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The Amazingly True Adventures of "Santa Dave" and His "Head Elf" (featuring "that nice boy" from NJ)

"Santa Dave" Marsh and "Head Elf" Greg Drew doing what they did best at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for more than twenty years - photo by Ali Oscar; courtesy of Greg Drew

December 19, 2023

For this holiday season, we at Letters To You have an extra-special gift for our readers, courtesy of E Street Radio personality and Letters To You contributor Greg Drew. Below, Greg shares some of his memories of serving as his (and our) good friend Dave Marsh's "Head Elf/Dresser/etc." during the many Christmastimes Past in which Dave used to play Santa Claus for the Kristen Ann Carr Fund's holiday events. Through more than two decades, their adventures together included many encounters - humorous, heartbreaking, and heartwarming - with many fellow passengers along the way, including a certain well-known musician from the swamps of Jersey. But before we let Greg begin his tale, here first is an important, brief reflection from "Santa Dave" himself, via an excerpt from Kick Out The Jams..., the latest anthology of his great, essential writing, published earlier this year. (By the way, if you haven't done so yet, there's still some time to click here and purchase a copy of it as a holiday gift for someone special and/or yourself. You also can click here to read our appropriately massive September 2023 feature on Dave, his writing, and his newest anthology.)

"My daughter Kristen dying changed everything. My heroes had been rock stars, mostly. But the patients - the kids - became my heroes. And the doctors and everyone at Sloan Kettering. We started the Kristen Ann Carr Fund to try to support them.

"The most important thing I did in that period of time - to me - was when I played Santa Claus for the kids at Sloan Kettering. ’Cause here are kids confronting the most profound despair. And kids are smart; kids know that they’re dying when they’re dying. Kristen was twenty-one; still pretty damn young. No, everybody doesn’t lose eventually. And no, everybody doesn’t die at thirteen. And yes, you have every right you care to have to be and act furious.

"My wife Barbara essentially had her entire raison d’être torn out of her body, and she got up the next morning and she did what she had to do. And the reason she did was, if she hadn’t, she would have betrayed Kristen and violated her in some fundamental way. We kept trying. And that’s a lesson about politics and about a lot of other things."

-Dave Marsh, "Introduction to

Section 2 - The 1990s" in

Forget your professional athletes, TV personalities, rock stars, and even Popeye. They can't hold a candle to the man in the red suit. You've just read Dave Marsh's perspective, so here's my holiday story about what became my two favorite days of the year, every year, for more than twenty years. Because I was Santa Dave's Head Elf/Dresser/Security/Gift-Bag Delivery-Boy/Consigliere.

A little background is required... After stalking Dave at various book-signings through the late 1970s/early 1980s, at first we became what I would call "music business friends." Originally, as an artist, I was anxious to get his opinion on my music. I figured if he liked it, I was on the right track. Later, when vocal coaching became my full time job, I was always eager to get his thoughts on people I was working with, while also learning from him and his wife Barbara Carr (Bruce Springsteen's co-manager at the time) about the workings of the music business. (How lucky was that!) I also would make occasional research contributions to his books and to what eventually became his monthly Rock and Rap Confidential newsletter. I'm not sure I would call him my "mentor" - I doubt he'd like that title - but the knowledge and insights I gleaned were invaluable to me and to my vocal clients, in turn.

When Kristen got sick, it was devastating for all of us who knew her and Dave and Barbara. Her funeral and burial are still the saddest I've ever attended, and that includes each of the ones for my parents. I knew the family was determined to fight back, so it made total sense that the Kristen Ann Carr Fund (KACF) was established soon after her passing, with its first major public event being Bruce Springsteen's fundraising benefit concert at Madison Square Garden in 1993, and the fund was off and running.

In 1994, Kristen's friends began organizing their own fundraising events, including the first "A Night to Remember" benefit, and I was able to help Michael Solomon (Kristen's boyfriend) organize a benefit performance of Fallen Angel, an off-Broadway musical about an up-and-coming band. The fact that the show starred my vocal client/dear friend Corey Glover from Living Colour helped to "grease the skids" more than a little. So with all of that, when the Fund decided to throw a Holiday Party for the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) pediatric outpatients at the Hard Rock Cafe, I and several others were invited to celebrate and help out if needed. Little did I know...

