents, co-directors of the Albion Betterment Committee, have taken up the cause. They’ve installed a sign on Route 98, welcoming motorists to the Orleans County village and touting it as the home of Howard, the Santa Claus School’s founder. Albion is northeast of Buffalo, a 58-mile drive.
That committee has started a campaign to raise $100,000 for a bronze statue of Howard in Waterman Park. There’s even talk of a Santa museum.
The three men – Joseph Gehl, Gary Kent and Gary Derwick – have two main goals. One is to provide some kind of economic boost for the village, perhaps turning it into a kind of Santa Claus tourist mecca. The other is to make Albion residents a little prouder of their heritage.
“We’re trying to instill some pride in residents about Charlie Howard,” said Gehl, a retired systems analyst. “I think it would give the locals a chance to puff out their chests a little bit and say we have something to be proud of.”
Kent, a retired high school social-studies teacher, thinks Howard can help link Albion to its rich past.
“As a teacher, I’m trying to get people to see the value of history,” he said. “We get a sense of who we are from our past.”
While Howard died 50 years ago, the Santa Claus School – once dubbed by CBS News “the Harvard of Santa schools” – has moved to Midland, Mich., and still bears his name. Next year, it celebrates its 80th anniversary.
Mike Stroh of West Seneca is one proud graduate of the Michigan school, having gone there in 2008.
Stroh spent three days at the school, from about 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, with some 75 to 80 other Santas.
The instructors taught all the basics, including “how to ho-ho-ho from deep inside;” the correct way to wear your hat, with the ball always on the right side; and the proper red color and wool material for the Santa suit, Stroh said. There’s even a simulated sleigh ride with nine stuffed reindeer, along with toe touches and other exercises.
“Ninety percent of the guys couldn’t find their toes,” Stroh joked.
Stroh attended the school 42 years after Howard’s death, but the founder’s influence still can be seen in the teaching lessons.
“He was a stickler for the details, from what we were told,” Stroh said. “How the suit should lay on you. How your beard should be; it had to be the right shape and the right length. And how your glasses should look ... everything had to be perfect. He wanted every [Santa] to be as close as possible to each other.”
The nation’s Santa Claus teaching community hasn’t forgotten its roots. In April 2015, the Charles W. Howard Legendary Santa Claus Conference returned to Albion for its interactive forum.
“We were inundated with a couple hundred Santa Clauses running around town,” Gehl recalled. “I was impressed that they still consider Charlie, who died in 1966, the guru of Santa Claus teaching.”
It’s only fitting that local leaders hope to create community awareness about Howard’s legacy. He also knew quite a bit about public relations.
“As secretary of the former Orleans County Fair Association in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he brought Albion widespread publicity with the world’s largest apple pie one year and the world’s largest cake in another,” his obituary stated.
Howard clearly was a promotion-minded entrepreneur, who was photographed by famed Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt and appeared on the hit TV show “What’s My Line?”
That’s why Tom Rivers, a local newspaperman and editor of OrleansHub.com, believes that Howard, even from his grave, would appreciate anything Albion can do to capitalize on his legacy.
“This seems to be an ace of diamonds that we haven’t played, as a community,” he added.
Howard’s death was so noteworthy that it inspired a Buffalo Evening News editorial, “Mister Santa,” shortly after he died.
That item recounted the oath that Howard’s students all took, to spread “joy and happiness to the children of this world through their beloved friend and servant, Santa Claus.”
As the short editorial, which echoed the famous 1897 editorial in the New York Sun, began: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”