“The Taking of Pelham 123,” one of the films in Film Forum’s “Ford to City: Drop Dead” series that’s running through July 27
By Seth Shire
“Ford to City: Drop Dead—New York in the 70s” is a movie series playing at Film Forum now through July 27. The 70s, considered to be the last golden age of American cinema, is filled with some of my favorite movies, many of which were shot in New York. The titles in this series include “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “The Taking of Pelham 123” and many others.
On the one hand, this is a series tailor made for me. On the other hand, since I already own many of these movies on DVD, why should I pay to see them in a movie theater? Still, as a practical matter, how often do I actually watch the movies that I have on DVD? I think it’s an existential issue. In other words, having lots of movies on DVD means that I have the possibility of watching them, even if the reality is that I rarely watch them. This is the dilemma presented to the movie aficionado in the digital age, in which almost everything is available at his, or her, fingertips. Had home video and all its variations – VHS, laser disc, DVD, Blu-Ray, streaming – not been invented, then Film Forum’s series would be a “no-brainer” for me. Of course I would go. So saying I won’t see a particular film when it plays in a theater because I have it on a DVD that I almost never watch means running the risk of not seeing the film at all!
Stuyvesant Town resident Seth Shire, who pens the weekly film reviews for Town & Village, usually with a focus on independent films and documentaries, will have a documentary of his own shown at the upcoming Coney Island Film Festival.
“Mad Santa,” a shortie at eight and a half minutes, is a series of interviews and other footage taken of Scott Baker, a sideshow performer/theater actor and during the holiday season, Santa Claus at Bloomingdale’s.
Shire, who, when not seeing or writing about films, teaches sociology classes at CUNY’s Queens College, met Baker at the department store last year when he too was working there. He was teaching then too but worked during the Christmas season at Santaland as head elf. It was there that he learned, from Baker, that Bloomingdale’s was the right place to be Santa.
“Scott didn’t like Macy’s because it was like a factory with six Santas,” said Shire, also noting that the kids would get rushed there. “At Bloomingdale’s, they took their time with the kids,” said Shire. Though there was also a weekend Santa, Shire soon noticed that Baker took special care to bring the magic of the holiday to the kids, especially those getting older and more skeptical about whether to believe in Santa.
The title of the film, explained Shire, is that Baker “is an eccentric character. He’s not angry. He’s a performer.”
When not in character as Kris Kringle, Baker has been delighting audiences for years at Coney Island’s Sideshow by the Seashore with acts like light bulb eating and sticking a screwdriver up his nose.
When Shire asked him how he did his screwdriver trick, the response was, “It’s not a trick.” Apparently, Shire learned, “You do have a lot of empty space in the back of your nose.”
When filming Baker for “Mad Santa,” much of the time, Shire found that he didn’t have to ask questions or do anything, really, other than let his subject be himself. One particularly interesting moment, at Santaland, occurred when a European woman, in broken English, said, “I want my baby to go down on Santa.”
“She kept saying it,” said Shire who was later told about it by Baker. “I would just film anything that seemed interesting. I always had my camera with me.” Baker’s responses with those who wanted to take pictures with him earned him a loyal following though. “There’s a group of firemen that show up every year to take their picture with him,” said Shire.
Baker, meanwhile, told Town & Village, he considers himself a “showman,” rather than a carnie, since he has
The subject of “Mad Santa”: Scott Baker in character Photo courtesy of Scott Baker
never after all worked at a carnival. He began his sideshow work at Coney Island after organizers there invited him to do so in the mid-1990s when Baker was working at nightclubs throughout the city as a magician. For his sideshow routine, he has about 40 acts, including the light bulb eating. When doing this, he favors the clear, 25-watt variety. “I usually do 100-watt bulbs, but I’m on a diet,” he explained.
When it’s not sideshow season, Baker does some theater work. One job included a 12-year run in the Broadway show “Oh! Calcutta!” He also has worked in Vegas, sharing stages with bands like The Coasters and The Platters for his magic act. But for the past 12 years, when it’s holiday season, Baker has been Santa at Bloomingdale’s. He’s also been Santa at other stores and at private parties before that.
In some ways, the Santa routine is similar to the sideshow one, noted Baker, in that, “They’re both exhausting. You have to keep your stamina up or you lose character.” Both experiences though are about “magic and miracles and ideally spreading joy and happiness.”
Along with “Mad Santa,” Baker will be involved in two other films at this year’s Coney Island Festival. One, “Rehearsal,” focuses on him as he prepares for a magic act. Another, “Welcome to Madness,” is a horror movie he wrote and starred in.”
He’s actually a festival veteran, having been featured in a film called “Mr. Dangle,” shown at the first Coney Island Film Festival ever, just a week after 9/11.
“Mad Santa” is the first film to be directed by Shire since he studied film at New York University, and this is his first piece to be screened at any festival. Prior to his teaching work with CUNY, Shire worked for years in film post production, a job which required quite a bit of editing. Films he’s worked on include “Get Shorty” and Martin Scorsese’s “Casino.” He still does some post-production projects today and is currently involved with a film called “Wish You Well,” staring Ellen Burstyn, and which is based on the novel of the same name. Over the summer, he did reception at RZO, a firm that does accounting and financial management of artists’ tours. Clients there include the Rolling Stones and David Bowie.
“If you’re going to work for an accountant, it’s the most glamorous job you can have,” Shire joked, after having once picked up the phone to find himself talking to Mick Jagger. In his writing for this newspaper and for his classes, he also often interviews filmmakers and other performers. Recent interviewees for his classes were Stuy Town documentary maker Doug Block and Saturday Night Live alum Colin Quinn.
The Coney Island Film Festival is set to take place from September 20-22. The festival will feature many new films as well as the 1970s-era film “The Warriors,” about a gang in Brooklyn. “Mad Santa” is scheduled to be shown on Saturday, September 21 as part of the afternoon program that begins at 5 p.m. A Saturday screening pass, which includes all screenings that day except for “The Warriors,” is $15. Admission to that film, which is an event held as a fundraiser for Coney Island USA, is a donation of no less than $12. A Sunday screening pass is $10 and includes all screenings that day. Opening night party is $25. Full festival pass is $50 and includes opening night party and all screenings except “The Warriors.” Individual screenings are $7. The venue is Sideshow by the Seashore, 1208 Surf Avenue in Brooklyn. For more information, http://www.coneyislandfilmfestival.com.
A version of this article ran in Town & Village’s print edition on September 12.