I already was aware that Dave owned a Santa suit, but I was under the impression that it had been used mainly for young relatives and family friends. Upon arriving, when I was told that Dave would be serving as Santa and handing out gift-bags at the end of the night, I really didn't know what to expect. As you might imagine, the Marsh-Carr team had a bit of pull, so among the guests to interact with the patients that night were three stars of the New York Rangers hockey team, fresh off their Stanley Cup triumph earlier in the year, the rap group Fu-Schnickens and, to photograph the festivities, the great Neal Preston. My assignment was to keep a bit of order in the autograph lines and provide the celebrity guests with any desired refreshments. Easy enough.

After a bit, I saw Dave exit into the storage-area where he'd stashed his Santa suit and I figured he'd be out in a few minutes. But more than a few minutes went by, and Ms. Carr asked me to go see what was holding things up. So I went back to where Dave was and I saw him, about one-third dressed, fumbling around with his beard and wig, all the while joking with Neal and clearly not in a hurry. Given who had sent me, I felt I could speak more authoritatively than usual, and I said " Okay Santa, it's time to stop fooling around, get dressed, and get out to those kids. And I'm here to help."

"Santa," aka Dave Marsh, chatting with "Mrs. Claus," aka Barbara Carr - photo from the Kristen Ann Carr Fund's Facebook page

Now, at this point in my life, I had never helped an adult male to get dressed, let alone dressed as Santa Claus, but I was on a mission. And while the Marsh-Preston banter never stopped, I did manage to get the boots, wig, and beard on Santa Dave. The last thing needed was to get the red Santa jacket on and it was not easy, considering the beard hanging down and the non-stop chatter. Neal was taking pictures of this whole ordeal. As I grew somewhat frustrated, through clenched teeth, I spit out the following to Dave: "Will you hold your beard, so I can zip you up?!" I quickly followed that up with, "I don't believe I've ever uttered that sentence before, and I think Neal Preston took a photo of me saying it." Amongst much laughter, we finished our task, and Santa was ready for the MSKCC patients. I, quite by accident, had acquired a new duty with Dave and the Fund.

For the next couple of years, I assisted Santa Dave at the outpatient parties, helping him to get dressed and presentable, and assisting with the distribution of Santa's lavish gift-bags. The folks at MSKCC loved the parties and appreciated all that KACF was doing for the hospital. So after a few years, I got a call one November from Dave, saying that the Pediatric Department at MSKCC wanted him to be the Santa for their big in-house Pediatric Holiday Party, and he hoped I would be available to help out. "Absolutely," I told him, and we found ourselves at MSKCC a few weeks later.

As we soon would discover, these two holiday parties were very distinct events. Over the years, the outpatient party was held in several different but festive New York locations, The Hard Rock Cafe and the wonderfully interactive Sony Wonder exhibit being the two most prominent. KACF volunteers were invited, and as a treat for the patients and their families, a number of celebrities would attend - star New York athletes, TV and movie stars, a bunch of music-business folks (particularly when the party was at the Sony building,) and, of course, a certain New Jersey-based rock star. (More on him in a bit.)

Of course the in-house party at MSKCC was quite different. Other than the incredible pediatric staff of MSKCC, who are among the best people doing an incredibly difficult job I've ever been privileged to know, the only ones there were the sick children from all over the country and the world, their families, and me and Santa. I'm what's known as an "easy cry," and Dave's not far behind, but we were determined to bring at least a few hours of happiness to these folks. We got the suit on, I did my best to make Santa Dave look like the real deal. (Back then, padding was involved, less as the years went on.) And then the magic happened. My friend Dave Marsh, the occasionally biting and sarcastic rock critic, BECAME Santa Claus. (Maybe it shouldn't have been too surprising that the Christmas-music-loving co-author of Merry Christmas, Baby: Holiday Music from Bing to Sting would transform into such a successful Santa, but still...) The couple of warm-ups at the outpatient parties were nice; this was the real deal. While the age range of the patients ran from infancy to early twenties, Santa found a way to relate to them all.

