Tug the beard! Kris Kringle joins WTOP as Toby’s Dinner Theatre stages ‘Miracle on 34th Street’

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 'Miracle on 34th Street' at Toby's Dinner Theater (Part 1)
Robert John Biedermann plays Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street" at Toby's Dinner Theatre. (Toby's Dinner Theatre)

Few movie moments are as iconic as young Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) tugging the beard of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) at Macy’s in New York City in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), a tradition that continues every year with Santa Claus as the grand finale of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Toby’s Dinner Theatre stages “Miracle on 34th Street” in Columbia, Maryland, now through Jan. 7.

“Ho, ho, ho! This is Santa Claus talking!” Santa Claus told WTOP. “I wish you all good health, kindness and peace. Goodness knows the world needs as much of that as possible — and the best way to do that is to look at another person you don’t know and say ‘hello’ and wish them the best of the holidays.”

Of course, WTOP actually spoke with actor Robert John Biedermann, who plays Kris Kringle in the show.

“It’s one of my favorite roles in my lifetime,” Biedermann said. “When I was quite young, I was living in New York City and the thing to do there was the night before to go down to Central Park area and watch them blow up the balloons for the parade. I think the whole idea of believing, I don’t think it’s just about believing in Santa, it’s about believing in what you hope and wish for in life. If you don’t believe it, somehow it just doesn’t come true.”

Based on the Oscar-winning 1947 film starring Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, the story follows a divorced New York City mother named Doris Walker, who hires a quirky old man named Kris Kringle to play Santa Claus at Macy’s department store, only to discover that the man believes himself to be the real Santa Claus. When his sanity is questioned, Doris works with lawyer Fred Gailey to prove in court that he is indeed from the North Pole.

“The Santa Claus that was supposed to be in the parade has a drinking problem,” Biedermann said. “The person in charge of the parade asks if I can take over the role. Of course, I don’t want to deny the children the magic of the parade, so I accept, but I know that I’m the real Santa. I meet the daughter of the woman in charge of the parade. … So, the show is me interacting with the little girl and proving to her that I am the real Santa.”

Biedermann has spent months growing his Santa beard for the famous beard-tugging scene.

“The last performance of ‘Something Rotten’ I started growing the beard, so I’ve been growing it for eight months and I’m quite impressed that I can grow such a nice, white beard,” Biedermann said. “She tugs on it, but it’s funny when you work with little young actresses, they think they’re hurting you. I say, ‘Harder,’ and they fake that they’re pulling on it, so I say, ‘You can pull hard, don’t worry, it’s not going to come off.’ Then I go, ‘Oh my goodness!'”

In 1963, the movie was adapted into a Broadway musical version called “Here’s Love.” It was written by Meredith Wilson, who had previously written the 1957 Broadway musical “The Music Man” as well as the 1951 song “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Johnny Mathis.

“There is a song called ‘Here’s Love,’ I sing that song about the love between differences [and] the impossibilities that can happen at Christmastime,” Biedermann said. “There’s a wonderful song about make believe that I sing to the little girl: ‘Expect things to happen like people in the fairytales do.’ There’s another song where I sing about the olden days of Christmas with real green Christmas trees, not pink ones, and real holly berries and pinecones.”

Speaking of which, you better believe that Toby’s Dinner Theatre is decked out with festive scenery.

“The lobby is decorated in the Christmas style,” Biedermann said. “There is a very large set piece used in the show of the sleigh for Santa’s entrances, there is a toy department of Macy’s with all of these set pieces like a rocking horse and the big chair, then near the end it becomes a courtroom where the hearing takes place. The set is what you might expect for a Christmas show and the costumes are period pieces, we take it back into the ’50s.”

Add a Christmas-themed buffet and the entire experience will put you in the holiday spirit.

“People leave ready to trim their tree,” Biedermann said. “It’s about believing. It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are, it’s about believing whatever you were raised on. Whatever faith one has, sometimes it’s good to check in with yourself and say, ‘OK, this is my belief, how well am I living it?’ It hits home no matter who and what you are.”

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WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 'Miracle on 34th Street' at Toby's Dinner Theater (Part 2)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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