Santa Claus no more: Meet the mall Santa whose mall has died
For the better part of a decade, Dave Conley played Santa at the Wayne Hills Mall, hoisting onto his lap one excited and sometimes frightened child after another year after year.
“They’d get so excited. And then nervous and they talk real soft,” Conley says.
He also sang and danced in musical shows that made the mall's Christmas productions unique among the faux North Poles at New Jersey malls.
“It was unique and it was so much fun,” Conley says. “The kids would come out and sit around the stage, so they would sing along with us. I’m telling you, nobody else had a crew and a Santa setup like this.”
But in the mid-2000s, as malls across the country hit hard times, the lines to see Santa grew shorter. The platform that held Santa’s throne was flanked by more empty stores each year.
“And by the time we finished, there were only a handful of stores left in there that were even operating,” Conley says.
And finally, the Wayne Hills Mall closed its doors for good.
“Wayne Hills Mall, I think, has been the poster child for mall decline,” he says.
Conley's Santa suit has been mostly hanging in his closet since 2009, except for a few party appearances at his grandkids preschool.
The mall Santa whose mall died – it is a story whose allure did not escape New Jersey native and photographer Phil Buehler whose photos of the mall’s final days will soon be published in a new book. Shortly after the wrecking ball leveled the Wayne Hills Mall, Buehler asked Conley to suit up and head out to the pile of rubble for one final performance of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“And literally that was where the stage was that I used to, for a number of years, go in there and do these productions,” Conley says.
Conley knows that he still lives on as Santa in the photo albums of thousands of families whose children climbed up onto his lap.
“I like thinking of being a part of that,” he says. “They don’t know who I am – just fun to think about.”
Conley has played Santa at a few parties in recent years including at his grandkids' preschool - but those engagements are likely also on hold due to the pandemic.