You know, about this Secret Santa business. For a couple of reasons, starting with I met and got to know the dude who played the role for just under 30 years. And I got a closer read on him, like the time he heartlessly dropped the hammer on a local single mom photographer for basically little more than minor league pissing him off.
He did so, after calling me one weekday afternoon at the Kansas City Star bragging about being on a private California beach and boozing with Alex Karras. Karras was a former footballer who played Mongo in the movie Blazing Saddles and knocked out a horse. I was supposed to be impressed. I was, but not in a particularly good way.
Still for people of the Mike Murphy generation – the former KCMO AM talk show host who died two years ago – “Secret Santa” was a BFD. Which was exactly the way Stewart wanted it and got it.
Which ties in with another reservation I had about Stewart’s motives.
Think of it as a Clark Kent / Superman thing.
Because one of the main tenets of being Clark Kent was not telling people you were Superman, right? Nobody was supposed to spill those beans. Can you picture mild-mannered reporter Kent running around bragging about being the Man of Steel to Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and a buncha other people in Smallville or at the Daily Planet?
Me neither, and that’s my point.
Stewart was in love with having his big shot cake and eating it…each and every Christmas.
And I’ll tell you how they knew, because he bragged about it. It conferred celebrity status upon Stewart, just like getting hammered with Mongo did.
I tried to get Star editor Mark Zieman to let me out him, but Zieman would have none of it. Was it because Mark was such a nice guy? Maybe, but I’m not sure how people many people who know him who subscribe to that thinking.
Nope, the reason Zieman wouldn’t let me expose Stewart was the newspaper was in on the deal.
They were too vested at 18th and Grand. For years, the Star got an exclusive, front-page payoff every holiday by following “Santa” around while he passed out 100 buck bills.
At some point in time the TV news guys wormed their way into the deal and it became a local media gang bang. And thus an even worse kept secret.
Another problem; while the Star prides itself in serious journalism – even in its fluff pieces – that all went out the door where Stewart was concerned. Because not once was it confirmed or accounted as to exactly how much money Secret Santa actually gave away.
There was no accountability whatsoever.
Meaning Stewart got to play media puppet master – implying that large sums were being handed out – with only him knowing exactly what those sums totaled. A couple thousand bucks, a couple hundred thousand? Who knows?
Wealthy benefactors give out far greater sums each and every year but they’re only reported in very small stories and only after the numbers are verified.
Stewart’s post death Wikipedia page estimates he gave out $1.3 million since 1979.
However nobody will ever really know because it was a fake news PR stunt with no accountability. That’s the way Stewart wanted it and the local media obliged him.
Here’s another detail:
“Many suspected that his illness was the reason he decided to out himself, but according to Stewart, this is untrue,” Stewart’s Wikipedia page says. “In an interview on the Dave Ramsey Radio Show, Stewart said he came out because a tabloid was about to reveal his identity, and he wanted to tell his own story before they did.”
I’ll let you in on a secret, that tabloid was the Pitch and guess who told them?
When former Pitch editor Tony Ortega first asked me about it, he was convinced it was eccentric Harrisonville millionaire Delbert Dunmire. Not even close, but I finally did tell him.
Look, if I’d known Stewart wasa super nice guy and had closely guarded his Secret Santa identity, I’d probably have left him alone.
And in the wake of Stewart’s passing a local PR dude decided to try and replicate Stewart’s Santa Act by setting up a Secret Santa Foundation.
But times have changed and the last time I can find a notice of Secret Santa’s schtick in the Star is 2011 – two years ago. And if KSHB reporter Amy Hawley is to be believed, it appears that the bottom has maybe dropped out of the Secret Santa racket.
“Secret Santa, the man who makes thousands of people happy each Christmas season, invited me exclusively to go on another one of his sleigh rides this year,” Hawley reports. “I am the only reporter in town to go with this highly secretive man. A man who believes if his identity is ever revealed, the magic of what he does may go away.”
Eh, who knows? Maybe the Foundation is playing the “exclusive” card with all the stations.
But with Secret Santa down to maybe one station, looks like the magic may fading fast.
Do we really still need to have some old coot slogging about town and handing out hondos to make the holidays complete? At this stage of the game, Secret Santa’s still a secret, but does anybody really care? I mean, it’s not like he’s gonna turn out to be Craig Glazer or something.