Holiday reminiscing

Published 9:15 am Thursday, December 13, 2018

As Donna Strother Deekens recounts a few of the stories she remembers most about being a Snow Queen for Richmond’s Miller & Rhoads “Santaland” event, it’s easy to be transported back to when she welcomed the thousands of children and families who crowded through snaking lines to visit her and Santa himself.

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When she remembers addressing a child, her voice becomes warm and confiding, speaking in the fashion that could easily draw shyer children away from behind their parents’ legs.

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It’s even easier to imagine this scenario as Deekens, during the Saturday book signing held at The Sleeping Bee at 301 N. Main St. in Farmville, wore a sparkling white dress and a silver tiara, similar to what she would have worn as a Snow Queen. The original Snow Queen dress, Deekens said, is at The Valentine museum in Richmond.

Deekens’ career with Miller & Rhoads, and later at the department store Thalhimers, spanned 20 years, working as Snow Queen from 1971 to 1991.

Deekens has written several books about Miller & Rhoads, and about her experience as Snow Queen, which she signed for readers Saturday.

Santaland, for many, was a rite of passage, an annual tradition.

Daphne Mason, of Farmville, remembers bringing her young children through the lines at Miller & Rhoads.

Mason remembers there being no good time to visit. Any time of the day would have long lines packed with families.

“That was part of Christmas,” Mason said about Christmastime at Miller & Rhoads. “You charted the course by deciding when you were going to see Santa.”

Deekens said she first took the role as a sophomore at the University of Richmond Westhampton College. Deekens said she returned every year.

Deekens worked with Arthur “Chuck” Hood and Dan Rowe, who had been Santa for Miller & Rhoads.

The first Santa Miller & Rhoads had was Bill Strother, who according to Deekens, she remembered visiting as a child and who had a rather remarkable career before becoming the face of Miller & Rhoads’ holiday season.

Strother, according to Deekens, was known as the “Human Spider,” a man estimated to have climbed hundreds of buildings over his lifetime. He was also a stunt double for Harold Lloyd in the 1923 film, “Safety Last!”

Strother became Santa in the late 1940s, playing the role until his untimely death in a car accident in 1957.

Deekens said while researching a book she was writing about Strother, she found out that she and Strother were related, coming from a similar lineage in North and South Carolina. She said being Snow Queen with that knowledge made the experience more special for her in retrospect.

That’s not to say the experience wasn’t special while it was happening.

“It was magical for me,” Deekens said. “A dream come true.”

Deekens said she and Santa had equipment (in fairness to Miller & Rhoads, she wouldn’t say too much about how the process worked, using the term “Santa magic” instead) that allowed them to communicate back and forth.

Deekens, as Snow Queen, would meet children and families at the front of the line. She would ask for the children’s names. By the time they reached Santa, Santa would know their names.

She remembers one evening when Santaland was getting ready to close. A boy who appeared to be 10 years old came in alone. He did not appear to be wealthy, Deekens said. He asked Santa for a drum set.

Deekens said the crowd was thinning, but there were people who would stay around to watch Santa interact with the public.

She was surprised to learn that at Christmastime, the boy found a drum set he asked for in front of his house. Deekens said she found out later someone from the audience was able to find the neighborhood the boy lived in, and bring the gift to him.

She also remembers that each year, Miller & Rhoads had a tearoom that would distribute a dessert, Rudolph Cake, during the day. As they were distributing the cake, Deekens went to ask Santa, who was sitting at the time, to stand up. Santa was unable to come out of his seat. The culprit, Deekens found out, was a large wad of gum that made its way to his seat.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Deekens said.

Craig Mills, co-owner of The Sleeping Bee, said he worked with Deekens’ colleague Patsy Whitlow for several years. Whitlow, last year, suggested having a book signing for Deekens.

Mills said the book signing presented an opportunity for people who remember the Miller & Rhoads “Santaland” events to share their childhood memories and reminisce about that time.