"I'm going to tell you the truth," Mike Cantlon says, as if there's a murky, confidential reason why he's been appearing as Santa Claus at the Spokane Symphony's Holiday Pops concert for over three decades.
"I did this gig for Mitch Miller."
Miller, who died in 2010, was known to a certain generation of Americans for his ripe-for-parody Sing Along with Mitch albums and TV series, as well as his more contentious dismissal of rock music as "musical baby food" and the "worship of mediocrity."
"He was doing the Holiday Pops concert, and he wanted a Santa," Cantlon explains. "He said, 'I'm going to give you a cue, and then I want you to walk up the aisle and throw candy canes to people. Then come up to the stage, and you can hand me a candy cane.'"
But the cue never came. And Cantlon, perhaps true to form, erred on the side of overzealousness.
"I was handing these little candy canes out to the audience, and instead of throwing them into the air and letting them float down over the people, I was really chucking them out there. People were afraid they'd get hit by one," Cantlon says. Miller, also true to form, was a "kind of a curmudgeon" about the whole thing.
Despite the force of his throwing arm, Cantlon was still in the running when the same opportunity arose again the following year. During one of her volunteer shifts, Cantlon's wife, Barb, an oboist and English horn player in the symphony, overheard that the organization needed someone to play Santa.
"She volunteered me, you see. When I married Barb, I married the Spokane Symphony. That's just the way it was. So she came home and she said, 'Guess what you're going to be doing for the Holiday Pops this year?' I said, 'No way! There's no way I'm going to be Santa again!' Because I'd had this bad experience. And then she said, 'By the way, and Miss Spokane will be your elf,' and I said, 'Oh, OK, that will be fine. I think I can probably do that.'"
Accompanied by the newly elected Miss Spokane, Brenda Grizzle, Cantlon did some off-the-cuff "schticky stuff" to amuse the Holiday Pops audience. That year, Randi Von Ellefson, now a professor of music and choral director at Oklahoma City University, was conducting.
"At one point, as part of this schtick," Cantlon says, "I walked up to him and I wanted to conduct the orchestra. He stood me on the podium and helped me do 'Sleigh Ride.' From that time on, I've been conducting 'Sleigh Ride" every year."
He was allowed — nay, encouraged — to continue that annual tradition even after his candy cane baton flew out of his hand, hitting percussionist (and Cantlon's good friend) Bryan Bogue.
"Afterwards he handed it back to me very formally, like a weapon. It was terrifying, but that, to me, was one of the most enjoyable and memorable moments. And the audience absolutely loved it."
More recently, Cantlon has distilled the cumulative events of those 30 years of Holiday Pops shows into a children's book titled Nym's Sleigh Ride. The retired educator and founder of Spokane Public Schools' Odyssey program for gifted learners worked with illustrator Emily Powell Gilliam, one of his former students, to realize the "whimsical, musical journey" of a North Pole elf who takes a spontaneous trip south and ends up co-conducting an orchestra alongside Santa. To a standing ovation, of course.
"It gives me real joy to do this," says Cantlon, describing the experience of performing with the Spokane Symphony in front of him and the audience at his back in terms that are nothing less than transcendental.
"But I have to tell you, every time before I go onstage, my stomach gets all tightened up and I get really nervous. And I'll say to Barb, 'I just don't want to screw up.' And she'll say, 'You can't. You're Santa.'" ♦