By Bob Uphues
For more than four decades, kids and their families have gathered at Jaycee/Ehlert Park to kick off the holiday season by watching Santa Claus fly into Brookfield via helicopter.
But the Brookfield Chamber of Commerce, which has sponsored the annual fly-in since about 1969, has decided to ground the jolly old elf. Beginning this year, Santa will arrive in the village at the Prairie Avenue train station via horse-drawn carriage.
While the cost to fly Santa in from the North Pole has increased substantially since the early days of the tradition, the reason for the change was really due more to the unpredictability of the weather. In three of the past five years, including last year, the helicopter has not been cleared to land due to weather conditions. That and because Mrs. Claus let the chamber know that she really didn't want any more helicopter rides.
"It would have been only Santa himself, and that would have taken away from the tradition," said Tait Jorgensen, a member of the chamber's board of directors, who is in charge of the group's holiday event, which is held in conjunction with the village of Brookfield just after Thanksgiving.
Last year, Santa and Mrs. Claus left the airfield in southwest suburban Bolingbrook and were headed to Brookfield when they received a message that fog, on an unusually warm day, would make it impossible to land. That meant the helicopter was to head back to the airfield and the guests of honor were going to be very late.
Luckily, according to Jorgensen, then-chamber board member Chuck Hitzeman volunteered to don a Santa suit, climb into a fire truck and arrive at Ehlert Park as Santa's stand-in while the real deals rode back from the airport.
In previous recent years, heavy snow and extreme cold have grounded the helicopter.
"It wasn't really the cost, but the logistics, the uncertainty," said Jorgensen. "This way, we know and can guarantee when Santa arrives."
The change in the way Santa arrives in the village also allows the chamber to centralize its holiday event. Most of the activities take place near village hall and, later in the day, at Eight Corners. Having the fly-in at Ehlert Park drew people away from the middle of town.
When Santa arrives this year at the train station, he'll only have a few short steps to get to The Cottage at Irish Times, where he'll meet with boys and girls. Jorgensen said plans this year also call for increasing outdoor activities around village hall. The event will climax, as usual, with a tree-lighting ceremony at Eight Corners about 5:45 p.m.
One person who is thrilled with the change is Mrs. Claus.
"I like that better; forget that helicopter," said Marie LeGros, who bears a striking resemblance to Mrs. Claus. "When you fly in and look over the quarry, it's a long way down."
When the helicopter pilot got word last year that the landing had been scratched, he turned to the Clauses and said, "I think we're not going to make it."
That, according to LeGros, caused momentary alarm until he clarified that they would be late, since the helicopter had to turn back.
Clarification: The horse-drawn carriage/sleigh being used to bring Santa and Mrs. Claus into Brookfield thsi year is courtesy of the Brookfield Special Events Commission, which obtained the use of the vehicle as a donation.