His Santa Moment

An end to Broward's Miracle on 34th Street is in sight

Santa is frantic. Pacing through the living room of his red-and-green-and-gold Christmas-spangled home in an absolute dither. The cause of his distress? Barbie, a doll that has held an enviable position on Christmas wish lists for generations. A Santa must-have. And a mere week before Christmas, Santa's major problem.

Out in the garage of this modest ranch home in Pompano Beach, toys are stacked to the rafters. There are Star Wars figurines, Simpsons' stuff, a box full of plush teddy bears. But they won't do. "I've got 150 black children and no black Barbies!" Santa wails. He seems about ready to burst into tears. "I need black Barbies!"

Mrs. Claus lifts her eyes from a guest seated at the dining-room table to the flushed Santa, gazing at him with benevolent indulgence.

She is the calm counterpoise to Santa's cataclysms, as well as the go-between, the interpreter, the facilitator, and the organist.

"They still love Barbie, even after all these years," she explains before turning to the desperate Santa with gentle assurances. "I'm sure these children will be happy with whatever they receive," she tells Santa. "After all, these are children who wouldn't have had any Christmas without us."

After decades of delivering Christmas cheer to children bereft of toys, Bill Jaycox has a hard time knowing when or where to draw the line. He has been South Florida's Santa for 37 years. The U.S. Post Office in Broward County even delivered mail addressed to Santa to him for 15 of those years.

When first contacted by New Timesseveral weeks before Christmas, Jaycox said he and his wife, Joanne, were preparing to retire completely from their Santa and Mrs. Claus work. Joanne, 68, injured her leg in a fall last year, and Bill, 70, needs eye surgery.

"We were planning to decorate our house, have some neighbors over for eggnog, put our feet up, and have a normal Christmas like everyone else," he says after settling into a chair following his Santa moment.

Pause.

"But how can you do that when you have all these generous people willing to give so much?" Jaycox implores.

There are five frozen turkeys on the kitchen counter waiting to be lugged to a homeless shelter, the garage is full of toys, and an annual "Breakfast with Santa" scheduled for Saturday at the Pompano Beach Civic Center will bring in even more booty.

And so this year, as they have for the 26 years since they met, the Jaycoxes will spend their Christmas channeling the spirit of Santa and Mrs. Claus by, as Jaycox is fond of saying, "taking from the rich and giving to the poor." For them, this Santa thing approaches a religious vocation.

Dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, the couple has appeared at local conventions, parties, and corporate events since 1976.

Santa has sung specially scripted Christmas songs (his other gig has been as Clancy the Irish Troubadour). Mrs. Claus has played the organ. They have danced. They have posed for pictures. They've given speeches about the true meaning of Christmas. For payment, they have asked for toys. Learning of the couple's work, local schools have run toy-collection drives. Their neighbors, businesses, and service clubs have made donations.

The couple has farmed the bounty out to boys and girls clubs, shelters for abused women and homeless families, and families in need. They have visited local nursing homes and hospitals. And every year, they have climbed into a bright red pickup truck and made a trek on the morning of Christmas Eve to bring toys and Christmas turkeys to migrant children and their families through a mission in Delray Beach. They have never made a penny from their work. Before retirement, Bill worked as a bartender and Joanne as an office manager for Midas Muffler.

"We have not been blessed with a lot of money, but we have been blessed with people who have helped us," Joanne says. "It is the sincerity of how we do it, I think, that just inspires people to want to help in some way.

Even the postmaster acknowledged that the couple embodied the generous spirit of giving. After a meeting with Bill in 1975, the postmaster delivered all the mail in Broward County addressed to Santa Claus to the Jaycoxes. It had been discarded. Each year, Bill and Joanne answered more than 1,500 letters from children. To those that included a return address, they would enclose a certificate of good behavior, a form letter, and often a hand-penned note. "Eat your vegetables" was an oft-used admonition. And when they received an especially poignant letter, Bill and Joanne frequently dressed up in their red costumes and paid a visit.

In 1977, 3-year-old Freddie Caruso wrote Santa Claus a letter. Freddie's father had been permanently disabled in a workplace injury, and Freddie asked that Santa heal him. Santa wrote back saying he would pray for Fred Sr. Several days after receiving the missive, Joanne stopped by the Carusos' house with a bag of toys for Freddie and his sister.

Every Christmas after that, the Jaycoxes stopped by Freddie's house in costume. One time they arrived in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce limousine. Freddie would send the couple his report cards. One year, the boy helped wrap gifts for migrant children.

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."

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