Don’t tell the toddlers, but the Santa at the Cincinnati Zoo’s annual Festival of Lights isn’t really Kris Kringle. It’s Robert Weidle, a fixture on the community theater scene here for decades.

Weidle’s varied roles include performances with the Showboat Majestic, the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, Footlighters, La Comedia Dinner Theatre and other venues. As a vocalist, he’s sung with Patti LaBelle and various Cincinnati Pops concerts. His day job is with the
Clermont County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

In his St. Nicholas gig, Weidle has had more kids sit on his lap than there are reindeer at the North Pole. Here, he offers up backstage gossip and insider wisdom.

How long have you been the Cincinnati Zoo’s Santa?

I have been the Zoo’s Santa for the past two years. Before that, I was the entertainment supervisor for the Festival of Lights for eight years. My producer, Lonna Kingsbury of Kingsbury Productions, had seen me perform in the musical Children of Eden, in which I had a full white beard. She asked me if I would consider being Santa and I said sure and that is how my job as Santa for the Zoo came about.

Have you played Santa at other places?

Yes, I have. Many years ago, I was the Santa for Beechmont Mall and also for Eastgate Mall.

What inspired you to do this?

Well, being an actor is how I got into this in the first place. Back in the late ‘80s, I had an agent who asked me if I would be interested in playing Santa for Beechmont Mall. My son was ready to be born and I needed the extra money, so I said sure. And I was hooked. It is truly one of the best acting jobs I have had in my life. That was 21 years ago, and I have played Santa off and on since then.

When do you start preparing for the
Festival of Lights?

I start growing my beard in May of each year.

Do you have tips for how “amateurs” can play Santa at holiday parties and such? The dos and don’ts?

Well, first, try to have a decent Santa costume. The ones made out of cheap material do not work well. Also, I suggest using a pre-made Santa belly if you are not of the appropriate size. Using a pillow stuffed in the pants just doesn’t get it. And make sure your beard stays up on your face. No one wants to see a bad bearded Santa. And I have seen hundreds.

Do you own your own costume, or is it the Zoo’s?

I do own my own custom-made Santa suit. My friend Dan Phares designed and made my costume when I became the Zoo’s Santa.

Who is Mrs. Claus, and how long has she been doing it?

My Mrs. Claus at the Zoo is Cathy Wedding from Milford. She has been our Mrs. Claus for five years. Cathy has worked the Festival of Lights as a caroler and other characters for about 10 years.

What’s the most memorable/sentimental moment you remember while doing Santa?

One year, there was a lady who was 92 years old. Her name was Mabel. Some of her nurse aides brought her to see Santa. She told me she had her picture taken with Santa for many, many years and she was not going to stop ‘till she was called home. She wanted to sit on my lap and, of course, I said sure. Her aides picked her up and sat her on my lap; she only weighed about 80 pounds. We chatted for quite a while. They took our photo and she said she was tired and had to go back home. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and thanked me for being so nice.

She brought tears to my eyes. All I could think of was the lyrics to “The Christmas Song”: “And so I’m offering this simple phrase, to kids from one to 92.” Three days later, one of Mabel’s nurse aides came back to tell me she had passed away holding her photo of her and Santa. Her aide told me the last three days of her life, all she talked about was spending time with Santa on his lap. I will never forget Mabel as long as I live.

— Felix Winternitz