Letter to the Editor

Santa Claus Lane of McCook Nebraska -- the true story

Friday, February 5, 2010

This is a story of an artist, U.S. (Bill) Grant, and his family, residents of McCook.

Dad had an idea and he named it Santa Claus Lane.

I feel Dad wanted to surprise the residents of McCook by giving them a Christmas gift, for all to enjoy.

Dad's vision was born at our home, 711 W. Second Street. I remember one May afternoon coming home from school to a complete surprise. I believe the year was 1953. In our backyard was a large load of lumber and plywood that had been delivered earlier that day. Later that evening I learned it was for Mom's new dance studio. Dad drafted the plans and was to start immediately building the studio in our backyard. Who knew Dad already had an idea for building something from the left over material.

You see, Mom (Betty Grant) owned and operated Grant's School of Dance. We were called the dancing family. There was Mom, Dad, my older sister (Bille Gean), myself and our younger brother (Todd). We all owned tap shoes and put them on, on a regular basis, because we were all Moms' pupils along with most everyone in town. Yes, Dad tapped too. It was great when Mom and Dad were on stage or a ballroom floor. There was no better show. Dad also built every prop and backdrop for the Grant's of Dance stage performances. Mom named every stage show "The Stars of Tomorrow" because Mom thought every one of her pupils, not only from McCook but also from other communities in the surrounding area, were stars. The shows were held at the Fox Theater and were a two-and -a -half -hour stage production. Dad drew, cut out, painted and built numerous amounts of backdrop for each stage production.

Mom produced, directed, choreographed and chose the music for each production. The parents of Mom's pupils made the costumes as Mom had a hand and her feet In every detail.

The Grant's School of Dance shows were all free to any and all that wanted to attend. For me, it was fun and exciting putting on my costume, tap shoes and stage makeup and dancing for the audience. I look back, and in my mind's eye, I see all those kids on stage dancing their little hearts out. What a fun time being a kid in a family that loved the entertainment business. I never thought that way until I grew up and was away from it all. I remember sometimes the parents would pay for dance lessons with a ham, chickens, beef or eggs. Those were the days when the barter system was better than money. I stand in awe and say to myself, "How did Mom and Dad do it all and make it look so easy."

In and around all this, Dad built the studio after work and on weekends, in record time. When Dad finished the studio, who knew he had an idea for the left over materials. Mom moved into her new studio and Dad hauled the odds and ends of lumber to the basement. Mom set us kids down and said, "You kids are not allowed to go into the basement until Dad is finished with his project." I thought, "What project? I can't help?", because I helped Dad paint the props and backdrops. As a kid, you think, "What can Dad be doing without my help?" Days later, Dad ordered more plywood and it went right to the basement. A few weeks later, Carl Oren, a family friend, and an artist would come over periodically to help Dad. Carl would go straight to the basement where Dad was already at work. Now two people (Mom and Carl) knew what the Big Secret was that lurked in the basement. Well, I was confused, especially when Dad ordered more and more material all summer and into the fall. I remember one day when Dad come home from work (Sidles Auto Parts) and showed us Scotchlite. This was a new reflective tape product that 3M had just invented. There were seven basic colors; red, white, black, yellow, green, orange and blue. Schotchlite was a thin, plastic type of paper with tiny metallic flakes in the color. Dad cut and glued the appropriate color on portions of the painted scenes, so at night, when car lights shined on each scene, they became vibrant and appeared three-dimensional. As an artist, Dad wanted to create the book he envisioned.

One evening sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the work in the basement came to an abrupt halt. Finally there were no sounds of sawing or hammering. No more paint fumes seeping up from the basement. Wow the sounds of silence and the thought of going to sleep at a decent hour was heavenly. Carl went home and awhile later Dad came up from the basement, took a bath and went to bed. For me, I wanted to go down stairs and see what Dad had been working on for the last six months, but no, we all had to go to bed and still were not allowed in the basement.

All was quiet in the Grant household except for the regular busy work getting ready for Christmas. Finally, Christmas was here. Billie Geon, Todd and I had fun tearing open our presents. We all played with our presents until it was time for bed. It seemed like I had just fallen asleep when the sound of a truck drove up and parked in our backyard. The engine was turned off, and then I heard sounds from the basement. I knew it was Dad and Carl from the muffled sound of their voices. I lay there listening to them going up and down the stairs, hammering and loading the truck. I thought, "It's dark, cold, and there's got to be at least three inches of snow on the ground. What could they be doing out there?" So I got up and went out to the living room, where to my surprise, Mom was still up. Groggy, I asked, "What is Dad doing?" Mom said, "Go back to bed. You will see in the morning." I went back to bed, lying there listening to the sound of the truck being loaded. Suddenly, the loading stopped, the engine started and the truck drove off. I was the inquisitive kid in our family, always asking and wanting to be a part of whatever was going on; so to a kid like me the six months of not knowing or helping in the basement was an eternity. Now they were hauling away the Big Secret, well that is what I thought.

