To millions of people, Charles Edward Hall is Santa Claus. They believe. And they keep coming back to New York City’s Radio City Music Hall to see him each holiday season.
Editor's note: In celebration of the publication of Hall's memoir Santa Claus is for Real - A True Christmas Fable about the Magic of Believing, we are pleased to share with readers this story, which originally ran in December 2012.
Some 25-million people have seen Charles Edward Hall as Santa in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular over the past 25 years. The former Frankfort and Murray resident shares the stage with the iconic Rockettes, who are celebrating their 85th anniversary this year.
Santa acts as master of ceremonies as he sings, dances and guides the action. The highlight of the show is the dancing of the Rockettes, known for their eye-high kicks and fabulous costumes.
Each November, Hall suits up for the role of Santa for a million fans who see the New York City show annually. This year, Hall performs as Santa from Nov. 9 through Dec. 30, four times a day, seven days a week, in the theater that holds 6,000 people for each show. He must be Santa to be able to keep such a grueling schedule. “It’s a great show, and it’s been a part of my life for 26 years,” Hall said.
Linda Haberman, director and choreographer of the show, agreed that Hall’s performance is a big part of the show’s magic. “Charles has become a true staple to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and also to New York City during the holidays as he channels the inner spirit of Santa Claus in a way that makes everyone a believer,” Haberman said. “Celebrating his 26th year in the beloved role is a wonderful achievement, and we hope that Charles continues to share the magic of Christmas with our audiences for years to come.”
Hall grew up in Frankfort and graduated with a theater degree from Murray State University. As a freshman at Murray State, he auditioned for a role at Twilight Theatre and became part of its close-knit family of actors. He and his family live in Manhattan, but he continues to serve as Twilight Theatre’s artistic director. He spends time in Kentucky each year during summer hiatus, directing and producing shows, writing plays and teaching student actors.
After graduating from Murray, Hall taught at Paducah Tilghman High School before moving to New York to work as a stage actor in 1977. He landed the role as the hag in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an early Disney production on Broadway. He also performed in Pippin with Ben Vereen.
In 1987, he auditioned for the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The show was rewritten that year to include Santa. During his audition for Scrooge, he was asked to improvise a Santa character. He quickly—and wisely—channeled the Christmas spirit of his Uncle Walter Conway, who had played Santa for Charles and his brother when they were kids in Frankfort.
“Uncle Walter only had a hat and beard, so he couldn’t really make an appearance as Santa. He would tap on one of the windows at our house, and we would run to look out to see him,” Hall explained. “He would disappear and then tap on another window, so we would run to look out there.”
The audition went well. Hall got the part, a role that combined both Scrooge and Santa for several years, requiring him to change costumes during the show. He never let his own children—a son and a daughter—see him in the Santa costume. They saw him backstage only as Scrooge. He waited until he thought they were old enough to tell them about his other role as Santa. He still credits Uncle Walter as the inspiration for his Santa character. “Uncle Walter was part of that spirit. A lot of my performance is based on Uncle Walter,” he said. “It’s the magic of believing. It was something I knew.”
Eventually, the role of Scrooge was written out of the show as Santa became a more important part of the production. Hall said new material is included in the show to keep it fresh each holiday season. This year, audiences will be treated to a costume retrospective showcasing memorable Rockettes styles during their long run at Radio City Music Hall.
The production itself is an undertaking, with more than 235 people working on the show, including cast, crew, orchestra and administration. There are 36 Rockettes in every performance. “It’s like getting ready for a moon shot,” he said with a laugh.
“As an actor, I’m very inspired by the audience and the Rockettes themselves. They work as hard as athletes,” Hall said. He gets a workout himself as he sings and dances in makeup, costume and the heavy “fat suit” that helps him look the part.
Other casts take the show on the road during the holiday season. The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is performed in Chicago, Dallas, Nashville and St. Louis. Scott Willis, the actor who has played Santa in the Nashville production for the past seven years, also has a connection to Hall and Twilight Theatre.
“Scott came up to me and said, ‘You don’t remember me, but you gave me my first professional acting job.’ And I had, at Twilight Theatre in the 1970s,” he said. “It does come back around.”
“Santa is such a wonderful, joyous spirit,” he said. “He is always with me.”