Did you ever send a letter to Santa on Paul Shannon’s “Adventure Time” show? You’d wait every day as a rocket carrying the letters would blast off, then the TV would tune in to the North Pole, where Santa sat back to read a few. The big guy holding those letters was George Heid, and for a generation, he was Santa to kids in Pittsburgh and across the country.
Heid was born in Brooklyn but got his start in California doing musical comedy. By 1930 he was on the radio, and in 1935, he’d settled in Pittsburgh. His son, Jim Heid, says his dad dove into his work: “He founded one of the country’s first commercial broadcasting schools here and operated a recording studio too. He hosted many a radio show, including ‘Isaly’s Big Swing,’ and was a program director at both KQV and KDKA.”
Heid’s jolly demeanor lent itself to playing Santa on the radio and at countless charity events. His laugh was also heard at Kennywood as Laffin’ Sam, a sibling to Laffin’ Sal, who continues to entertain park guests. Back then, the laugh track played on a 78-rpm record; the original was recorded at Heid’s studio in the Century Building, then sent out for dozens of copies since heavy needles quickly wore down each disc.
In 1948, the studio moved to larger rooms at the William Penn Hotel and began recording reel-to-reel with one of the first Ampex 300 magnetic tape recorders. They produced records for a variety of local acts, among them Fred Rogers.
One record, “I Know It’s Time for Christmas,” features singing by Josie Carey (host of TV’s “Children’s Corner”) with Fred playing organ and piano [RECORDING]. WQED Producer Rick Sebak says the record dates to the mid-to-late ’50s: “It has a Daniel Striped Tiger TTT logo, for ‘Tame Tiger Torganization.’ That’s early WQED and ‘Children’s Corner.’”
Heid also wrote and recorded Christmas songs timed to mechanized displays in Pittsburgh’s department store windows. The stores did not hire Heid; instead, he was commissioned by Gardner Displays, a Pittsburgh company renowned for its window dioramas. So, for example, “Santa’s Dream of Christmas” was featured at Rosenbaum’s (Liberty and Sixth) in 1945 but likely played at department stores in other cities too, and “Santa’s Jalopy” was recorded in 1951 for Gonzales Padin Company of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
George moved into TV in the late 1940s, producing live programs and appearing as Santa on shows from “We the People” to “Santa’s Workshop.” Having a daughter with Down Syndrome led him to also make yearly appearances at St. Anthony’s school in Oakmont. His son Jim recalls, “My dad became something of an activist when my sister was born in 1951 and the pediatrician told my folks, ‘Put her in an institution before you get too attached to her.’ Instead, my folks went on to become part of the original group that founded the Special Olympics.”
Here’s a silent clip of Santa/George at St. Anthony’s in 1957 — notice at :39 when George lifts his daughter and she smiles with recognition.
TV also landed Heid on Paul Shannon’s “Adventure Time,” which he did until the early 1960s. He passed away in 1973, but his son George Heid Sr. still runs Heid Studios in Aspinwall, which traces its roots to 1935 when George moved to Pittsburgh and launched his adventurous career.
Visit the History Center to learn about Kaufmann’s Christmas window displays in the A Very Merry Pittsburgh exhibit, open through Jan. 15, 2018.
Brian Butko is the director of publications at the Heinz History Center.