MEADVILLE — He refused.
“Santa is for children,” he told her.
Then Miller played a little dirty pool, she asked him to reconsider in front of his wife. Mary had no part of Eldridge’s argument. She and Miller convinced him to do it. Eldridge said he would but only if he could play Santa for the children in between his stops, if he could become a “roving Santa” walking all over town and playing Santa for everyone he encountered.
Once committed to the role, his mind started churning.
“Let’s get a picture of Santa in the Tribune, on the front page, inviting everyone to town for a hometown Christmas,” he told Miller. It was in the day of black and white photos, but they pitched the idea to the paper in color. The publisher at the time, Bob Smith, hesitated. “He sat back in his chair in the office at the Tribune and began to roll his cigar around his mouth with his fingers, then he leaned forward and said — let’s do it!”
Light-up night was born.
After that night in the mid-1980s Eldridge officially started the holiday season in Meadville by lighting the tree in Diamond Park and leading a parade to a location, sometimes the Downtown Mall, sometimes @ the Bank, where he would greet children who would sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas.
“There were so many wonderful encounters; sometimes the adults loved Santa as much as the kids. It’s a beautiful life!” said Eldridge as recalled his years of being Santa.
That life came to an end yesterday, more than 20 years after he first donned a Santa suit and began the process of growing a beard he didn’t even, like year after year. He grew it, beginning from scratch every May 1 just to play Santa.