StoryCorps: The Day Santas stormed Macy’s to protest AIDS

Mark Woodley, left, and Jon Winkleman recorded an interview with StoryCorps on November 22 to remember the day they took action against what they saw as anti-AIDS discrimination.

Mark Woodley | Jon winkleman

In the fall of 1989, Mark Woodley saw an ad in a local New York newspaper: Macy’s was looking for Santa Claus to spread joy in its department stores during the holiday season.

Although he was trained as an architect, Woodley applied for the job. He thought that boosting the morale of the children might boost his own.

Woodley had been at a particularly low point. It was the height of the AIDS crisis in the country, and he mourned the loss of his best friend, who died of the disease. At the same time, he was dealing with his own HIV diagnosis.

But playing Kris Kringle offered an escape route from her diagnosis.

“It’s hard to be depressed when you’re with a horny little kid,” Woodley, now 72, said in a StoryCorps interview last month.

“It was just magical,” he said, “little kids walked in and wonder in their eyes. And I was one of them. I’ve never been loved so much. I mean, c was love for Santa Claus, but I was the recipient. ”

Macy’s invited Woodley to occupy Santa’s chair the following year. As part of the hiring process, he was asked to pass a routine physical exam, during which he disclosed the HIV and mental health medications he was taking.

“I was just being honest,” Woodley said. “And the minute I said that, I knew I had made a big mistake. The doctor’s attitude changed.”

Woodley said he was told they weren’t hiring him back as Santa. Macy’s argued, according to Woodley, that he was not suitable for the role because he was taking antidepressants. But Woodley, citing discrimination against AIDS, took legal action.

As Woodley’s case dragged on, Jon Winkleman, a young gay man from Rhode Island, had organized himself with the AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), when he read the situation. hard from Woodley in the log.

Jon Winkleman (right) and other members of the Action Tour are pictured dressing for the Macy's action on November 29, 1991.

Jon Winkleman (right) and other members of the Action Tour are pictured dressing for the Macy’s action on November 29, 1991.

Meryl Levin

He brought it to the group. “I just said, ‘We should do something about this,'” he recalls in the StoryCorps interview.

As part of an ACT UP subgroup called Action Tours, Winkleman said, “We did these crazy, colorful, theatrical zaps that were really impossible for the media to ignore.. “

On Black Friday 1991, the busiest shopping day of the year, they staged a front-page protest.

That day, 22 activists donned Santa Claus costumes and descended on Macy’s. Cheerful crowds watched the swarm of Saint Nicks walk into the 34th Street store in Manhattan, singing Christmas carols.

“Everyone is clapping and applauding because they think it’s so cute and adorable,” said Winkleman, 54.

When Santas reached the cosmetics aisle, they chained each other in a circle, he said. They then gave the holiday classics a new twist, singing lyrics like, “Santa has HIV, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la / Macy’s won’t hire him back, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. “

On that day, 19 Santa Claus were arrested, including Winkleman.

“It was genius,” said Woodley.

ACT UP Action Tours activists demonstrated at Macy's 34th St store in New York City on November 29, 1991.

ACT UP Action Tours activists demonstrated at Macy’s 34th St store in New York City on November 29, 1991.

Meryl Levin

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Macy’s Santa event.

“We forced the media and the public to talk about AIDS when they really didn’t want to talk about it,” Winkleman said. “We had a sense of humor in our business, but the backdrop was that the people we loved were dying.”

Woodley eventually came to an out-of-court settlement with Macy’s and continued to play the role of Santa Claus at various pediatric AIDS clinics in New York City.

In a statement reported by The Washington Post a day after the protest, the department store said Woodley was not offered the job “due to the specific type of drug he was taking and advice from our medical expert.” .

Contacted about this episode of StoryCorps, Macy’s said he could not discuss the decision not to offer Woodley the job of Santa, citing the time it would take to investigate a 30-year-old claim. and the low likelihood that he can share private job details.

In an email to NPR, the company added, “Macy’s has supported HIV / AIDS charities and community advocacy and outreach long before this date, at a time before it became mainstream. .

When Woodley remembers the loved ones he lost to AIDS, he said, “Sometimes that sorrow is so sweet. But other times there is such pain that they couldn’t live a busy life like I did. “

Product audio for Morning edition by Eleanor Vassili.

StoryCorps is a national non-profit organization that gives people the opportunity to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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