AN INDEPENDENT CLAUS

REPORTERS BETTER WATCH OUT. THEY BETTER NOT POUT. SANTA CLAUS HAS COME TO TOWN.

Daylight inventory of the holiday items decorating the Denver City and County Building:

Three miles of lights, unlit.
Several hundred yards of faux-pine garland strung through green chain-link anti-vandal fencing.

Six red faux-velvet bows, two lopsided.
One neon angel, blowing horn.
Two large, slightly listing nutcracker men supporting arch.

One Tuff Shed, topped with modest wooden cross, padlocked tightly, allegedly filled with Nativity personnel.

Second Tuff Shed, topped with life-sized stuffed chicken, also padlocked, allegedly filled with elves.

Two video surveillance cameras.
Six five-foot-tall light-up Frosties (two more lurk inside City Hall), severe stick-figure features, overall hostile mien. Gulag snowmen?

One old-fashioned Santa, possibly made of plaster, flying through air in sled crammed with presents tied with real ribbon. Sleigh is pulled by three reindeer, foremost of which has red light bulb crammed sideways into his mouth like the stub of a cheroot.

One retired Santa, made of flesh and blood, filled with opinions.
"There ought to be eight tiny reindeer," Andrew Hudson, current press secretary to Mayor Wellington Webb and former Santa-for-hire, points out. "I'm still trying to figure out what happened to the other five. And you see Rudolph's nose? It's running on a 220-volt circuit. You mess with Rudolph, you get zapped."

Since he became a mouthpiece for the mayor last month, the 28-year-old Hudson also has made it his business to keep an eye out for any potential threats to Rudolph. Two years ago, under another press secretary's watch, the lead reindeer was kidnapped. "The video cameras actually filmed the theft," Hudson says, "but it happened so fast, it was a blur." Still, he feels certain it had something to do with local DJs Lewis and Floorwax--and keeping the media from messing with City Hall's inhabitants is now one of his prime responsibilities.

In the meantime, Hudson casts a critical eye over the rest of the scene, a strange commingling of the religious and the commercial that's designed to keep atheists from doing their dog-in-the-manger bit. The Frosties leave him cold, and the Nativity scene contains "not three wisemen but three wisepersons, which is politically correct." Hudson's favorite part of the whole display is Santa. "But I'm biased," he adds. "I worked in Santa land."

Six years ago, after graduating from the University of Colorado, Hudson was playing the electric bass in the pit orchestra of the Boulder Dinner Theatre, hoping to be called up by the Peace Corps and looking for part-time work.

"I auditioned as a tuba-playing Santa," he recalls, "and I got the job as one of the six Crossroads Mall Santas. When I wasn't talking to kids, sometimes I just sat there and played Christmas carols." After those wore thin, he occasionally threw in some Charlie Parker--and when a nearby coffeeshop owner announced that she was ready to shove the tuba down his throat, he came up with a breezy reply. "I told her I was putting a lump of coal in her stocking," he remembers.

But other petitioners left him tongue-tied. "A forty-year-old woman sat on my lap and pinched my butt," Hudson relates. "I wasn't about to ask her what she really wanted for Christmas."

With children, Hudson was more forthcoming, delivering the story of "Rudolph's brother Randy, who filled in when Rudolph had to go on Larry King." With teenagers, Hudson adopted a take-no-prisoners stance. "Well, they were throwing pennies at my tuba," he explains. "I bet it was the first and last time they were ever flipped off by Santa."

Despite his admittedly eccentric approach to the job, at the end of Hudson's two-month season he was voted Boulder County Santa of the Year by the Crossroads Mall merchants, who presented him with a $50 mall gift certificate. Hudson donated his prize to the Salvation Army--and dumped the Santa act altogether. "By the time it was over," he adds, "I was positive I would never be Santa again. There were always a few clods among the parents; you had to go through this whole makeup deal, with white frost in your eyebrows; and every night, you had to put curlers in your beard and wig. That sucked. That wasn't very neat."

Hudson's next day job was neat, if unpaid: He volunteered at then-senator Tim Wirth's office. Deciding against the Peace Corps, he went on to become Wirth's deputy press secretary in Washington, D.C., returning to Denver when Wirth retired in 1992. Public-relations stints with the CU Conference on World Affairs and RTD followed. Hudson did not neglect his music, either. Recognizing the value of a former tuba-playing Santa, local yodeler Brunnhilda hired him for her band, the Oom-pah-pahs. "I traveled the state with her, drinking dark beer and wearing lederhosen," Hudson admits. Next month, in a bit of a cultural shift, he will play bass with Pao Brazil at Vartan Jazz.

But of all his varied work experiences, his stint as Santa may come in handiest at Hudson's new gig. After all, reporters are always asking for something--and he's now in the position of deciding who's been naughty or nice.

It's a tough job. But then, playing Santa has its perils, too. "Do you remember last year, when someone threatened to assassinate Santa?" Hudson asks. "Did you believe that? That really upset me. I believe that Santa Claus is one of the greatest Christmas traditions.

"Besides," he adds, "he's the most popular guy at the mall.

 
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