In 1962, O’Neil and her husband Jack wanted to put some Christmas decorations up at Bond’s, a family-friendly restaurant that stood where Avenue Bistro Pub is now. They went to New York City and found a mechanical Santa that made a smiling bow several times a minute. He was accompanied by a group of hard-working mechanical elves, who hammered out toys with an unceasing work ethic that any business owner might admire. And some twinkling lights. Total cost of the O’Neils’ investment: $400, or nearly $3,000 in today’s money.
“It was a big investment, but it paid off,” says Jane O’Neil.
And how. Every Christmas since 1962, Santa has welcomed guests to an O’Neil food establishment. He was at Bond’s from 1962 to 1968 and then, when the O’Neils bought Lakeside Deli in 1969, he moved to the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Park Place. And there he has been bowing ever since. “I wish I had put a counter on him,” sighs Jane O’Neil.
The O’Neils have had to put other things on Santa, though. Like new clothes, and a touch of new paint to make his smile a bit jollier. “The only thing I did not replace were his boots,” quips Jane O’Neil. “He doesn’t do much walking.”
Santa was a bit late getting into the window at Lakeside this year because he once again needed a new red velour suit. “We were getting a lot of worried calls about where Santa was,” says the O’Neil’s son Jackie, now the co-owner of the deli with Jimmy Hill.
But better late than not at all, for something that has become such a Christmas fixture. Jane O’Neil has chronicled what this Santa has meant to Verona in poems over the years, like this one about when Santa had to have what she laughingly calls “hip surgery”:
Everyone asked us, what was the reason,
Our Santa Claus was late this season,
When he was brought up from the basement,
We found he needed a “hip replacement”,
From bending over all those years,
It seems he stripped a couple of gears,
Getting him fixed was rather stressful,
But his “operation” proved successful,
He’s all repaired and now he’s back,
Thanks to the skill of “Doctor Jack”,
Santa’s in our window bringing good cheer,
To the Town of Verona for the 48th year.
But a 50th anniversary demanded a new commemorative poem, which we are happy to bring to you here:
Santa’s been in Verona since ’62,
In our Christmas window bowing to you,
But his suit had been looking a little worn,
The jacket was faded and his pants were torn.
So Mrs. Santa was recruited,
To see that Santa was new-suited.
With her needle and thread and lots of stitches,
She made a new coat and bright new britches.
We think you’ll agree he looks pretty nifty,
For a hard-working guy who just turned 50!