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Santa Coming to Town, Gets Frosty Reception

Statue that has long stood beside the 101 Freeway is moving to a lot outside Oxnard, but city officials fear it may become an eyesore.

January 27, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

In this tight housing market, even Santa Claus has been forced to make some sacrifices.

The giant Santa statue that for 52 years waved at millions of motorists along the 101 Freeway from Santa Claus Lane near Carpinteria will soon be starting a new life wedged between a mobile home park and an auto dealership in Ventura County.

It's not exactly what Santa, who is being retired by his current owners, is used to, and some of St. Nick's new neighbors aren't too thrilled to have him as a permanent presence. But the location ensures that a new generation of families traveling down the coast will enjoy seeing the jolly, bearded old man.

"I had hoped that he would've been able to stay, but this is better than nothing," said Eduard Van Wingerden, 46, a longtime Carpinteria resident who vividly recalls riding his bike to Santa Claus Lane as a child. "I'm really happy to see him preserved."

For the past week, workers from a local crane company have been helping with the move. First, they lifted the 5-ton, 22-foot St. Nick up and over some neighborhood businesses from its temporary storage spot in a local driveway.

Then, in order to ensure that the statue would safely clear overpasses and power lines, they chopped 5 feet of plywood, painted to look like a red brick chimney, from its bottom.

But this week comes the hard part.

That's when Santa, a relic of a time when this Santa Barbara County neighborhood was a Christmas attraction, will bid Santa Claus Lane farewell.

Escorted by two California Highway Patrol officers and two safety vehicles, taking a meticulous route laid out by California Department of Transportation officials to avoid bridges and overpasses, Santa will make his way down the 101 Freeway and begin doing his famous wave from Ventura Boulevard near the Del Norte Boulevard exit, on the outskirts of Oxnard.

All last week, neighbors and motorists came to reminisce about childhood visits to shops and restaurants on Santa Claus Lane. They took pictures, made videotapes and promised to visit at the new address.

Laurie Kavara was driving down the freeway when she saw Santa sitting on a trailer. She took the Santa Claus Lane exit, grabbed her camera and started taking snapshots.

"He's been here forever, and I wish he weren't going," said the 53-year-old Carpinteria resident. "I'm afraid they're trying to turn this into the kind of beach community you see all over -- you know, the ones with the molded sea-gull statues. There was always a uniqueness to this place, but it's starting to change. I'm so glad I got to get one last picture."

Van Wingerden, whose family emigrated from Holland when he was 11, used to save his meager earnings working at the family's flower nursery to buy date-flavored shakes on Santa Claus Lane.

"To my parents, it was an unnecessary waste, but we loved it," Van Wingerden said. "We would get paid a dime an hour, and at the time you could get a date shake for something like 50 cents."

With its shops, merry-go-round, train ride, toy shops and restaurants, Santa Claus Lane was an ideal destination for local children. But it was the giant Santa, who waved from his post on a candy-store roof, that attracted thousands of motorists.

As time passed, a snowman character came down, the shops with Christmas themes along Santa Claus Lane were closed, and the strip began to resemble other seaside communities dotting the coast. Santa's owners, Steve Kent and Nancy Rikalo, decided that the huge statue made of chicken wire and plaster no longer meshed with the seaside-village feel they were seeking for the stores they own on Santa Claus Lane's retail strip. Much to the distress of local preservationists, who argued that the statue was an example of roadside "vernacular art," the owners decided Santa had to go.

After much debate, Santa Barbara County supervisors allowed its removal from the candy-store roof. The statue was placed in a neighbor's driveway until the county and preservationists could find it a new home. If they hadn't found a new location for Santa by the end of the month, the statue's owners had the right to trash it.

"Everyone was trying to keep him on that roof," said Robert Maxim, a member of a local preservationist organization that has worked with the county to find Santa a new home. "We looked and looked, and we got our Christmas miracle."

Mike Barber, president of the Garden Acres Mutual Water Co., read that Santa was about to become homeless and decided that an empty lot his company owned on Ventura Boulevard near the freeway might make a fine home.

"We just didn't want to see it destroyed," Barber said. "Maybe it'll help the neighborhood. This is a poor neighborhood, and there's lots of kids. It'll make them happy."

Barber said his company will fix cracks and damage done to Santa during the move. Next, they'll paint old St. Nick, provide some landscaping and lighting and build a fence to protect him from taggers.

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