Restored Five Years Ago, Jolly Elf
Reclaims His Stature In Downtown
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
Even Santa Claus sometimes needs a little work done.
For the past five years, he’s been a Christmas Time treat at the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, but for many years after Bresee’s Department Store closed down in the 1990s, he was out of the public eye.
“He had been in our warehouse, and we rescued him,” said Elaine Bresee, Milford Center, whose husband Marc was one of the last family members to manage the namesake downtown Oneonta department store.
“We had him outside in our sleigh every year,” said Elaine, but as the years went by, the wintry weather took its toll on the 1930s fixture, which was a centerpiece of the department store’s holiday decorations for decades.
“He was starting to get pretty trashed,” she said. “His fingers had broken off, and he was starting to fade.”
So in 2013, the couple had him repaired, and in 2015 donated the figure to the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, where it has once again become part of downtown shoppers’ Christmas expectations.
The restoration was done by Marjean McCaslin-Doyle, the costume shop manager in SUNY Oneonta’s Theatre Department, and it was a challenge.
“Someone had tried to curl his beard at one point,” she said. “But it’s synthetic hair, so it had gotten singed.”
She bought him a new mustache and gently cleaned and restored the original beard.
His hand-tied wig also needed restoration, and worse, no longer hid the holes in his head. “I had to fill, paint and seal the scalp,” she said.
His lips were similarly deteriorated, with holes between the beard and mustache.
“The face was in the worst condition,” she said. “The rose in his cheeks had been rubbed off, and there was a lot of effort in trying to match the original colors.”
She ordered a set of plaster mannequin hands, but also made a cast of one hand. It came out so well, she doesn’t remember which hand is bought and which one she made.
“It took two years, but she restored him,” said Elaine. “She was so careful in ordering just the right hands so that they matched the rest of him.”
His costume – one of the two original Bresee’s Santa suits – was restored by Kathleen Moore, one of Marjean’s colleagues in SUNY’s costume department.
“The collar and the cuffs are real rabbit fur,” she said. “And the suit is very heavy wool, not like the material they use now. It’s amazingly made – it wouldn’t have lasted this long otherwise.”
Once restored, the Bresees donated the plaster Santa – as well as the Santa Chair and the mailbox – to GOHS in 2015.
“Letters in the mailbox were always answered for the longest time,” said Marc Bresee. “There would be about 75-100 of them, but then when people started really coming, we couldn’t answer them all.”
Instead, Marc said, each visiting child was given a candy cane and a coloring book, with a promise that Santa would read the letter.
Even now, a letter still shows up on occasion. “This one says, ‘I would like robots, please!’” said Bob Brzozowski, GOHS executive director. “But I don’t know who sent it!”
And Santa can’t sit in an ordinary chair, but instead, sits on the Bresee’s Santa Chair, which was made by the store’s in-house carpenters for the Jolly Old Elf to meet with visitors.
“We toyed with donating these for about five years,” she said. “I always have trouble parting with things from the store.”
But they haven’t parted with all of the store’s Santa ephemera yet.
Bresee’s kept two suits, as well as a wig and beard on hand, so that one could be sent for cleaning while the other was being worn – including by Bresee’s most famous Santa, Clark Chaplin.
“Of course, Clark always had his own beard,” she said.
Marc wore the suit to dress up for his children when they were kids, and for his father, Phillip, when he was at the Thanksgiving Home.
“They were having cocktail hour one Thursday, and in he came in the full suit!” he said. “They were all very happy to see me.
In 2019, the Bresee’s loaned the second suit for Orpheus Theatre’s production of “Elf.”
Santa’s sleigh – also a decoration from Bresee’s – has returned to the couple’s porch, with two former store mannequins, a boy and a girl, dressed in cozy red pajamas as they wave to passerbys.
And a new Santa is there too. “He’s not as beautiful as the other one,” said Elaine. “But another one will come along.”