The man behind Santa

George Heid with his daughter Heidi, circa 1951. (Courtesy of Jim Heid)

Local singer, master of ceremonies and music recorder George Heid supplied the voice of Santa in department store windows

The baritone laugh booms out of the scratchy recording. “Hello, everybody! From station S-A-N-T-A, this is Santa Claus himself greeting you this way.”

A 1944 Frank & Seder Christmas audio recording featuring George Heid as Santa Claus and instrumental orchestra music. (George Heid Sound Recordings, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center)

Downtown shoppers nationwide, but especially in Pittsburgh, heard Santa’s voice rumbling from department store Christmas display windows in the 1940s. Local performer and producer George Heid provided that voice and loved the work, performing as Santa in many charity benefits and a Wilkinsburg parade.

George Heid with recording equipment, October 1955. (Post-Gazette Archives)

Heid  with his widow’s peak, small moustache and dazzling white smile — even appeared on Paul Shannon’s “Adventure Time” children’s TV show, which ran locally from 1958 to 1979 on WTAE. Heid, dressed as Santa and standing in a set made to look like a child’s idea of the North Pole, read children’s letters to Santa and acted the part.

When the Post-Gazette recently published a story about the city’s history of Downtown department stores, the online version of the report included recordings Heid had made for the holiday window displays of some of those long-gone stores — places like Kaufmann’s, Horne’s and Frank & Seder. James “Jim” Heid, 62, now of Albion, Calif., posted a comment on the story about his father’s rich Pittsburgh career.

As Christmas rapidly approaches, it seemed a good moment to explore the story of the man behind the voice that generations of shoppers likely heard as they were fighting holiday crowds in the busy streets of the Steel City in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Heid was program manager of local radio stations first at KQV-AM and then KDKA over six years. 

He would later devote himself to his recording studio and broadcast school, producing many recordings of jazz musicians, including Billy Strayhorn and Mary Lou Williams. One of jazz pianist Erroll Garner’s earliest recordings, from 1937, was made at Heid Studios, according to National Public Radio.

Heid loved jazz and working with the musicians who made it, ignoring those who might have felt a white man advocating for Black artists was inappropriate, according to another of his sons, George E. Heid, 74, of Aspinwall.

Even in Pittsburgh, unofficial racial segregation held sway in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s and beyond. “A Black woman couldn’t try on a fur coat at Kaufmann’s made by a Black furrier in the Hill,” the younger Heid said. His father felt differently. “That’s the way he was.”

Rocky start

George Heid's name appeared on this billboard for William Cushman's Orange Grove Revue. (Courtesy of Jim Heid)

The elder Heid’s climb to professional success and family man status had a rocky start decades earlier.

His own father had abandoned the family when George, the youngest of seven, was in his early teens. His mother drove him in 1917 or 1918 from their home in Brooklyn, New York, to the Bay area of California where she had relatives.

Like many children in the early 20th century, he left school after the eighth grade, although family research indicates he may also have briefly attended the University of California, Berkeley.

Right out of school, young George began singing as a chorus boy. At age 20, he landed his first acting gig with William Cushman’s Orange Grove Revue, which traveled up and down the West Coast and as far east as Colorado. “Beautiful Girls Laughs! Laughs! Laughs! Laughs! Laughs! Beautiful Productions New Plays,” read a billboard promoting the group.

A March 8, 1927, review in The Bakersfield Californian said George Heid “plays the bad boy with the spirit of real youth.” (Courtesy of Jim Heid)

He even earned some early media attention. In 1928, the Hanford (Calif.) Morning Journal called George Heid “the master of character actors.”

Those skills helped him land the part of “Uncle Thomas” in a radio program called “Cecil and Sally,” a San Francisco show about two teens that ran from 1928 under the original title “The Funniest Things” until 1933 and was one of the earliest radio programs to be nationally syndicated. (Listen to the episode “Widow Mason Drops-In on Uncle Thomas and Aunt Bess” from May 11, 1931.)

Heid appeared on this undated ''Cecil and Sally'' episode about Cecil finding Uncle Thomas' wallet. (Courtesy of Jim Heid)

When a combination of the Great Depression, radio and the advent of movies with sound largely killed the traveling revue business, Heid got a job on the radio. In 1930, he became the staff announcer for KPO, now KNBR, in San Francisco.

A page from the San Francisco Chronicle from May 25, 1930, describes KPO radio staff members, including George Heid, “an accomplished baritone,” middle row, second from left. (Courtesy of Jim Heid)

He would ride the radio airwaves to different markets across in the U.S. In about 1933, he became manager of KVOA in Tucson, Ariz. Then, at the urging of his friend Dale Jackson, he moved to Pittsburgh in 1935 as the program manager of KQV and KDKA.

Heid opened a recording studio Downtown in 1937, while still holding down his main job. The Pittsburgh Press newspaper called him “one of the best baritones on the air in Pittsburgh.” He was acting, hosting radio shows like “Isaly’s Big Swing” — Isaly’s was a chain of family-owned dairies and restaurants known for its chopped ham and Klondike Bar ice cream treat — and recording emerging jazz stars of the era.

