The World’s Largest Santa & The Christmas Tragedy — 1953

by Paula Bosse

santa_chevrolet_color_observerSanta considers a test-drive, 1953 (photo by Roy Addis)

by Paula Bosse

Back in 2010, Robert Wilonsky (now the Digital Managing Editor of The Dallas Morning News, but back then a writer/reporter for The Dallas Observer) posted a 1950s-era photo of a giant Santa Claus sitting on the roof of a Dallas car dealership. Robert had found the photo on eBay and wondered what the story behind the promotional stunt might have been. The thing that sparked my interest (other than it being a giant Santa Claus — holding a full-size car in his lap!) was the fact that the dealership, Porter Chevrolet (which I’d never heard of), had been just around the corner from where I grew up — it was in the 5500 block of E. Mockingbird, right across from the old Dr Pepper plant, about where the Campisi’s parking lot is now. I, too, really wanted to know more about that huge Santa Claus that had once been hanging out so ostentatiously in my neighborhood.

At about the time when Robert’s post appeared in 2010, I had only recently discovered that the Dallas Morning News archives were available online. For free. All the way back to 1885! (All you need is a current library card from the Dallas Public Library, and you’re on your way to losing absolute days while reading about one fascinating thing after another.) I had just begun to dabble with searches in the archives, so this seemed like a great opportunity to test my research skills and see if there was more to the story. And there was! I sent Robert what I’d found, and he wrote a great follow-up, here.

This is just such a great and weird holiday-related bit of Dallas’ past, that I thought I’d post the DMN articles and photos I dug up, especially since some of the links in the original Observer posts no longer work.

First, a quick re-cap (but, please, read Robert’s story, because you’ll enjoy  it, and it’s much more colorful than my quick overview here). During the 1953 Christmas season, Porter Chevrolet (5526 Mockingbird) commissioned Jack Bridges (the man who had previously made Big Tex) to construct an 85-foot-tall Santa Claus (he’d be that tall if he were standing) to sit on the dealership building and hold an actual 1954 Chevy in his lap. It was definitely a promotion that would grab people’s attention. The day the giant Santa was put in place, using a crane, a man whose company had done the installing (as they had with Big Tex), thought it would be a great opportunity to get a Christmas card photo of himself hanging from the crane next to Santa. The man, Roy V. Davis, was recovering from heart-related health problems, and, as it turned out, he experienced a “myocardial rupture” while hoisted 35 feet above the concrete parking lot. He lost his grip and fell to his death. This tragic news made the front page of The Dallas Morning News and was picked up by the Associated Press, but, oddly, it was never spoken of again. Giant Santa apparently remained at his perch throughout the holidays, and when Paul Crume wrote about him in his “Big D” column in the Morning News only a week after the accident, there was no mention of Mr. Davis’ death. And, as far as I know, the incident wasn’t mentioned again — until Robert Wilonsky stumbled across the photo and wrote about it 57 years later.

Below are all of the mentions I could find about the giant Porter Chevrolet Santa and the related tragedy.

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santa_chevrolet_dmn-092353DMN, Sept. 23, 1953

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santa_chevrolet_dmn_111853-photoDMN, Nov. 18, 1953

santa_chevrolet_dmn_111853DMN, Nov. 18, 1953

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santa_chevrolet_dmn_112953DMN, Nov. 29, 1953

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santa_chevrolet_dmn_121153-photo

santa_chevrolet_dmn_121153-captionDMN, Dec. 11, 1953

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santa_chevrolet_dmn_121153DMN, Dec. 11, 1953

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santa_chevrolet_dmn_121153-photo2DMN, Dec. 11, 1953

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santa_chevrolet_crume-big-d_dmn_121753Paul Crume’s “Big D” column, DMN, Dec. 17, 1953

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UPDATE — Dec. 25, 2015: Below is the AP photo and blurb which ran  nationally. I post this photo with an eBay seller’s watermark because even though I bought this for the sole purpose of adding it to this post, it has been misplaced after a recent move! I’ll add the watermark-free photo if I ever unearth it!

santa_1953-ebay-front

The caption (click for larger image):

santa_1953_AP-caption

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Top color photo (which I’ve cropped) is by Roy Addis. It appeared in the Dallas Observer blog Unfair Park in Robert Wilonsky’s 2011 update to the previous year’s story — it was sent in by a reader who discovered it in his personal collection. To read that story, click here.

Wilonsky’s original Unfair Park post — which contained the photo he found on eBay — is here. And, again, his post containing “the rest of the story” is here.

Robert Wilonsky continues to write enthusiastically about Dallas (its past as well as its present), and his Dallas Morning News pieces are, quite frankly, where I get most of my news about what’s going on in the city. He writes about everything — from news to pop culture to entertainment to history — but most of his stories can be found here. Thanks for the opportunity to be part of the unearthing of this story, Robert!

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Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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