photo from the Kristen Ann Carr Fund's Facebook page

photo from the Kristen Ann Carr Fund's Facebook page

photo from the Kristen Ann Carr Fund's Facebook page

photo from the Kristen Ann Carr Fund's Facebook page

For the younger true believers, they sat on his lap, he asked all the right questions, and he would talk with them for as long as they wanted. Their visits usually ended with a Polaroid photo of them (and often their families) with Santa. For the older children, Santa would stand up to greet them and talk with them like grown-ups, which they clearly appreciated. I would hand out the age-appropriate gift-bags and stay close enough to occasionally give Santa some water - that suit can get pretty warm - and hear a bit of Santa's conversations, while staying enough out of earshot so as to not burst into tears every ten or so minutes. The MSKCC folk had told us we'd probably be there for "a couple of hours or so"; as we were approaching Hour Four with a line of guests still waiting for their turn with Santa, they worriedly approached me. I indicated that Santa was having the time of his life, a fact that Dave later confirmed. And that cinched it; me and Santa had two holiday gigs each year for the next twenty-plus years.

Frank Caruso, the great artist/illustrator who collaborated with Bruce Springsteen on his OUTLAW PETE children's book, frequently offered fun art activities at the annual KACF holiday parties - photos from the KACF Facebook page

Back to the outpatient holiday party... In addition to the Rangers, various Knicks and Yankees came throughout the years, along with Michael J. Fox, Miranda Cosgrove, Frank Caruso, and Popeye, to name a few. But after all, this is Letters To You, so let's talk Bruce, shall we? Mr. Springsteen treated this event exactly like his fans would imagine. When available to attend (I mean, he does have another job or three,) he would drive from New Jersey into midtown Manhattan during Christmas season...not at all a pleasant task. And while there, he would talk with the patients, take pictures with them and their families, and generally spread some holiday love.

I have two favorite Bruce memories: First, Sony Wonder had an elaborate sign-in set up where they'd take your hand print and photo, then print out ID's for the guests (not unlike what one basically has to do to enter any Manhattan office building these days, but this was twenty years ago.) After I had gotten Santa Dave dressed, he thought it'd be fun to get a "Santa" ID taken, so we snuck up to the entrance and went through. Not ten feet in front of us was Bruce, who had just checked in, and so Santa called out "There's that nice boy who sings that song about me!" As he's turning around, Bruce responded with that distinctive Jersey rasp, "Santa!! Good to see you! You gonna make it out to Jersey this year?" I think some of the younger patients within earshot who were on the fence decided that this was, in fact, The REAL SANTA.

Well, blow me down and boop-oop-a-doop! Clowning with classic cartoon characters Popeye and Betty Boop, regular visitors to KACF holiday parties (thanks to Frank Caruso's King Features Syndicate connections) - photo from the KACF Facebook page

The second memory is from many years later... I'm guessing the 2010s. Bruce was once again holding court at Sony Wonder, though by this point, the parents of the teenaged patients seemed more interested in getting their time and photo with him. When it was time for me to collect Dave for his Santa transformation, I walked past where Bruce was and saw and heard the following: Bruce talking on a cell phone, with a teenage girl standing on either side of him... Cue that distinctive rasp... "Yeah, it's me... No, it's really me... I'm here with your niece and her friend, and they wanted me to call you... No, it's my pleasure. How you doin'?"

autographing a BORN TO RUN t-shirt for a lucky fan - photo from the KACF Facebook page

As the years went on, Santa and I took our job even more seriously... several new Santa outfits, improved wigs and beards, boots, gloves, etc. Every year at the outpatient party, which was always scheduled first, I'd open the Santa-suit sack to find additional upgrades. And along the way, we did have some special helpers. Dave's nephew James came along to MSKCC very early on. Although young, he was great with both the patients and their families. In addition, James was another person for me and Santa to talk with, if things were getting too heavy. We lost him when he began his full time career in NYC, but he would occasionally sneak by on his lunch hour when he could, and I'll always consider him my first "elf partner in crime."

Another early helper was Kara, who worked with Dave and Jim Rotolo on Dave's weekly Kick Out The Jams radio show at SiriusXM. She had heard about our little adventure, and decided she wanted to see what all the fuss was about on her way to the office. Before I got Dave dressed, I gave her the basic instructions: 1) Once he's in the suit, he's only SANTA, not Dave, and 2) Don't expect him to be anything like he is at SiriusXM. I could tell she was more than a little skeptical about the last comment, but once we got Santa out to the playroom and interacting with the patients, it only took about three kids. She came over to me and said, "Who is this person in the suit, and what have you done with Dave?" I said something about a Christmas miracle, she laughed, and when she had to leave for work, I think she had a newfound appreciation for her co-worker.

