NEW YORK - Forget the cookies and milk. What Santa really wants for Christmas is water -- and lots of it.
"Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate," says Charles Edward Hall, who has donned a sweat-creating fat suit and heavy fur coat to play Mr. Claus in the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular" for 27 years. "I'll come offstage and literally wring water out of my shirt."
Hall is in his element these days, ramping up for Christmas as he and the Rockettes play up to six shows a day. No wonder his dressing room has crates of Perrier, Gatorade, Poland Spring and cranberry juice.
"It is one of the challenges of the role," says Hall, who hails from Frankfort, Ky. Like a marathon runner, he gets in shape to play the famously overweight present-giver. "I actually try to lose weight when I do Santa because it's just easier to move around."
Does he ever have bad days? "I do, but Santa doesn't," Hall answers with a laugh. "I always say, 'Santa's a much better guy than I am.' I am but a mere mortal."
Hall has put his heart and soul into the role of St. Nicholas. He's a classically trained actor who cut his teeth doing Shakespeare, Moliere and Ibsen after graduating from Murray State University. One of his more memorable roles was as the Wicked Witch of the West in "Snow White."
Santa is now a full-time gig and Hall takes it very seriously. How many department store Santas can quote from "My Life in Art" by Konstantin Stanislavsky or reference the acting techniques of Sanford Meisner? Hall is a character actor who's landed an iconic role.
"I love doing it. When I first started doing it, I said, 'Well, I'll do this for a couple of years.' And it's become a part of my life in a huge way," he says. "It is magic for me. Like Santa, I'm a big kid."
Linda Haberman, the director and choreographer of the show, says anyone who thinks Santa is easy to play is wrong. "When you think about the 6,000 people in the seats every day at Radio City at every show, each one comes with their preconceived notion of their own Santa. This one man has to live up to all of these expectations. It's a lot."
Over the years, the show has changed enormously, but Hall has remained at its center, along with the high-kicking Rockettes and the Nativity scene. His part gets changed a little every Christmas as lines get added or rewritten. Grappling with the latest technology is a challenge.
Today's audiences get 3-D glasses, the production uses GPS and projections, and Radio City has the largest indoor LED screen in the world. Santa once read letters onstage and was more goofy. Now he's more the master of ceremonies amid a whirl of visual coolness. "The evolution of the show keeps me on my toes," says Hall.
Hall has an understudy to help on big days with as many as six shows. Take Thanksgiving -- "I'm spending it with 30,000 of my closest friends," he says.
He has raised two children -- a 14-year-old daughter, Katie, and a son Blake, who will graduate from Syracuse University next year. When his daughter was younger, Hall would explain that he was helping Santa in exchange for giving him acting lessons. When she would call his dressing room, he'd have to change voices. "That got me through a few years," he says.
Generations have come to see him, and some know where to sit in the huge hall to get one-on-one time as he walks through the audience. Not just children lose their minds when they get close to Santa -- adults also get caught up in it.
"When I work with the audience, I see the child within them," he says. The show "gives them an opportunity to remember what it's like. To believe. I get energy from the audience. It's mind-blowing."
Every August, Hall starts in earnest to prepare for the holidays, cutting out pizza and dairy. He says he undergoes a physical, emotional, mental and psychological change. Even his dreams change, he says.
"There is a higher plane that comes into it. I leave Charles behind and start to become the Santa sprit. If I say something or do something, I have great guilt about it because I have to wonder, 'Is that what Santa would do?' It's not easy."
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