Psst: Want to know the real truth about Santa and his favorite elf? Rumor has it they’re often seen around town — especially in December — in the company of Minneapolis storyteller Mike Mann, 69, and St. Paul actor Kevin Dutcher, 57.
If you want to check it out for yourself, head to the Lyndale Avenue location of Bachman’s, the family-owned floral, gift and garden center.
In Bachman’s colorful poinsettia-filled greenhouse, you can see the store’s holiday play. More than 13,000 Minnesotans see the free play every year.
Although Mr. Claus and his employees were not available for comment, Mann and Dutcher agreed to sit down for an interview. They talked about the rich tradition of the show, the power of storytelling in children’s lives, and why neither one of them ever, ever gets sick of Christmas.
Once upon a time, Mann was asked by the 50th and France business association to be Santa.
“I turned the job down,” he said. “I just wasn’t comfortable with the commercialization that was associated with the role of Santa. Then a friend suggested, ‘Go see how they do it at Bachman’s.’”
So he attended a performance by Dutcher and Dick Holmberg — the previous Bachman’s Santa, who retired about 10 years ago and passed away last year.
“They were fleshing out the story in such a unique way,” Mann said, “so I went back and said I’d take the job at 50th and France.”
During that stint, Santa told stories during carriage rides, and children were asked to get into the spirit of the season by bringing gifts for the St. Joseph’s Home for Children. Mann followed up that successful gig with a stint at Nordstrom at the Mall of America, where, for a time, he held the traditional Santa-on-the-lap-posing-for-photos role.
But in an example of classic storytelling come to life, one day something unexpected happened — a power failure. In the dim light of the now-dark Nordstrom store, there was no way to have a photo taken with Santa.
Armed with nothing more than his imagination and ability to capture a crowd’s attention, Mann started sharing North Pole stories with the restless holiday crowd.
In a scene right out of Miracle on 34th Street, a supervisor from the Nordstrom Chicago office happened to see the potential chaos turned into calm through the power of Mann’s captivating storytelling. Impressed, she insisted that from then on, the Nordstrom Santa would tell stories.
And so it went, storytelling Christmas after storytelling Christmas. Mann was very happy with his job, until one year a salesperson at Nordstrom mentioned that the Santa at Bachman’s was retiring.
“I beat a trail there as quickly as I could,” Mann said, remembering the quality of the performance he had witnessed years earlier. “It was the only place that could get me to leave Nordstrom.”
This year will be Mann’s 10th season as Santa at Bachman’s, which encourages free U-take photos with Santa immediately following each play performance.
Mann loves that the entire event is free, not just the photos.
“This play,” he said, “is Bachman’s gift to the community.”
Mann, who lives in South Minneapolis with his wife of 40 years, Vicki, is a relative newcomer to the Santa scene.
For 24 years, he was a baker at Woulett Bakery. Inspired to begin telling stories at home during one of his children’s “Turn Off the TV” weeks at school, Mann soon found he had a passion for narratives.
In 1996, he quit his job and started a business telling stories in elementary schools and preschools. And he’s still at it today.
“Those preschoolers are Santa’s people,” he said. “They’re the most honest audience you’ll ever have, because if you don’t engage them, they’ll go find something else to do.”
Mann’s Mike the Baker performances are booked year-round at area schools, making him a rockstar among the 5-and-younger set. (Learn more at storymann.com.)
The father of four adult children (Jennifer, Laura, John and Timothy), Mann is also a grandfather of four, all of whom refer to him as Grandpa Santa.
“The youngest grandkids are 9-year-old twins,” he said. “They’re at a magical age where they understand the full story
of Santa and the truth behind it.”
The true meaning of Christmas
As he grew more interested in the power of storytelling as a vital part of the human experience, Mann starting volunteering at the nonprofit National Institute on Media and the Family, headed by David Walsh, the founder of Mind Positive Parenting and an author of bestselling books on parenting.
Mann was the institute’s in-house storyteller, and also did training and public speaking for the organization.
“Mike relates so well with kids for a very simple reason — he loves them,” Walsh said. “He doesn’t play the role of Santa because it’s a job. He does it as a vocation to bring joy to children and to teach them the importance of family, sharing and relationships as the important values underlying the holiday season. His sensitivity comes through, which is why so many children feel at ease in his presence. Mike uses his role of Santa to embody the true meaning of Christmas.”
While Santa certainly pulls off some impressive feats every Dec. 24, he doesn’t do it alone. Mann is quick to point out that his “helper,” Albert, is much more than just another member of the elf crew.
“Kevin has taught me a great deal about performing on stage, and he is the comic genius of this team,” Mann said. “I have a grasp of the power of story and the understanding of child development, but Kevin knows how to be funny, how to act on stage and how to make sure everyone is having fun.”
Dutcher, who lives in the Como Park neighborhood of St. Paul, has been playing Albert for 25 years.
A graduate of Iowa State University, he’s made a full-time living as a theater professional since moving to the Twin Cities in 1984. He’s an artist-in-residence at Horace Mann Elementary School and the director of theater arts for the Spring Lake Park school district.
He also appears in theatrical productions around the metro — most recently Idiot’s Delight at the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.
He and his wife, Libby, have been married for 16 years. He is the father of three children — Ben, 25, Charlotte, 13 and Theo, 7.
“Theo is an important consultant for us as we’re writing and rehearsing each year’s play,” Dutcher said. “We depend on his initial reactions and we know he’ll always give us an honest response.”
Describing Theo as “firm believer,” Dutcher reports that his son is still thrilled when Mann shows up at their house for rehearsals: “He sidles right up to him and gives him the most adoring looks.”