Listen to George Heid host ''Show Biz Quiz,'' a radio program in which critics from the local newspapers tried to answer trivia questions submitted by listeners. (Courtesy of Jim Heid)

His studio started out in the Century Building and then moved to the William Penn Hotel. In addition to jazz music stars, famous clients included Fred Rogers, who recorded in the 1950s the song “I Know It’s Time for Christmas” with Josie Carey, the host of early children’s TV program “Children’s Corner.” Rogers was beginning his TV career in the 1950s working in children’s programming at WQED public TV station.

By 1941, Heid’s recording work had grown to such an extent that he resigned from KDKA. The station may have been taken by surprise. “His successor has not yet been named,” according to a press release.

Freelance Santa

George Heid plays Santa on TV in 1950. (Courtesy of Jim Heid)

Meanwhile, he continued his prolific career as an actor, singer, master of ceremonies, producer and, of course, freelance Santa.

George Heid dressed as Santa in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Jim Heid)

Gardner Displays Co. of Pittsburgh hired him to provide the voice of Santa for its department store Christmas window displays. According to a December 1949 Popular Mechanics magazine article “Santa Claus lives in Pittsburgh,” Gardner had grown from a small sign-painting shop in 1918 to “one of the biggest display outfits in the country” by the time of publication.

“They would send him the plans (for a show) in summer, and my dad would then record a song that would correspond with the movements” of the figures in the window, Jim Heid said in an interview.

One undated script begins:

Reindeer are in quarantine
So I’ll use my limousine (“Honk Honk” is written in the margin)
I’ll deliver all my toys To all (underlined) good girls and boys
Merrily I’ll roll along (Ho Ho Ho)
As I sing my Christmas song

Horne’s, Kaufmann’s, Rosenbaum’s and Frank & Seder as well as department stores in other cities displayed Gardner Christmas windows with Mr. Heid’s voice. His own children knew that his was the voice of Santa in those displays. In that era, such window displays attracted much attention, especially from families with young children, who gathered to await the momentous unveilings.

Though Heid had been married twice, he was still childless as the Depression ended and America went to war in the early 1940s.

George E. Heid of Aspinwall holds the 1940s Santa suit used by his late father George Heid, at his home and recording studio in Aspinwall. (Post-Gazette)

About that time, Margaret Raynak, born in Claridge, Pa., to immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia, walked into his studio to record the songs “Is It True What They Say About Dixie” and “The White Cliffs of Dover” for her brother, who was shipping off for World War II and would be stationed first in the South and then in England. The pair married — Heid at 42 and Raynak at 26 — and had six children.

George Heid's written notes appear in the margins of his script for one Gardner Display production. (Courtesy of Jim Heid)

Another script shows Heid's careful notations for music and laughter in the script. (Courtesy of Jim Heid)

The couple did not shy away from challenges. One of their children, Heidi, born in 1951, had Down syndrome, a genetic disorder associated with physical growth delays, mild to moderate intellectual disability and characteristic facial features. “The pediatrician said, ‘Put her in an institution before you get too attached to her.’”

Jim Heid recalled his father was less than impressed with the doctor. He wanted to “punch him in the nose,” he said.

George Heid acts as Santa in one of his many performances at St. Anthony’s School for Exceptional Children in Oakmont. (Courtesy of Jim Heid)

Instead, he and his wife raised Heidi at home and sent her to St. Anthony’s School for Exceptional Children, which used to stand on Hulton Road between 13th and 15th streets in Oakmont. George Heid immersed himself in the Special Olympics, where he often performed as Santa, and other programs for special needs children.

George Heid performed at St. Anthony’s and would sing “Toyland,” a song that always brought a tear to his eye, according to his son George E. Heid. Heidi would could recognize her father’s voice and would call out, “Daddy!” She died of congenital heart problems at age 16 in 1968.

The voice remained

George Heid's son George E. Heid unpacked his father's Santa suit, complete with sleigh bells, at his Aspinwall home. (Post-Gazette)

Around 1963 or ‘64, when Jim Heid was about 4 years old, his father began repeating himself. It was the first symptom of arterial dementia.

His wife cared for him at their home on Salem Drive in Mt. Lebanon. Once the family took him to the Tic Toc Restaurant inside the Kaufmann’s department store on Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon. “He stood up and sang ‘One Alone,’ and the entire restaurant erupted in applause afterwards,” Jim Heid said.

The sleigh bells that George Heid used as Santa Claus have his handwriting on them. (Post-Gazette)

His memory faded, with tragic results. Once, he said to Jim, “I love you, boy, as if you were my own son.” “And I said,” Jim recalled, “‘I am your son.’ And he burst into tears.”

Even though younger generations of Pittsburghers might have missed the years that Heid was making music and playing Santa to hordes of children, they might still have heard his voice.

The Kennywood amusement park continued to use his recorded chuckles as recently as 2017 as the voice of Laffin’ Saman animatronic character paired with Laffin’ Sal, one of the first animated amusement park figures meant to garner carnival goers’ attention.

George Heid died on Dec. 23, 1973 — just two days before another Christmas.

Laura Malt Schneiderman,