December 7, 2011
Dishing the dirt on Santa
Ho, ho, ho. Santa Claus is coming to town, and all hell is about to break loose. It seems that Santa has been a closeted gay man, but now “Santa Claus Is Coming Out.” The skinny on Santa will be revealed onstage for three nights, Dec. 12, 13 and 14, at the Celebration Theatre in Hollywood. The solo show, written in documentary style by Jeffrey Solomon, who portrays all the characters, is purportedly based on his interviews with the “key figures in the scandal that has come to be known as Santa-gate.”
The proceedings are narrated by Sidney Green, Santa’s Jewish agent, who has gotten Coca-Cola to sponsor his client. The tale begins as a little boy named Gary, who is “different,” writes to Santa and asks for a girl’s doll. The issues raised by Gary’s request give rise to a series of testimonies from interested parties.
These include the boy’s sympathetic mother and unyielding father; Pete, Santa’s homophobic head elf; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the North Pole’s Diversity Chief and a founding member of the Misfit Task Force; José, an older gay man who remembers Santa as “a big fairy” he used to see at gay bars in the village and that everyone called “Santa Closet”; Giovanni Geppetto, the Italian toymaker and great-great-great-great-grandson of Pinocchio, who is Santa’s hidden, true love; Cecilia Laurence, a fading actress hired to become Mrs. Claus in an arranged marriage; and Mary Ellen Banfield, president of Families Against the Gay Agenda, who is determined to expose Santa’s secret life and prevent children from being converted to the gay lifestyle.
Solomon explained that the original draft of his satire was written in 2001, when public schools were beginning to hold discussions about gay issues and to allow the establishment of Gay-Straight Alliance groups. In addition, some gay teachers were starting to be open about their orientation. At the same time, there was a nationwide backlash against these developments, and Solomon’s play was a response to that.
“Certain members of the community really reacted very, very strongly against Gay-Straight Alliances, against even discussing this issue in a school,” the playwright recalled. “They automatically branded the conversation ‘sexual,’ though it was not about sex at all. It was just about giving gay kids and kids who were questioning, and their straight allies, a safe place in a school setting, but it was automatically seen as the ‘gay agenda,’ as an attempt to convert the children, and to, in their language, ‘normalize homosexuality.’ ”
Solomon added, “What really got this play started was that, in 2000, Oregon had Measure 9 on the ballot, which would have made it illegal to ‘discuss, encourage, or promote homosexuality in a school setting.’ Santa Claus seemed like a great substitute, a great synonym for the educator, because he likes kids; he really has the welfare and the best interests of the child in mind, and yet, if he were gay, how would people react to that?”
According to the playwright, an earlier work of his, “Mother/Son,” which he was performing in schools, synagogues, JCCs and theaters, helped stimulate the burgeoning conversation in schools about gay life. That solo play dealt with a mother’s experience as the parent of a gay son who comes out within a tightly knit Jewish community and was based on what happened after Solomon told his own mother that he was gay.
“She definitely had feelings of shame, and she didn’t want people to know. But through conversation, and this is what ‘Mother/Son’ is about, she came around to full acceptance. We ended up marching in the Gay Pride Parade together in 1994, shortly before she passed away. Through our conversations, which she insisted on having, she became educated, and she came to know my partner and kind of fall in love with him. Then she was dealing with homophobia among her friends and kind of confronted them about that.”
Solomon went on to say that his current effort, “Santa Claus Is Coming Out,” while not directly autobiographical, is an outsider’s Christmas tale, and, as such, mirrors aspects of his own childhood. “We lived in New London County, Conn., where there were very few Jews at the time. The kids picked on me for being Jewish and made me feel really different and bad. Before I felt different for being gay, I felt different for being Jewish, but also special.
“The play is about invisibility, and I certainly can relate to that. ... The play is also about growing up without any affirmation or validation. Though the parents in the story love their kid, and though my parents loved me and meant no ill, the play is about the damage done by not discussing this with kids, by not affirming those kids who are different when they’re very young.”
The show, in its reworked version, engendered some controversy when it made its off-Broadway debut in 2009, Solomon said. “Focus on the Family, that far-right Christian organization, came out very strongly against the play. They charged that somehow I was deliberately desecrating sacred Christmas symbols.”
There was also considerable praise from critics around the country.
“One of the finest compliments I ever got was from a reviewer who said that, in the final moments of the play, he experienced goose bumps. There was another guy who came to see the show, a friend of a friend, a straight man, who was just happy all night afterward. He would just break out into spontaneous laughter. If you take a message from the play, that’s awesome, and I think the play offers one without being heavy-handed. But if you can have a laugh and have some joy, that would be the main thing. Everything else is gravy.”
“Santa Claus Is Coming Out” at the Celebration Theatre