A couple of years before Rick Titus landed the role of Kris Kringle at Theatre Cedar Rapids, a little girl in a Cedar Falls restaurant asked him if he was Santa.
“She looks over at me and her eyes got really big and she whispered, ‘Santa Claus is behind us.’ (Her) mom turned around and said, ‘Oh no, no, no.’ I got quite a chuckle out of that,” Titus says. Thinking he’d better live up to her expectations, he gave the child a smile.
Now that he’s playing the role for real, he’s finding plenty of reasons to smile. Titus, 61, of Cedar Rapids, is preparing to step into some mighty big boots for “Miracle on 34th Street,” opening Friday (11/29) and playing through Dec. 21.
Since the “no-shave November” beard that fooled the little girl had been shorn, he started re-growing his whiskers the moment his stint in the Follies ended last April, so he could look the part for auditions.
Now he’s sporting a full faceful that sparks questions from his coworkers at CRST, where he works his magic in the facilities department by day. He’s in at 5:30 a.m., off at 2 p.m. and home by 2:30 p.m., ready for a nap that will give him the stamina for evening rehearsals and performances. He’s also steering clear of people with colds.
He’s been prepping in other ways, too, since landing the role in September. He’s been watching his favorite 1947 film version and listening to Christmas music on his iPod all morning, one day a week to build up his tolerance for the tunes and to put himself in a festive mood.
Titus maintains his holly, jolly attitude at rehearsals by imagining the best present Santa gave the characters in their youth, befitting the people they became.
“It gives me a reason to smile,” he says. “It’s just a tool for me — it doesn’t mean anything to anybody else — but it puts me in the right frame of mind, keeps me light and happy and gives me an immediate connection to everybody, whether I like them or not. Some of the characters in this show definitely were on my naughty list.”
- “Miracle on 34th Street”
- Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
- Friday (11/29) to Dec. 21; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sundays and Saturday (11/30)
- Tickets: $15 to $35, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
- Extras: Kid photos with Santa, 1 p.m. Dec. 8 and 15, $10 with matinee ticket; several performances benefit area nonprofits
- More info: Theatrecr.org
Both Titus and director Leslie Charipar love the spirit that’s unwrapped as Kris Kringle’s identity and sanity are put on trial.
“The appeal to me — and I think it’s true for everyone — is the element of magic at Christmastime, or anytime,” says Charipar, 46, of Cedar Rapids. “The older we get, the less magic we have in our lives. So just the idea that Santa is living and working among us and he exists — and nobody can say he doesn’t — is that magic.
“I can still feel what it felt like to come down the stairs on Christmas morning and see the stockings full and the presents under the tree and the cookies eaten and the glass of milk drunk, and that, to me, was magic. Honestly, the older I get the more I miss that,” she says. “I just wish that Santa would come to my house every year.”
She had “a handful” of men read for the role, and found the physical and emotional qualities she was looking for in Titus, an actor who brings five decades of experience to the stage.
“I do believe we got the perfect Santa in Rick Titus,” she says. “He is so lovely in this role. He’s a really good actor and so smart. It’s a joy to have someone who knows theater so well. It’s as big a role as I’ve seen him in, and he’s just charming — he’s so likeable.”
That’s the key to making believers out of everyone onstage and in the audience.
“(Kringle) has to be likeable. It would be awful if we had an unlikeable Santa,” Charipar says. “What I loved about the movie was there’s a real gentleness to him and there’s a humility to him that I think is especially relevant right now. He’s not running around telling everybody he’s Santa. There’s a bit of vulnerability because he’s discouraged by the commercialism that has hijacked his Christmas.”
The actor also has to look the part, she says, noting she wanted someone who could look frail when his character was being attacked, as well as someone small enough to blend into a crowd.
For Titus, it’s most important for his Kringle to be “very, very caring.”
“The root thing of this person is that he cares about everybody, and that’s what’s bugging him at the very beginning,” Titus says. “He cares about Christmas, he cares about the kids — the most important thing is that the kids are happy. Who sells the toys doesn’t make any difference.”
That’s why Kringle, when he’s working as the Macy’s department store Santa, sends parents to other stores to find the toys they can’t find at Macy’s. That’s an endearing and undoing act that sets all the conflict in motion.
“That caring, to me, is THE central element,” Titus says, “and he just really enjoys people.”
At Kringle’s lowest moments, the believers keep him going — the little Dutch girl who tells Santa she doesn’t need anything, since being adopted was gift enough; the lawyer Fred Gailey, who seeks to prove Kringle is the real Santa; and Susan Walker, the child raised as an unbeliever, who discovers the truth twinkling behind the beard.
It’s a play for all family members, from the smallest believers to the adults in the audience.
“Here’s the deal,” Charpiar says. “It is only the grownups — and the nasty grownups, honestly — that are suggesting that Santa doesn’t exist. From the get-go, Santa exists. And so the kids in the audience who believe in Santa will sit there and go, ‘Yes he does, oh I know he does,’ and they’ll be right. Just like I do every day. Oh yes he does.”
What about the older kids who are questioning his existence?
“One of the things I like about this movie is that it asks the very question those kids are asking,” she says. “It is proven in movie and in the play that Santa exists, based on this legitimate thing, which is the U.S. Post Office. At that point, they can walk away and decide for themselves, based on evidence that’s presented in the very courtroom that’s in the play.”
Her wish is that everyone leaves the theater with a heightened belief.
“I hope they take a little piece of that holiday magic with them,” she says. “That parents go home and make Santa’s visit just a little more special this year and maybe try and grab one more year of Santa for their kids.”
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