The first Christmas on MacArthur held December 17, 2005
by Charles McGuigan
Earlier this month, on December 8, hundreds of people flocked to MacArthur Avenue, lining both sides of the street from Greycourt Avenue to Bellevue Avenue, in places four-deep, to watch the annual neighborhood parade that forms at Holton Elementary School, then to shop along the 4000 block of MacArthur Avenue, making purchase from the independent brick-and-mortar businesses there as well as from more than fifty artisans who sell their wares from tables on both sides of the street, and later to listen to outstanding live entertainment on a stage donated by Main Stage Productions, then to be tugged along by the youngest spectators down to the throne in front of Samis Grotto where Santa Claus, aka, Joe Stankus, sits and listens patiently to Christmas wishes from the young and the old. The day marked the 14th incarnation of this annual event. Last year’s, the 13th, was the only one ever canceled because of inclement weather.
Combing through our archives, I pulled up every write up we have ever printed about this event, which North of the James has sponsored since its inception. And we covered this event every year.
As with many great things, Christmas on MacArthur had the humblest of origins.
In November of 2005 I talked with Bob Kocher, who’d opened Once Upon a Vine about a year and half before. He wanted to host a Christmas-themed day. It wasn’t going to be a fancy PR maneuver; this celebration was going to be for the neighborhood, and kids would be the focus. We started putting it together on an early November afternoon, and that first Christmas on MacArthur was held in the parking lot at Once Upon A Vine. This was at a time when a number of the storefronts on MacArthur were vacant, well before the strip was revitalized. I contacted the inimitable Amy Henderson, and asked if she would play few songs for the event, and she agreed to do so.
Here’s the first write up about Christmas on MacArthur that appeared in the December 2005 edition of North of the James.
Christmas On MacArthur
A Visit From Santa Claus
Shop owners on MacArthur Avenue in Bellevue are hosting a pre-Christmas event from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, December 17. It will include live musical entertainment by Amy Henderson, arts and crafts items by area artists, a City of Richmond fire truck, treats, gifts, warm beverages and a visit from St. Nick’s.
Children should bring their best hand drawn and colored likeness of Santa to compete for a $25 gift certificate from Carytown Books, one of the newest businesses on the MacArthur strip.
Kids are also urged to bring at least one unwrapped toy for Sgt. Santa that can be dropped off at any of the MacArthur Avenue shops. Once they deposit the gift in the box they will be eligible to enter a contest to win a bike.
During that first Christmas on MacArthur, Bob Kocher handed out Christmas treats of one kind or other to the kids, and also offered three $25 gift certificates to Carytown Books (long since closed) for the best hand-drawn likeness of Santa Claus. Carytown Books owner, Rick Zander, invited kids in to decorate cookies and read in the children’s room. Stir Crazy offered kids and adults hot cider, hot cocoa and cookies. Dot’s Back Inn and Decatur’s Garage also handed out treats. And playing Santa Claus that first year was Sgt. Santa, a.k.a. Ricky Duling of the RPD. Kids brought toys for Sgt. Santa to distribute throughout the city to homes where need was keen. Each unwrapped toy allowed the giver to enter a raffle to win a bicycle. Bob Kocher bought that bicycle, and has continued that tradition to this day, only now he purchases eight each year for a similar raffle.
And this story appeared in North of the James just a few weeks after that first Christmas on MacArthur:
On MacArthur Avenue
Kaitlyn Overman, age 4, dropped seven gifts into the Sgt. Santa box at Dot’s Back Inn, which made her eligible to win one of two bikes purchased by Bob Kocher, owner of Once Upon A Vine, and one of the organizers of the first annual Christmas on MacArthur. As fate would have it, Kaitlyn won one of the bikes a week later on Christmas Eve at the time of the drawing. Now, Kaitlyn’s grandmother, Barbara Clark, is a waitress at Dot’s Back Inn, and knew full well that Santa Claus was planning to put a bicycle under the tree for her granddaughter that very night. So, Barbara and her husband, David, explained to Kaitlyn that come Christmas morning she wouldn’t be needing a second bike. Kaitlyn decided to give the bike to someone who really needed it. Barbara walked over to Once Upon A Vine, picked up the bike and pushed it back up MacArthur Avenue to the restaurant where she leaned it in a corner. In the early afternoon, as Barbara hovered around tables, taking orders, delivering lunches and drinks, she couldn’t help but notice that a man kept eyeing the bike, going over to it, admiring it. “I know a boy who would love that bike,” the man told her. As it turned out the man was a Big Brother and the child he mentors is a ten-year old boy by the name Lucas. “Well, if Lucas can get here before five o’clock, the bike’s his,” Barbara said. At quarter till five an old Chevette pulled up in front of Dot’s Back Inn. Lucas and his mother, Pam, entered the restaurant and picked up the bike. And Lucas brought his old bike as a gift to Kaitlyn. Remembering the events, Barbara told me that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Even the cooks—Jamie and Mike—were tearing up. “It was quite a Christmas Eve,” said Barbara. And it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the kindness of a little girl and her grandparents, and Christmas on MacArthur.