Every time I went to sleep I was awakened by the same sounds, the truck in, up and down the stairs, hammering, the truck being loaded and driving off. Sometime that early Christmas day morning, Mom come into our bedrooms and woke us up. I lay there and thought, "Now what? It's still dark outside." And then the smell of the hot chocolate Mom was heating on the stove filtered into my bedroom. In a flash, I was up and in the kitchen. There wasn't anything better for breakfast than hot chocolate and toast. Mom and Dad were dressed, but we were still in our PJ's. Dad looked at the clock and said, "It's time to go." Mom said, "Leave your PJs on, get your snow boots and put on your coats." From the back porch we ran through the snow and cold toward our car. The morning was still pitch black so it was hard to see our dark blue 1949 Packard Clipper. What a great carl

We were a spur-of-the-moment family, so this was not out of the ordinary. Dad drove up West First Street, turned tight to Norris Avenue, and stopped. We were the only car on Norris Avenue and probably the only car in McCook driving anywhere that Christmas morning. Todd was wrapped in a blanket on Mom's lap in the front seat. Mom turned to Billie Gean and me and said, "Now you are going to see what Dad and Carl have been working on." Billie Gean and I looked at each other, without uttering a word, and we both thought, "What are we going to see in the dark?" Dad put the car in gear and drove down Norris toward town. Mom pointed and said, "Look kids." Billie Gean and I were in the back on the edge of our seats, looking out through the windshield.

In the distance we could see the first Christmas scene. I said, "Wow, who did that?" Dad chuckled to himself and Mom said, "Your Dad and Carl, this is what they were working on in the basement. It is called Santa Claus Lane." We were in awe of what was kept from us and the rest of McCook for so long. Dad said nothing, but I knew he was proud of what he and Carl had accomplished. He drove slowly so we could take in all there was to see. Mom pointed out the Scotchlite Dad had shown us early that summer. We made a game of it, pointing out where Dad had incorporated it into each scene. Dad drove to the end, and then made a U-turn. To our surprise, there was more as we drove back to where we had started. Dad had put the scenes back-to-back and thus hid the framework on both sides of each scene. I wanted to see more as we neared the end. To my knowledge we were the first ones to see Santa Claus Lane in its entirety.

I wish to thank my sister Billie Gean and all the friends that encouraged me to write this story.

If I may on behalf of the Grant family, I would like to thank Carl Oren for helping to see Dad's vision come alive.

Thank you to all the moms and pupils, their parents and the community for your tireless efforts. You are the ones who made a wondrous impact on all of our lives.

To Debbon and David McConnell, we thank you for preserving Santa Claus Lane. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Maybe, just maybe, that is what Dad sold when he gave the gift to McCook.

The greatness of a vision is when it comes to life. The feeling your spirit exudes is priceless.

Copyright 2009 Stuart Grant

Used by permission

-- Grant is a screenwriter and former Hollywood actor now living in Valentine, Neb.

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  • Santa Claus Lane should stay a part of McCook, until Paint don't Paint, and Nails don't Nail.

    This letter should also be one of the first 'Letters to the Editor' printed each year, in the week the SCL is erected for viewing, so everyone will know something about the 'Santa Claus' that gave us the Lane.

    Thank you Stuart, your family gave great Joy to McCook.

    Arley Steinhour

    -- Posted by Navyblue on Fri, Feb 5, 2010, at 8:54 PM
  • Dear Editor:

    What a treat!! "Santa Claus Lane" is truly a unique "McCook Only" experience ! I have never seen anything quite like it anywhere on our travels !!

    Having experienced the Joy since it was first erected in 1953, I can only hope that it contines to bring happiness to all those who see it in the future (as Arley says,"..until Paint don't Paint and Nails don't Nail")!!

    I was in McCook over the last Holiday Season and had the fun (late one night!!) of driving the entire length of the exhibit form South-North-South filming the event with my digital camera (making a possible illegal 'u-turn' at the North end..but I can't remember if I did)!! Now I can play that video to family members who can't be in McCook to see it for themselves !!

    THANKS to the Grant Family and to all others who have helped keep the tradition alive over the years!! I KNOW you have brought smiles to the young (and young AT HEART!!).

    -- Posted by William Lyons on Sat, Feb 6, 2010, at 12:40 PM
  • Thank you Stuart for writing it all up. How beautiful it must have been that first night in the dark with the Scotchlite all new and fresh. I'm sure I saw it in 1953 too...and all the years since, except for the last few. It was an annual ritual...the first trip up and down each season when I was young. Bill and Oren were quite the team and I'm happy to know how it all came about. Thanks again for putting it in writing!

    -- Posted by ImissMcCook on Sat, Feb 6, 2010, at 7:04 PM
  • I remember Santa Claus Lane with great fondness, it was our family tradition each year to drive up and down Norris Avenue to see this great wonder! I to had dance lessons with Grant Studios and was in a production of Jack & Jill Go Up the Hill at the Fox Theater! I still have the outfit i wore but sadly not my tap shoes as those were most likely sold or passed on to another young talent! I do have a picture though of me and my dance partner on stage at the Fox! Very fond memories! Thank you Stuart for bringing these back!

    Michael Plourd

    North Platte, Ne.

    -- Posted by graywolfen on Sun, Feb 7, 2010, at 11:15 PM
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