Monday, December 16, 2013

Remember Santa's Village and Santa Claus Lane?

[May/June 2014 UPDATE: In May 15, 2014 the Lake Arrowhead based Mountain News reported that they, "confirmed the pending sale of the 154-acre property to an unidentified Lake Arrowhead resident who has big plans for the property." This has set off much speculation that Santa's Village is coming back. Not to be the bearer of bad news, but however, (please do not throw snowballs at the messenger!) whatever those "big plans for the property" may be it must be pointed out that as of now, based on all the information made available, no firm or clear plans have been made that Santa's Village is coming back for sure.]

[August 2015 UPDATE: According to the San Bernardino Sun, Santa's Village will NOT be opening up in 2015. The current owners of the site have, quite frankly, not made it entirely clear just what the plans will be.]

LAKE ARROWHEAD - There was a time not too long ago in Southern California when Christmas and Santa Claus hung around all year long. Even if you never saw Santa Claus in the middle of spring chances are you knew from a charming commercial where you could find the jolly man in Southern California.

Many people who grew up here in the land of sunshine, freeways and palm trees probably remember a time in Southern California television history when "the independents," KTLA-TV, KHJ-TV/KCAL-TV, KTTV-TV and KCOP-TV, seemingly filled their morning or afternoon programming with cartoons. For those just coming of age it may be hard to believe such channels that now fill our airwaves with pathetic paternity results with inane insults once gave us great vintage cartoons that can no longer be found on television, and not even on the Cartoon Network. It seemed KTLA and KHJ aired cartoons in the morning; most memorable was Tom Hatten hosting Popeye cartoons on KTLA every morning, while KTTV and KCOP had the afternoon for cartoons.

Between all these cartoons was a very memorable commercial that seemed to air during every commercial break, a jolly ad for Santa's Village.

Even up until the the tip of the mid-1990s as morning and afternoon cartoons were waning on local television you can be assured there was an advertisement for, "Santa's Village, in the colorful San Bernardino Mountains on Highway 18, just 30 minutes north of San Bernardino."

It seemed the very same advertisement was aired for many years, and the only change probably ever made in their timeless commercial was the removal of "714" and replacing it with "909" in their listed telephone number.

The park was just a bit older than Disneyland, opening six weeks before the new Anaheim theme park in late May 1955.

A 1960s era pamphlet for Santa's Village. No copyright infringement intended; shown for educational and historical purposes only.

The owners of Santa's Village have quite the story of their own.

J. "Putty" Putnam Henck, a graduate of University of California at Berkley with a degree in engineering, moved to Skyforest, just outside of Lake Arrowhead, in 1923 with his wife, Mary.

Mr. Henck made very good use of his degree when he devised a plan to bring water and electricity to the then very rural San Bernardino Mountain town in the 1920s. Subsequently, Mr. Henck helped open up the first sheriff's and fire station in town.

While Mr. Henck brought water and power to town Mary Henck brought education to the then rural outpost of Lake Arrowhead by opening the first schoolhouse in the mountain community. Today a middle school is named after Ms. Henck in Lake Arrowhead.

In 1954 the Hencks, along with developer H. Glenn Holland who developed other Santa' Villages in Santa Cruz and outside Chicago, began construction on the Christmastime theme park in Skyforest.

For many years the quaint theme park was run by the couple and, according to Mr. Henck in a 2006 interview with the Los Angeles Times, at its height Santa's Village brought in 180,000 visitors a year.

The theme park was designed for children as perhaps the most thrilling ride offered was probably the Sled Ride, but nonetheless it was a charming, vividly colored theme park featuring a petting zoo and giving young visitors the chance to actually see and pet "Santa's reindeer." Best of all, you can go to Santa's Village, visit Santa Claus and have Christmas fun in the middle of July.

Santa's Village represented some of the last theme parks where imagination reined.

The place where Mr. Kris Kringle visited when he was away from the North Pole closed in early 1998.

Mr. Henck cited increased competition from newer rides at Knott's Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain. The said increased competition came in the way of faster, "extreme" rides that the Hencks could neither afford, financially and logistically, nor did they want to add such attractions to their park and risk ruining what they originally envisioned.