Christmas on MacArthur held December 17 from noon to 4 p.m. was a booming success. Hundreds strolled along the Avenue throughout the day. A fire truck, courtesy of Richmond Fire Station # 16 on Chamberlayne, was on hand, and kids got a chance to sit in the driver’s seat and pose with real firefighters to the general clicking of digital cameras. Santa Claus made a two-hour visit, and the kids swarmed round him, then climbed up on his lap as he tilted his head and pricked up his ears listening carefully and nodding to their Christmas wish lists. He handed out small toys and sweets to every child who visited him. Amy Henderson and The Orderlies, harmonizing perfectly, entertained the crowds with scores of original tunes and popular covers along with a couple of carols. Local artists displayed their wares alongside Rich’s Stitches in the parking lot of Once Upon A Vine. Stir Crazy offered warm, seasonal beverages—hot cocoa and hot cider, and Carytown Books allowed kids to decorate their own holiday cookies and then consume them. In the kid’s book room parent’s read to groups of enthralled children. Three kids who entered a contest to draw a likeness of Santa Claus each won a $25 gift certificate to Carytown Books. Every shop on Bellevue collected new, unwrapped toys and by the end of the day more than two large pickup truckloads of toys were delivered to Sgt. Santa just in time for Christmas. Everyone who donated a toy was, of course, eligible to register to win a bike And one of the bikes that was given away added more than a little magic to Christmas on MacArthur. The event, which was sponsored by the Shops on MacArthur and North of the James magazine, is destined to become an annual event.
The day of that first Christmas on MacArthur, December 17, 2005 was bitter cold, yet Amy Henderson, sporting fingerless gloves, played guitar and belted out a number of old familiar carols, along with her band mates.
Since that time this annual, neighborhood tradition has grown by leaps and bounds. And the list of musicians who have played for the event is like a Who’s Who of Richmond’s musical talent—Susie and the G-Tones, The Soul Proprietors, Susan Greenbaum, Janet Martin, The Taters, The Neons, Laura Ann Singh, Fat Spirit, The MelBays, Jason Newcomb and Frank DeAlto, Susan DePhillips and Friends, Josh Small, and so on. These days, musicians perform on a professional stage, courtesy of Main Stage Productions and Lee Johnson, a close friend of Jimmy Tsamouras of Dot’s Back Inn.
Sgt. Santa died a few years after the first Christmas on MacArthur, and after a brief interlude with another Santa, Joe Stankus stepped up to the plate and has played Santa ever since. And he’s an old hand at it. This time of year Joe plays Santa Claus for non-profits, people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a visit from Saint Nick. “I do a lot of inner-city schools,” he told me back in 2008. “So far this year I’ve done Birmingham, Alabama; Asheville, North Carolina; and Charleston, West Virginia. Normally they collect gifts and I present them. Each one is different. Like the one in Alabama they’re all mainly seventh graders through high school and they are basically kids that are almost unadoptable.”
He also plays Santa to younger children with special needs. And like the man at the North Pole, Joe takes his show around the world. “I’ve been to Bangkok, Malaysia and Singapore playing Santa on goodwill tours,” he told me.
Wherever he plays Santa, regardless of the prevailing religious beliefs of the country he is visiting, the response is universal. Santa Claus seems to transcend the narrowness of dogma, seems to be closer to universal spirituality than almost anything else. “I was in Bangkok, it was eighty percent Buddhist, and they spoke no English,” Joe said. “In Maylasia, it’s one hundred percent Muslim, and no English. But when the kids would come up, their eyes would light up, and they would call me Father Christmas.”
