By Michael E. Miller
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In 1981, the Sun-Sentinel wrote a story about the annual visits. "I feel love run up and down my whole body when I see him," a 7-year-old Freddie told the newspaper. And then Freddie sang a song he had composed about Santa: "He is shaped like a human being. He is a great big heart, filled not with blood but with love."
When Freddie began performing in community theater (he joined the Screen Actors Guild at age 12), the Jaycoxes attended. They didn't introduce themselves to Freddie, just sent a note with the program attached complimenting him on his performance, signed by Santa and Mrs. Claus.
"We are a couple of Christmas enthusiasts," Joanne explains.
Bill Jaycox started his Santa gig in 1965 with a seasonal job as Santa at Jordan Marsh department store in Miami. The store sent him to a Santa Claus school in Albion, New York, founded by Charles Howard, who was Macy's first Santa. Jaycox learned important things at the school, such as how to apply Santa makeup and how to dress properly for the role. He also learned what Joanne calls "proper comportment."
"Not to overdo the ho, hos," explains Bill. "There is such a thing as a quiet, dignified, postured Santa that doesn't pop in like a bat out of hell all loud and boisterous to scare the kids."
Meanwhile in the 1970s, before she ever met Bill Jaycox, Joanne Morris dressed as Mrs. Claus for Midas Muffler's annual Christmas party. Her mother, Mae, sewed her a red dress for the role, and Joanne used it to visit nursing homes and hospitals during the Christmas season ,handing out candy and little trinkets.
In 1976, Bill appeared as Santa at the Jordan Marsh store in Fort Lauderdale. He stayed in a rooming house on NE 11th Court, right down the street from where Joanne lived with her mother. Learning of Bill's Santa job, a pair of women from the neighborhood jokingly asked him, "Do you know that Mrs. Claus lives down the street?"
"No," Bill said, "but I'd like to meet her."
That weekend, Joanne and Bill met. Bill had an appearance lined up that Sunday at a local church. He asked Joanne to join him as Mrs. Claus. A date at Burger King and a marriage proposal followed. The pair wed a year later. Santa and Mrs. Claus figurines replaced the traditional bride and groom on the couple's wedding cake. "My mother said it was that red dress that got me in all the trouble," Joanne jokes.
The Jaycoxes says they know they can't keep up their hectic Christmas schedule much longer. This year, they cut back on toy-collecting appearances. And Joanne says that instead of delivering all the toys to charities themselves, she will ask businesses that collect toys to take them to local charities.
Even if he's not retiring this year, Bill knows that day is coming. And he has a replacement picked out: Freddie Caruso. "When I'm ready to make out my will and I know I'm through, I'm hoping Freddie will accept my toy inventory, my Rolodex, my list of charities, my Santa suit, everything," he says. "That kid is just beautiful."
Mrs. Claus interrupts. "Freddie said he won't be ready for another 20 years," she reminds her Bill.
Now 28 years old and working as an actor in New York City, Freddie still calls or visits the Jaycoxes every Christmas. "I will debate any person who wants to say that Santa Claus isn't real," he says. "He is as real to me now as he ever was."
Caruso says it wasn't just about the toys. The Jaycoxes taught him something about the power that kindness can have on a kid.
So is Caruso going to move back to South Florida to carry on the work? He hesitates. "I'm not moving back to Florida," he says. "That's my knee-jerk reaction. I love New York.
"But if [Santa] needed me, I wouldn't be able to say no. There is no way, and I say that with tears in my eyes. Anytime there is anybody that can bring that much joy and that much love to your life... You can't say no to them."