Reopened Santa's Village feeds nostalgia

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Santa's Village Azoosment Park

Aricelia Mendez, 6, of Rockford, waves to her Aunt while riding the Roto Whip ride at Santa's Village Azoosement Park in East Dundee. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune / August 14, 2012)

It is probably not accurate and certainly not provable to say Phil Wenz willed Santa's Village back into being. But it's not a crazy thing to believe either.

After the northwest suburban amusement park closed in May 2006, Wenz helped organize the auction of the assets. He kept an office on the premises and served as administrator of the property, which quickly maneuvered to rejoin the wild prairie, plants growing around and into those assets — rides, vehicles, the vaguely Seussian buildings — that hadn't been sold.

“Mother Nature took it back over,” Wenz recalls. “There were weeds all over the property. The buildings were empty. It was basically a ghost town. And it was one of those things where that, of anything, was very sad to see.”

He did historical research to write a picture-heavy book, “Santa's Village,” from Arcadia Publishing's “Images of America” series. He contributed the foreword to another, Christopher Dearman's “Santa's Village Gone Wild!” a self-published, not-as-racy-as-it-sounds collection of former employees' reminiscences about backstage doings at the park during its decades as a hotbed of teen employment and, therefore, teen behavior.

And more days than not — 200 a year, he says — Wenz still spent a couple of morning hours putting on makeup, gluing on one of the $1,500 white beard-and-wig get-ups he carefully maintains, surrounding himself with the foam padding, the red suit, the belt, the boots.

And he went and made his corporate and charity appearances as “Santa from Santa's Village,” just as he'd been doing since making his first appearance there in 1986, at age 23. He did so even when the place seemed most likely to remain on the lengthening list of shuttered independent parks, their vintage charm no match for video games or the mega parks that can advertise ferociously, usually touting something like a new roller coaster named after a blockbuster movie character.

Wenz, now 49, knew that story line from the Chicago area alone: Riverview Park, its memory guarded like an heirloom in Chicago, is now a shopping mall, police station and college campus south of Lane Tech High School. Adventureland, in present-day Bloomingdale, now hosts the Scottish Rite Cathedral, a headquarters building for Freemasons. Kiddieland, in Melrose Park, held on longer than the others, but not long enough to avoid turning into a Costco.

All of them have a powerful pull on people's memories, testament to the way these fantasy lands make themselves larger than life. East Dundee, however, is not the North Side of the city or even Melrose Park. Located, roughly speaking, midway between Schaumburg and corn fields, it's a place where retail chains can find the space to build big boxes almost anywhere. And so the land sat there, even as Wenz did not.

“With this park, even when it was closed, the name never died,” says Wenz. “We did tons of book signings. There was a lot of legwork we did just to keep these opportunities open, to keep the name before the public.”

Now there is, once again, a park bearing the “Santa's Village” name operating on the property, like some ridiculous thing you whisper into Santa's ear that somehow turns up under the Christmas tree. And Wenz, once again, spends his early mornings getting into character in his office above the gift shop and spends his days in Santa's House in the park, greeting a new generation of visitors to the place, which first re-opened in late 2010. It's been renamed “Santa's Village AZoosment Park” to reflect a focus on younger kids and the live animals brought in by new owner Jason Sierpien, who had his own memories from working there as a teenager and again during the last season the park was open, when it contracted with him to supply the animals.

The iconic Snowball ride isn't there anymore, a carousel in its place. The Polar Dome ice arena, which used to host Blackhawks practices, is now home to an indoor battlefield in Paintball Explosion, a separate business that occupies half of the almost 40-acre property, including most of the area that was devoted to older-kid rides in the later-years land expansion of the first Santa's Village.

Still, to Wenz, enough things are the same that “it's kind of a deja-vu-type thing in many ways, and there's also times that it's like the park never closed. It just got a makeover,” he says.

“People thought, ‘Phil's got this pipe dream.' Well, here I am sitting in Santa's Village once again.”

It is an unlikely story, says Pam Turlow, and that's why she chose it to end her own book, “The Cotton Candy Road Trip,” a chronicle of visits to more than 40 such vintage parks across America.

The Elmhurst resident was spending a hot July morning touring the reborn park in its second full summer of operation, remembering the visit she made last September to bring her book full circle from her first park visit, to Kiddieland at the start of the season (2009) that would be its last.

In the book, which Turlow published herself (Amazon and cottoncandyroadtrip.com), she called the Santa's Village rebirth “a type of Christmas miracle.” Parks close quite a bit; rarely do they reopen.

Sitting on a bench by the entrance during her follow-up visit, she describes Santa's Village as “a beautiful representation of the Santa-themed park from the '50s. The architecture is Tyrolean, but yet it's bigger-than-life. It's Tyrolean from a little kid's eyes.”

She's wearing little ferris-wheel earrings, specifically the Wonder Wheel from Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park at Coney Island in New York City, says Turlow, 49, a voice actor who has been nominated for top awards in audio book reading.

Storybook and Santa themes were big when the new highway system led to a boom in roadside attractions in the 1950s. Santa was especially good because he has all the name recognition of a licensed character without those pesky licensing fees.

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