End of the day Friday I posted that photo of the enormous Santa Claus sitting atop Porter Chevrolet, taken some time in December 1953 and for sale, for one more day, on eBay. It was, I thought at the time, a curiously forgotten image of Dallas Christmas past; my father, who was 9 at the time, could recall absolutely nothing of the giant Santa or Porter Chevrolet. Local historian M.C. Toyer was kind enough to provide the address for the dealership -- on Mockingbird Lane, next door to the original Campisi's.
Later that night, an old friend -- Paula Bosse, whose father owned the late, great Aldredge Book Store -- sent me a note: "What a weird, tragic publicity stunt." After which she forwarded a stack of old newspaper clips from The Dallas Morning News detailing said tragedy.
The stories begin innocently enough, with a September 23, 1953, brief: "Santa Claus Turns Texan." The unbylined piece says the city council had given Porter Chevrolet the OK to build upon its rooftop "a 56-foot papier-mache Santa Claus ... so large, in fact, that he'll be holding a full-sized automobile in his lap." Said the piece: "Tex, the gigantic figure of The State Fair, is going to have some company up there in the stratosphere."
Matter of fact, said a story from November 18 of that year, Big Santa was the offspring of Big Tex: Porter's Christmas ornament was designed by none other than Jack Bridges, the very same man who, at the request of then-State Fair president R.L. Thornton in 1951, transformed a 49-foot-tall Santa from Kerens, Texas, into Big Tex. Bridges and a squadron of 11 assistants would spend some two months on the project, which presented several engineering problems -- all of which were exacerbated, Bridges said, "because Santa is sitting down." Wrote the legendary Frank X. Tolbert:
Biggest chore is coupling Santa's bent-over torso to his fat steel legs. The head, with its six-foot sweep of a beard, and the legs and the great boots (each boot top will be level with the roof of the building) will be hauled from Bridges' studio at 3226 East Illinois to the motor company on trucks. The torso will be put on wheels and towed.Much of the papier-mache work had to be done outdoors, in the studio's yard. Santa was too big; so too the problems. Said Bridges, "One of the little ones is getting the expression just right around Santa's mouth and eyes so the kids will love him."
But mere hours after Santa took his place, tragedy.
In late November '53, Jack Bridges's biggest nightmare had come true: He could not move Santa Claus. "A truck big enough to transport an 82-foot figure of Santa Claus can't be found in Dallas," read a November 29 story in The News. And so the pieces had to be hauled separately: The torso was put on wheels and trucked across town, while the other pieces were loaded into vehicles for the long haul to the dealership located across the street from the Dr Pepper plant. At which point he was finally assembled.
On December 9, a Wednesday, his head was put on -- the final piece at last in place. Santa Claus had come to town, a Chevy perched in his lap.
On Thursday, news and TV photographers came to get a picture of -- and with -- Bridges's latest giant; he was big news. Joining them in the Porter parking lot was Roy Davis, a 46-year-old who lived near the intersection of Park Lane and Greenville Avenue, not far from Porter. Davis, who'd suffered from an unspecified "heart ailment" for many years, worked as a superintendent for the F.S. Oldt Company, the crane company so named for the man who provided the concrete for the Commerce Street Bridge across the Trinity River and who would go on to help build the football stadiums at Texas Tech and Texas A&M.
Davis was released from the hospital but a week before Santa's installation. His bosses at F.S. Oldt, who'd overseen the building of Santa, demanded he "take it easy" following his release. But according to a story in The News on December 11, when he asked to borrow a crane to take a picture with Santa for his Christmas card, they said: Fine, OK.
And so, a mere one day after Santa was finished, Davis took a crane to Porter Chevrolet. And he got his picture.
But a split second later, something happened. Bystanders weren't sure what. Perhaps, they would tell police, he'd had another heart attack. Or maybe the cable slipped and gave way. From the December 11 story: "The photographers and other witnesses told police that Davis seemed to relax or collapse as he was being lowered to the ground and plunged to the pavement." The fall was 35 feet. He landed on the concrete, "between the boots of the huge figure."
Davis was buried on December 12 at Restland Memorial Park. He was survived by his wife, a son and his mother, all of whom lived in Dallas.
A mere six days later, on December 17, the tragedy was spoken of no more. Paul Crume, in his legendary Big D column in The News, mentioned the Santa but wrote nothing of what had happened to Davis. Instead, he wrote only this:
When Porter Chevrolet opened at 5526 East Mockingbird, it asked and got permission from the Dr Pepper Company to use in its ads the statement, "Just across the street from the Dr Pepper Company."
Then came that big Porter Santa Claus, the one sitting on the roof. It landed on front pages as far away as Atlanta and New York. People came from all over. And cars streamed past it down Mockingbird.
The Santa received its ultimate compliment this week, however.
Harry Ellis, Dr Pepper public relations man, telephoned Jack Blake, the advertising man who has the Porter account.
He wanted to know whether Dr Pepper in its advertising could use the phrase, "Just Across the Street from Porter Chevrolet."