Other Duties as Assigned
James Tandy Ellis, noted columnist, poet, author, raconteur, and the 26th Adjutant General of Kentucky, 1915 – 1919, took on the most challenging and secretive mission of his life in 1926, his identity and involvement in the mission would remain a secret for nearly forty-five years, until the story finally appeared in the pages of the December 19, 1971 edition of The Courier-Journal Magazine.
To begin with, a little background information is needed. While doing research on the Adjutant Generals of Kentucky, I came across this story. The article, telling the behind-the-scenes events of the six weeks leading up to Christmas 1926, was written by retired Louisville newspaperman, Malcolm Bayley. Mr. Bayley worked for The Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times, and during the holiday season of 1926, was put in charge of the Reindeer project.
The Louisville newspaper business in the 1920’s was very competitive, editors would try anything to sell papers. In 1926, the Louisville Times and Courier-Journal newspaper, in one of their promotional schemes to sell more newspapers, bought eight tiny reindeer from the Lomen brothers of Alaska. The Lomen’s would supply a team of Alaskan reindeer with an Eskimo, who cared for the animals and was Santa’s driver.
One of the first difficulties Mr. Bayley had to overcome was finding someone to play the part of Santa. He was unable to find anyone local and hesitated on hiring someone from outside the area. He finally contacted his old friend James Tandy Ellis of Ghent, Kentucky. General Ellis was something of a public figure at the time, and was somewhat hesitant to play the role. Bayley was finally able to sell him on the idea by promising to keep his identity secret, keeping his public appearances to a minimum, and finally by paying him a bigger salary than Bayley was receiving.
Throughout his entire performance as Santa, General Ellis remained incognito. Each morning, the General would arrive at the costumer’s shop, where he would be dressed in a back room. He would then take a taxi to Santa Claus Park for that day’s activities.
The schedule for Santa, his Eskimo, and the reindeer were to be on exhibition every evening till Christmas Eve and all day on Saturdays and Sundays. On weekdays they visited schools in the Louisville-Jefferson County and Southern Indiana area.
On November 20, 1926, Santa made his grand entrance into Louisville during the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. On this their first appearance, Bayley relates the following story: The team was hitched up by Topkuk, our Eskimo, and Santa climbed aboard. The calliope started playing and off we went—or should have. The darn reindeer wouldn’t pull the harness! Mr. Lomen hadn’t told us about this. They weren’t even broken to a halter. But Topkuk was equal to the emergency. He took the reins, attached them to the lead deer’s’ halters, and literally dragged deer, sleigh, Santa Claus and all about 20 miles up and down the streets of Louisville until they reached the corral.
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blitzen had a lot more fancy names before they reached home base—some of them uttered in choicest—but fortunately not understandable—Eskimo.
Before making another trip, Bayley came up with the idea of hiring scenery flat, a 40-foot long truck used to haul theatrical scenery for road companies. He had constructed on the flat a winter scene complete with Eskimo igloo. Mounted on the flat, Santa, Eskimo, reindeer and sleigh could be whisked over the country in no time.
In his narrative, Bayley states that at one point General Ellis nearly walked out on him, on out-of-town engagements, Santa and his helper drove into town in the mounted sleigh, in all their glory, and drove out the same way. When the weather was biting cold Bayley would stop outside of the town and let Santa ride in the heated car with him. He continues, We were a little late pulling out of Seymour, Indiana one afternoon and was anxious to make Bedford and the high school there by 4 p.m. All the grammar-school kids in town would be waiting for us, packed into the gymnasium. We had one brief stop scheduled on the way to Bedford, at Brownstown, 13 miles out of Seymour.
I was in so much of a hurry that I had driven six miles out of town before I remembered that we had left Santa in the sleigh. I stopped and he clambered down slowly. As he approached with half-frozen, stiff-legged gait I could see he was not the same jolly, good-natured fellow who had left half Seymour laughing and waving good-by. Something more than the keen wind seemed to make him more red-faced than usual. Actually he was so cold and his face so stiff that it was 15 minutes before he could limber up his tongue and lips sufficiently to curse me out in round Kentucky oaths.
Needless to say Santa refused to appear at Brownstown and Topkuk, the Eskimo had to stand in. The General did not fully forgive Mr. Bayley for this incident until that evening when Bayley managed to get the General a dish of spareribs and sauerkraut for his dinner.
General Ellis played Santa up to the 24th day of December, when he handed out toys to 3,000 children at the Strand Theatre in Louisville, during Santa’s Party hosted by The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times.
In speaking of General Ellis’ performance as Santa, Mr Bayley had this to say, The old boy could handle a crowd like a swamp-root doctor in a medicine show. He had the kids eating out of his hand. At every school they crowded around him to hear his stories. They would even desert the Eskimo and the reindeer to hear him.
The identity of the 1926 Santa remained the secret of Mr. Bayley until his article in 1971, thirty years after the death of his good friend, James Tandy Ellis.
And what is the morale of this story? Beware, you Adjutant Generals of Kentucky of old friends begging favors, especially during the holiday season.