You may not know Bill Strother by name, but he’s probably part of your Christmas memories if you grew up in Richmond in the 1940s and 1950s.
For many children, a trip downtown to Santaland at the old Miller & Rhoads department store was as much a part of Christmas in those years as the opening of the presents on the Big Day itself.
If you’re too young to have been there yourself, picture Ralphie and his brother in “A Christmas Story” visiting Santa at the department store and you’ve got some semblance of an idea of the Miller & Rhoads experience.
What set the Richmond department store apart from all others was its Santa, the absolute personification of Father Christmas, thanks to the talents of the big guy in the red suit, Bill Strother.
“He was my Santa as a child. My warm and fuzzy memories of early Christmas were of him,”says Richmond resident and author Donna Strother Deekens.
“He was absolutely magical. He just had a way of talking with children that was so mesmerizing and it made such an impression on a child, almost like a Fred Rogers, very calm, very reassuring and very positive.”
Deekens has written a biography of Strother that’s just been released, “The Real Santa of Miller & Rhoads” (The History Press, 205 pages), that will get the holiday memories flowing.
Strother was Santa for children, not some pretender warming the St. Nick throne or a helper in a red suit. When you whispered your wish list to him, you were dealing with the Big Guy himself.
Strother projected an air of loving authority and authenticity; someone who could connect with a child and make them feel loved and cared for. Deekens compares him with another film Santa icon, Edmund Gwenn.
“I always considered him the “Miracle” Santa,” she said in a recent telephone interview. (He had) the same quality of love and care that you looked for.”
Strother surprisingly predated Gwenn’s performance as Santa in the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th St.,” starting his reign as the Miller & Rhoads Santa in 1942.
He was so good as Santa and the Santaland experience so special that families across the area would set aside a day for a holiday trip to Richmond. Strother’s family made the trek each year from a small Hampton Road community. It was magical.
“This was our Disney World, this is what we looked forward to each Christmas,” Strother said.
…“We would make a day of it. Everyone talked of the real Santa, because he was the real Santa.”
As Deekens writes, he was much more.
The book is aptly subtitled “The Extraordinary Life of Bill Strother”, mainly referring to Strother’s first incarnation as an entertainer, scaling skyscrapers and other tall structures across the nation in the 19-teens and 1920s.
He billed himself “The Human Spider”. Freestyle climbing was just part of his shtick.
In Calgary, he climbed a 10-story hotel while blindfolded. And in Augusta, Ga., he capped his ascent of a 17-story building with a headstand.
“I was blown away by the climbing aspect,” Deekens said. “I just did not realize the commitment that he had to doing something that was so dangerous.”
Strother had told an interviewer that he had got his start climbing in his native North Carolina out of curiosity. Deekens said he had wanted something more in life than working on the family farm. …”(A)ll indications were he didn’t want to be a tobacco farmer, he wanted something different.”
He traveled the country, and Canada, too. Even then, he was giving back to society He’d pass the hat for various charities after performances.
His travels took him to the West Coast, and one climb in Los Angeles happened to catch the eye of comedian Harold Lloyd in 1922. That led to a Lloyd classic, “Safety Last,” in which Strother served as Lloyd’s stunt double in a climb, and with his casting in the movie as Limpy Bill.
He and his wife returned east in the 1930s and opened a guest house in Petersburg, with Strother serving as chef.
In 1942, his wife saw a newspaper ad placed by Miller & Rhoads seeking a Santa, and encouraged Strother to apply.
He did more than that. He had a vision for Santaland, and presented it to store officials. Impressed, they asked him to don the Santa suit.
He was leery at first, and set a price of $1,000 a week on his agreeing to the part.
To his surprise, they accepted.
Strother became the nation’s highest-price Santa, but he was well worth the money.
He garnered national attention, including a profile in “The Saturday Evening Post”. The cover photo is taken from that profile.
Strother was Santa until his death in 1957 from injuries suffered in a car wreck.
The traditions he crafted continue to this day.
After Miller & Rhoads closed its cross-street rival Thalhimers continued the Santa court until it in turn closed. The court moved to the Sixth Street Market, then to the Children’s Museum of Richmond.
“The traditions he started in 1942, they still live on,”Deekens said.
Deekens should know: She served as The Snow Queen, Santa’s chief helper, at both Miller & Rhoads, then at Thalhimers, from 1971 to 1991.
“The store definitely has been part of my Christmas tradition since I was a child,” she said.
And while the traditions continue, it’s inevitably a different experience for children attuned to electronic devices than imagination.
“The store was just the center of the universe at the time for children and their families,” Deekens said. “It will never be like the era of the grand department store. There never will be a time like that again.”
BY THE BOOK
TITLE: “The Real Santa of Miller & Rhoads
AUTHOR: Donna Strother Deekens
WHAT: Quirky biography of a quirky man, Bill Strother, better known as Santa to thousands of Richmond Baby Boomers for his years as the Jolly Olde Elf at Miller & Rhoads. Prior to his years in the red suit, Strother had billed himself as the Human Spider, and made his way across the nation in the 1920s and 1930s climbing tall buildings. His life is chronicled by Deekens, a former Snow Queen for Miller & Rhoads. The author includes a plethora of period photos to get the memories going.
THE FINE PRINT: 208 pages, The History Press, ISBN 978-1-62619-696-4
MEET THE AUTHOR: Dec. 5, The Fountain Bookstore, 1312 E. Cary St.; 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dec. 7, Sixty West Antiques, 8004 Midlothian Turnpike