He told a story that happened down in Emporia a number of years ago. He was visiting a school for kids with special needs, and a girl’s parents told him that their daughter would never come up to him. Then, lo and behold, this small girl scrambled into his lap, and looked into his eyes. “Even her grandparents hadn’t held her at that point,” Joe told me, adding that Santa Claus is “the personification of good and how little kids know that, I have no idea.”
As usual, Joe was on hand at this past year’s Christmas on MacArthur playing Pere Noel. You can even tug his beard to see if it’s real or fake. But, it’s not going anywhere, because Joe Stankus is as real as it gets.
When Sgt. Santa’s workshop closed with his passing, Christmas on MacArthur began collecting for the U.S. Marines and their annual toy drive, Toys for Tots. Over the years, Christmas on MacArthur has collected tens of thousands of toys for this worthy cause, and is now considered the leading donor to Toys for Tots in Central Virginia. Two years ago, some 3800 toys were collected, and this year it looks as if that number will be surpassed. Bob Kocher reported that a total of 22 brand new bicycle were donated this year. Boxes are dropped off before Thanksgiving to scores of local merchants in the North Side and Lakeside and beyond.
In the spring of 2011, I contacted David Hudson, then-principal of Holton Elementary School, where my son attended classes at the time. Mr. Hudson immediately climbed on board Christmas on MacArthur, and the parade grew like a giant’s beanstalk, literally overnight. Members of the band and the choir of the school marched in the parade, singing and playing their instruments. They were joined by the safety patrols and many other students, including the king and the queen of the parade. Of course, David, dressed like a GQ model, drove his signature, red BMW that was laden with toys the school had collected. What’s more, David also enlisted the John Marshall High School Marching Band, along with the Drum Line from Huguenot High School. And that’s about the time the parade began forming in the rear of Holton Elementary School. David’s successor, Dr. Nikea Hurt, is fully supporting Christmas on MacArthur. And now that David is principal at Franklin Military Academy, the cadets, the honor guard, the bearers of flags of all fifty states from that prestigious school have now joined the ranks of Bellevue’s own holiday parade.
The logistics of putting this production together are mind-boggling. Chris and Celia Rich, of Rich’s Stitches, along with Mike LaBelle, of Restoration Carpentry, and countless other volunteers make it happen.
For a number of years now, a man bred-and-buttered in Bellevue has captivated the parade watchers. Jonathan Austin works his magic and dexterity with a trio of Indian clubs defying gravity and he marches in the parade.
And for the past several years, Bill Bevins of WTVR Channel 6, has graced the MacArthur Avenue Stage as emcee of the parade, introducing each group as it arrive with pithy commentary. He was joined this year by Jessica Noll, and we all hope this becomes and annual tradition. Of course, firefighters and police, dog rescuers and boy scouts, U.S. Marines and YMCA princesses, have also always been part of this parade. And always will be.
The hardest part ever is thanking those who give so much every year to make this a reality. Truth is, the day after the parade, we are already planning next year’s event. Bob Kocher told me just three days after the parade, that we might be fortunate enough to have the drum line and marching band from Virginia Union University. What a coup that would be.
Christmas on MacArthur would not be possible without the hard work and commitment of David Hudson of Franklin Military Academy, Dr. Nikea Hurt of Holton Elementary School, the Bellevue Merchants Association, Jimmy and Daniella Tsamouras of Dot’s Back Inn, Mike LaBelle of Restoration Carpentry, Chris and Cecelia Rich of Rich’s Stitches, Bob and Rob and Vera Kocher of Once Upon A Vine, Teri Phipps and David Schieferstein, Santos Contreras of Zorba’s Express, Amy Foxworthy and Josh Carlton of the mill on MacArthur, Vickie Hall of Stir Crazy, Bobby Shore and Rich Richardson of Decatur’s Garage, Joe Stankus of Classic Touch Cleaning, the musicians who gave their time and talent, each and every participant in the parade, each vendor who rented space to sell their wares, every individual who attended the event, and the scores of volunteers too numerous to name. And we are always looking for volunteers. If you’re interested in helping with next year’s event feel free to contact me at email@example.com
We are our best selves when we work for something greater than ourselves. That’s what seems to happen every year on MacArthur Avenue with this holiday tradition. Every person there, whether they work the event or attend it, seems transformed. Egos are discarded, at least for the four hours or so of this celebration. And every year the Marines come and collect the toys that are destined to be wrapped and later torn open by small hands anxious to discover what has been concealed.