After Santa's Village closed Mr. Henck remained active in the Lake Arrowhead community showing up at events and local political hearings.

In January of 2010 Mr. Henck past on at the age of 91.

Today remnants of Santa's Village still remains amid a construction company that has taken its place. Still intact are several colorful buildings and the Bumble Bee Monorail line.

If you ask nicely the owner of the construction company may let you walk about the premises and explore a piece of Southern California history "that isn't here anymore."

Of course, how could this story run without showing the commercial! For anybody who grew up in Southern California here is the commercial that seen to run during every afternoon commercial break.

Well, somebody was kind enough to share this found home video footage of Santa's Village.

Santa Claus in Santa Barbara 

Speaking of all things Santa Claus in Southern California, anybody remember Santa Claus Lane in Carpinteria near Santa Barbara? In particular, who remembers the big Santa atop of the building right off U.S. Route 101?

Santa Claus Lane was perhaps a condensed version of Santa's Village and was an Americana roadside attraction offering great date shakes and a miniature train ride through the premises. Of course the highlight of Santa Claus Lane for any child was the toy store.

Postcard of Santa Claus Lane in Capinteria. No copyright infringement intended; shown for educational and historical purposes only.

Created by the McKeon family as a roadside attraction in 1948 Santa Claus Lane started out with a Post Office and a juice shop, which served very popular date shakes, and of course, there was Jolly Santa Claus all 23 feet high to greet motorists along the 101. By 1956 there were two more businesses added, Toyland, which was always popular with children, and Santa's Kitchen. In its early years other attractions were added such as a merry-go-round, and perhaps the most memorable attraction, aside from Toyland, was the miniature train. 

Located just outside of Carpinteria the small area was soon given the named Santa Claus, California, as a play on the many city names in the Golden State that have "Santa" in their name. With a Post Office on site those sending letters to Santa's workshop in the North Pole, or to North Pole, Alaska, could have their letters postmarked with, "Santa Claus, California."

The best date shakes this side of the North Pole, a train ride, and a toy store, what more could a kid want!

Well, all things must change, and the 1970s seemed to mark the start of dark times for roadside attractions, and "Santa Claus, California" would prove no exception. By the 1980s the festive place off the 101 had become rundown with empty storefronts, and by 1984 even the popular miniature train was no longer running. There were a few modest efforts in the 1980s and 1990s, such as remodeling and repainting, to modernize the storefronts and businesses, and this as Toyland and the place to get great date shakes hung on into the late 1990s.

As the 1980s and 1990s wore on the Santa Barbara area further posed itself to be "The Hamptons of the West" and the 23-feet tall Santa Claus was becoming a tacky thorn in the side of city and county planners, along with wealthy developers. It was becoming clear in the 1990s that Santa's days overlooking drivers on the 101 would be coming to an end.

In 2002 Carpinteria city officials along with Santa Barbara County Supervisors, amid some debate to save Santa, decided to do away with the Jolly Old Saint Nick who greeting commuters along the 101 for many decades, deeming it, well, too tacky.

Of course it has been said that even Santa works in strange ways, and perhaps that is true as the big guy in the red suit still greets drivers along the 101, only this time a little bit south from a lot in Oxnard where he has been since 2003.

Here is Santa sitting in a lot in Oxnard. No copyright infringement intended; shown for educational and historical purposes only.

A date shake sounds good now. No copyright infringement intended; shown for educational and historical purposes only.

Today Santa Claus Lane remains as a street name, and it is really the only memory of what once stood there as "Santa Claus, California" is not even so much a shell of its former self, but rather all the stores have been repainted, remodeled and replaced with offerings reflecting the "Santa Barbara taste."

It would seem Santa Claus now stays in The North Pole all year long as Santa's Village and Santa Claus Lane are places in Southern California that are no longer here (as are afternoon cartoons on L.A. broadcast television), but they made for great memories for those who were lucky enough to experience it.

*Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 24, 2010 on the editor's now defunct news-blog site, Southern California News Wire.

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