The last of the very special helpers was Lexi, the daughter of Ali Oscar at Jon Landau Management. When Lexi was quite young, less than ten I believe, we showed up at the outpatient party to find her dressed in the cutest elf outfit and ready to assist. While she looked like something out of a Hallmark movie, both Dave and I privately discussed if it all might be a little too much for someone that young, and we were a bit nervous. Boy, were we wrong! She was a total natural - great with the patients and their families, and always taking the best photos with them, as well as keeping me on my toes to make sure they all got the right gift-bags, including ones for any siblings who were in attendance. After a number of years of being the belle of the ball, she outgrew the idea of the elf outfit, and it was our loss.

KACF thank-you card image courtesy of Greg Drew

However, several years later, Ali and Dave decided she was old enough to handle the intensity of the MSKCC inpatient party, and so she came along to that. (Don't know if they ever had a similar discussion about me; probably good if they didn't.) When you think about it, is there a worse place to be for a child during holiday season than a cancer hospital? If so, I'm hard-pressed to think of one. And for teens, I think it's even a bit worse. Most of the patients are much younger or much older, the staff is all older, and you're old enough to realize that you don't really have any connection to your fellow teens or fellow patients. So when a smart, charming, thoughtful and lovely teenage girl came to assist Santa, it was a treat, and the smiles she brought to the faces of the teenage boys and girls stay with me to this day. Thanks, Lexi!

In the last ten or so years, our responsibilities at MSKCC grew. After the morning session with all of the children in the playroom, I was given a cart full of gift-bags to push around, and Santa visited the treatment area for those patients who couldn't make it to the playroom festivities. We then got a lunch break, hidden from view so that Santa could remove his beard and wig during this respite. We were usually joined by doctors from the hospital, often including that year's KACF Sarcoma Surgical Fellow. Dave, who was very active with the MSKCC community, would talk with them about medical issues and the progress being made fighting cancer. I would sit and listen, and understand about every third sentence being uttered, and be remarkably quiet for me. But soon enough, I would be back in my comfort zone, helping Santa with his wig and beard and helping him look "just so."

After a few years of the hospital gig, it was explained to us that there were a number of patients who were too sick to leave their rooms and couldn't make it down to the playroom party. Santa said "Well, we can go to them." So after lunch, we would walk the pediatric floor, me pushing the cart full of gift-bags, and Santa visiting all of the room-bound children, even to the point of me helping Santa "gown up" for the quarantined. In many ways, this was always the most emotional part of the day: children too sick to even leave their hospital room lighting up when they realized Santa had "found them," even though they weren't at home; parents, in the midst of dealing with their worst nightmare, smiling through tears at their young ones' delight at the sight of the man in the red suit... It was a gift to us, me and Santa Dave. Every year, Nina and Jill from MSKCC would thank us, as would all the staff we interacted with - and let's face it, everyone wanted to interact with Santa - for doing this. And every year, we would thank them for the privilege of being allowed to be a part of it.

We also began to notice, as our annual visits continued, that each year there were fewer kids who were severely ill. It was a very encouraging sign that the medical research funded by The Kristen Ann Carr Fund and other organizations was making significant breakthroughs in treating various cancers, including the kind of cancer that Kristen had.

photo by Ali Oscar; courtesy of Greg Drew

The pandemic did a number on these types of gatherings, so Santa Dave and I now find ourselves retired. I miss terribly those two special days every year, especially the part when it was just me and Dave transforming into Santa. Things got a lot smoother after that first Hard Rock appearance, but it still took some time to make Santa look his best. So there was time to catch up, talk music and life, and all the while, I knew I was about to participate in the best thing I'd do that year, every year. And in case you think I'm being a bit over the top with my praise of Santa Dave, one year, Nina and/or Jill told Dave that the folks from Macy's had called. They had heard about the Pediatric Holiday Party and wanted to know if MSKCC wanted to use "their Santa..." - you know, the one from the Macy's parade every year on TV... "the Santa" - for the party. Macy's was told, "No, thanks, we're good." When Dave told me, we both got choked up, exchanged a high-five, and he managed to get out, "I couldn't have done it without you." My answer then, as it remains now: "It was my distinct honor and privilege."

So you better be good, for goodness' sake...


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