Time to lay the Secret Santa cards on the table…
Like the myth of Robin Hood – the dude who allegedly shot arrows and stole from the rich to give to the poor but in all likelihood never even existed – the story of businessman Larry Stewart as Secret Santa, was a carefully crafted PR concoction. By Stewart and editors and writers – not journalists mind you – at the Kansas City Star and later Channel 9. It was a holiday heartstring tug the newspaper trotted out every year around Christmas on its front page
In short the Star milked Secret Santa for everything he was worth.
Even this year – three years after Stewart’s death – hard news reporter, Tony Rizzo, still got stuck doing the Secret Santa schlock honors.
"Their smiles cut through the sharp chill of a drab December morning," Rizzo panted breathlessly. "And their tears of joy washed away – if only for the moment – the dire circumstances of their lives."
All that over a stranger handing someone a $100 bill? Please.
The fact is Secret Santa was one of Kansas City’s worst kept secrets.
The $100 bill handing out dude was anything but a secret to pretty much anybody and everybody who knew or knew of him. It’s no news accident that he got front page treatment at the
And know this, Secret Santa didn’t come to light because of investigative reporting. His public persona was a PR schmooze from the start.
The bottom line: Stewart was a boastful businessman who loved playing bigshot and hanging with D-list celebs like former football bad boy Alex Karras (the dude who played Mongo and knocked out the horse in the movie Blazing Saddles).
Had the Lone Ranger or Superman been as cavalier about concealing their identities, the comic book super hero industry might have collapsed. For all Stewart’s storied $100 bill Christmas cheer, he was basically a dude with a king-sized penchant for boasting and partying who came up with a schtick and sold it to the media.
And while the Star prides itself on reporting the news, not creating it, that was hardly the case with Stewart.
Year after year the newspaper sent a reporter along, to sensationalize his money give away. As for actual reporting, nowhere in this year’s Secret Santa sequel, for example, does it say how much was given away. That wasn’t not the Star’s mission; their objective was to dramatize, in three or four examples, someone breaking down and crying or vowing to spend the $$$ to keeping warm in the winter.
The only thing approaching an accounting of the money doled out in this year’s Secret Santa story totals- around $2,700.
That’s chump change compared to the kinda dough unsung locals give to charitiy. Good deeds of far greater magnitude go unreported and un-sensationalized in all but the most extreme, seven-figure instances.
Years ago I prevailed on Star publisher Mark Zieman on journalistic grounds to allow me to report about Stewart.
Fat chance. I argued the only one keeping Stewart’s identity secret was the paper, but no way Zieman was about to kill the golden news goose.
Had Stewart’s name been released it would have been anticlimactic.
Few would have cared. What made Secret Santa special was that he might be somebody famous – recognizable anyway. Someone like Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt. Emanuel Cleaver or Donald Hall. That he was Joe Nobody would have drained the mystery and romance from the tale.
Adios front page stories!
Oddly, about the only major media in town that didn’t know Secret Santa’s identity was the Pitch.
I was tight with Pitch editor Tony Ortega prior to his leaving KC a few years back (and eventually becoming editor of New York’s Village Voice). Ortega had been working me to learn Secret Santa’s identity. He thought it might be flamboyant local millionaire Del Dunmire.
Ortega was wrong.
Later, after being turned down by Zieman on me doing the story, I more-or-less let Ortega in on who it was. Ortega called Zieman and the jig was up. However the fact that Stewart had contracted cancer allowed the Star to milk the story even more.
So what kind of guy was Stewart?
Based on my dealings, a bully, a boozer and a braggart.
Most of my encounters with him went down at former KCMO-AM radio host Mike Murphy’s Salvation Army fundriasers. He was friendly, a bit guarded, a life-of-the-party sort of guy. When I saw him he was usually cocktailing and rubbing elbows with bar buddies and local celebs like George Brett.
My only run in with Stewart went down five years prior to his death in 2002.
That’s when local photographer Debbie Sauer told me about a song Stewart wrote called "Remember 9-11-01." Stewart was backing a local country crooner wannabe named Doug Davis who Stewart was hoped could use his song to become the next Garth Brooks.
(Singer Doug Davis)
(Davis Web site says he now resides in Nashville with his last listed live show having taken place in September of 2006.)
Stewart got mad at Sauer because she had spoken to me about Davisand told me a story about her writing to President Bush about the song and getting a positive response back.
"I sent it to him the day before the first anthrax scare at the White House," Sauer said then. "My point was here’s a song by a guy who says he’d never been touched by a war and was just now starting to understand why people respect the national anthem so much."
Sauer was shaken by Stewart’s hammering her and asked me to help calm him. Here’s what went down.
I got a call back at the Star from Stewart who promptly made me aware that he was having a cocktail on the beach outside his pal Karras’ oceanside home in California. It was a pleasant enough but Stewart was trying to bully me and talking down about Sauer. From that point forward Sauer says she never got any further business from him.
"It was something that was not that big a deal," Sauer says. "(But) Larry got real controlling…For some reason he felt he could control everything I did because he paid me…I was taking pictures (of Davis) and he paid me to go to Nashville and Strugis. It had nothing to do with Secret Santa."
As for Stewart’s keeping Secret Santa secret, "He did like to brag about it a little bit," Sauer says. "I don’t know if that’s the right word to use. Your intuition on Larry, I think, is somewhat correct."
Which brings us to the matter of if Stewart really as rich as he wanted folks to believe he was and how much actual money he gave away.
Since the Star didn’t bother to hold Stewart accountable while they were jerking him off, we’ll never know.
USA Today properly reported that it was Stewart who "estimated" that he gave away $1.3 million over 26 years. Bogusly, the Star‘s Lynn Franey "reported" that same number – without attribution or verification.
That kind of sloppy reporting. ladies and gentlemen, is how myths are made.
Longtime Stewart friend Mike Murphy has no idea how much Secret Santa gave away although he went on Murphy’s show and donated $20,000.
Whatever the amount, Murphy suspects Stewart never really had very much money.
"I don’t think he did," Murphy says. "He built that big house in Lee’s Summit and he had to sell it. I think that’s why he got divorced…He was my greatest friend (but) I think he gave all his money away."