The postcard received two weeks after Christmas displayed a lonely Santa Claus wearily walking along a mist-shrouded deck. Slung Sinatra-like over his right shoulder was the jacket to his Santa attire.
Brief and touching copy accompanied the card:
Bear was Santa for 35 years,
Lots of joy--lots of tears.
His Santa days are over and gone,
But his Santa heart beats on and on.
I met Thomas "Bear" at the San Juan Island Jazz Festival in 1990, 11 years after a group of island Dixie lovers decided to honor the music while doing local merchants a favor. The population then was around 5,000 and isn't much more now. My volunteered first assignment was to co-manage the venue by the ferry dock. Bear was my co-manager and we liked each other immediately in spite of our differing attitudes toward the music; Bear was ardent about Dixie while my tastes were and are more progressive. As a newly-arrived resident, I soon became a member of the Festival board and was instrumental in bringing a Chicago group, the Ellington Dynasty, to the event. Bear, who lived hard by the ferry dock in Mukilteo, volunteered for every fest, originally billed as the San Juan Island Traditional Jazz Festival.
Running four days most of its existence, the event was always held the fourth weekend of July, a wise scheduling based upon knowledge gleaned by one of the original board members who determined that the July dates were the most rain-less in what has become known as "the banana belt." But one day in close to 80 was rained out. Among the features of the event were: a Jumping the Gun Thursday night opening; a Friday afternoon promenade of bands down Spring Street (The Rainbow Lady always led the Parasol Ladies accompanied by jazzers dressed in 1920s fashion); a Saturday morning show for children plus a Sunday morning gospel service.
The Jazz Fest survived but never prospered as Bear and I partnered from 1990 until 2002 when the board decided to end the event. It was a strange decision partly arrived at because but two of 12 board members had any knowledge of or interest in jazz. I was one of the two and a lone voice in keeping the project alive. The Board President, former County Commissioneer and Friday Harbor Mayor Bill LaPorte, wanted to sell off Festival holdings that included a storage home worth about $150,000. The money was used to create scholarships for Friday Harbor high school graduates, certainly a noble cause.
Bear and I ate a lot of hotdogs and drank a bunch of beer as we worked the various venues that for a couple of years included Roche Harbor, like Friday Harbor a postcard pretty place. The bands came from all over and included: the regional Updown Lowdown Jazz Band; Rosie O'Grady's Good Time Jazz Band from Orlando, Florida; and the Palm Springs Yacht Club headed by Conrad Janis, a trombone player whose earlier acting careers were in radio, stage and film.
Bear Keane, whose quick wit suggested he had kissed the Blarney Stone on more than one occasion, often acted as venue emcee. He knew a great deal about the event's regular musicians who more and more tended to come from the Pacific Northwest. Bear and wife Char were inveterate attendees of jazz fests with Jan and I once meeting them in nearby Victoria, B.C. for a few sessions.
During those Festival days inn Friday Harbor an understandable cloud hung over the event and it was early recognition that created name changes. The audience was graying and our T- shirts (each volunteer received one plus free admission to events) began reflecting our consternation. We switched back and forth from calling the music "classic" to the old standy "Dixieland." Meanwhile, according to Dixie fanatics, there occurred far too many "intrusions" of groups who played musical sins including swing. One of the outstanding jazz singers who played the gig was Rebecca Kilgore who came up from Portland leaving musical partner Dave ("Van Lingle Mungo") Frishberg behind. I think that was in 1993 and Kilgore, an enormously appealing singer, has a career in full flight today while appearing at such august watering holdes as Feinstein's in New York.
The Sanders worked out an arrangement with Bear and Char for them to house sitduring trips to such places as Italy, the UK, Spain and Thailand. "The Bears," as we came to call them, loved San Juan Island and we were delighted to have a former member of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms keep a professional eye on the place.
Health problems forced the Sanders to leave Friday Harbor for Bellingham in 2004 but we remained in touch with The Bears who would meet us at various restaurants halfway between Mukilteo and Subdued City. There was always at least one meeting with Bear giving hirsute evidence around August that the Christmas season would agin find him playing Santa Claus. No one played Santa better than Bear, a large man with a perfect demeanor for the role. His belief in the role was just a snowball's circumference this side of Edmund Gwenn's deep conviction in "Miracle on 34th Street."
The Bears began going to Palm Springs for a chunk of winter about 20 years ago and it was that way this year until we received the card displaying a dejected Santa of dispirited gait. It was difficult to believe a Santa of 35 years was no more. I failed to reach Char because of a disconnected phone, then could not connect by e-mail. I turned to the internet, but a search for Mukilteo and Palm Springs obituaries produced nothing. Bear was gone.
But wait, as they say in the infomercial biz. The phone rang the other day and Caller I.D. indicated it was from Thomas Keane. My first thought was that Char would have to change that I.D. I answered and couldn't believe the voice at the other end. It was a boisterous Bear and my thoughts ran to Mark Twain's line about words of his death being highly exaggerated.
Bear's reaction to an obvious question was that "like at least nine others," neither Jan nor I hadd read the Santa card correctly. "His Santa days now over and gone, but his Santa heart beats on and on." Santa's are much better at ho-ho-hoing rather than rhyme-rhyme-rhyming.
The Sanders and at least nine others had been had by a waggish Santa. We'll meet soon at, maybe, Burlington Bob's and rejoice midst some understandable snickering by The Bears. Perhaps Bear, who has lost a lot of weight the past couple of years and appears rather svelte-like, later this year will return in a reincarnation of sorts: Peter Pan
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