Dutcher relishes the opportunity to pen a brand-new play for each year’s production.
“There is a mythology we get to add onto, and that mythology becomes part of our audiences’ ‘Santa story,’” he said.
His character of Albert is childlike, and Santa often has to help him figure out how to make generous choices.
“We want children to see Albert and emulate the way he learns to approach life with a generosity of heart and spirit.” Dutcher said.
One family’s story
Laura Wermerskirchen, 60, makes the annual trip from Shakopee to see the holiday play at the Bachman’s on Lyndale with her family.
Originally a beloved tradition with her husband and children, it’s become an intergenerational outing with the addition of their grandchildren — Maggie, 5, Vinny, 2 and Walter, 1.
“Mike is the Santa that our children knew as they were growing up,” she said. “The day we to go see him has always been special. One year, my daughter, Erin, told the family she was expecting a baby at the event.”
The family tradition has continued despite last year’s death of her husband, Dan, whom she describes as “the only UPS man in the world who loved Christmas.”
Knowing he was gravely ill, the family contacted Bachman’s to ask if Mann might be willing to make an in-home visit.
Mann readily agreed, and the date for the visit was set for a Friday in early November, but Dan died just two days before. Resolutely, the family still made the annual trip to see the holiday play, and plans to attend this year.
Wermerskirchen said: “Santa and Albert work so well together, and the Bachman’s experience is one of a kind.”
Not acting at all
Minneapolis resident Amy Mimick said attending Bachman’s holiday play has become the official holiday kickoff for her family.
In 2008, the family was living in Orleans, France, but made plans to return to Minneapolis for Christmas in time to catch the last holiday play performance of the season.
“My son, Ben, was 3 years old, and this was a big Christmas for him, because he finally got the concept of what going to see Santa meant,” Mimick said. “On the way home, we experienced weather-related delays, and Ben broke down sobbing in the airport at the thought that he might miss Santa and Albert.”
When they finally arrived in Minneapolis — at around 1 a.m. on the day of the last performance — they went home to sleep a few hours, and then made it to the show with the grandparents “and one happy boy in tow,” Mimick said, adding that Santa and Albert aren’t mere actors: They’re so much more.
“Those two men are genuine, loving and truly dedicated to making their shows and interactions magical for children and adults alike,” she said “Santa’s gentle touch with the babies, his laugh, the beard, the flannel suit, his innocence — it all adds up to make the experience special. Albert’s enthusiasm, humor, musical and magical talents make him a perfect sidekick for Santa. They are a true team.”
While Santa is well-known as a guy of girth (with a belly that shakes “like bowl full of jelly”), Mann is actually a svelte sort.
“I’m a dedicated runner, and I get in about 20 miles a week, usually along the West River Road,” he said.
In fact, Mann took fifth place in the 2015 10k road race at the National Senior Olympics, and competes in the City of Lakes half-marathon. He consults with an endurance coach and can often be found working out at the Midtown YWCA.
Mann began a commitment to exercise after a prostate cancer diagnosis in 2008.
“I thought, ‘If my lifespan is limited, I should do what I want to do.’ I was inspired by my youngest child, Tim, who was doing triathlons. I would see him go out for a run and want to go along, so I did.”
These days, he’s enjoying good health.
“My PSAs are coming back normal, and I’ve been declared cancer-free,” he said. “I think the exercise helped.”
Mann’s fitness regimen left him with a problem: How could he simulate the body size needed for an authentic Santa-sized performance?
The answer came from his wife, Vicki.
“She created body suits for me,” he confessed. “They’re made of lightweight material, look very natural and add about 150 pounds to my frame.”
Even if the fat is fake, rest assured: That beard is the real thing.
“I keep it all year long, but I start letting it grow long around July 1,” Mann said.
The Bachman’s touch
Karen Bachman Thull, director of Bachman’s marketing and corporate communications — and the great-great granddaughter of founder Henry Bachman, Sr. — said Mann and Dutcher, in every performance, bring the magic of Christmas to life.
“They create a very personal experience in a way that lets them have conversations with kids who feel comfortable revealing their hopes and dreams to them,” Bachman Thull said. “They create a story with a moral and spread holiday cheer and magic. That’s uncommon in this day and age — and that’s why the play is a tradition we cherish.”
Even with a grueling schedule of weekend performances, neither man ever gets tired of Christmas.
“We look forward to it every year,” Dutcher said. “There aren’t many other jobs that allow you to feel such waves of love from people of all ages. I want to do this for as long as I can.”
As for Mann: “I’ve reached an age where I could easily retire if I wanted to, but I don’t fish and I don’t golf — I tell stories,” he said. “People look for deeper meaning in their life when they retire, but my work already provides me with great meaning.”
Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.
Updated for 2018: See Santa this year!
Celebrate the season with a new holiday play, Who Wants To Be A Toymaker? Following the performance, which lasts about 20 minutes, Santa and Albert will lead a sing-along of carols and take pictures with guests. Seating is first come, first serve. Bring your own camera to have your picture taken with Santa.
When: Saturdays and Sundays Nov. 17–Dec. 16, 2018. Saturday show times are 10 and 11:30 a.m., and 1 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday show times are 11:30 a.m. and 1 and 2:30 p.m. Santa will arrive on a reindeer-drawn sleigh at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 17, 2018. Santa & Albert Photos-Only Nights will be from 6 to 7 p.m. Nov. 26 and Dec. 3, 2018.
Where: Bachman’s Floral, Gift & Garden, 6010 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
Info: bachmans.com or 612-861-7311