Genesis of the Film

As a filmmaker I was intrigued by the passionate debate engendered by plans to demolish Santa Claus and why an oversized plaster and wood figure would invoke such fervor among both its opponents and supporters.  In exploring the history of the debate I uncovered a trove of stories and experiences that deserved to be told and celebrated.  This was the genesis of “Roadside Santa” a film exploring the roadside attraction of Santa Claus Lane both in its current incarnation in Nyeland Acres and its now vanished nativity in Carpinteria.  As an artist and filmmaker I am intrigued with the role this piece of oversized late 1940s folk art that morphed Santa into a 20-foot tall piece of roadside art that is now, in its new home is juxtaposed with the Mexican folk traditions of Nyeland Acres.

Film Synopsis

In a journey that is not unlike a modern-day version of the traditional Posada, a 20-foot tall figure of Santa Claus has traveled down Highway 101 from the Carpinteria’s Santa Claus Lane to the impoverished Latino community of Nyeland Acres in Ventura County in search of a home.  Through its eventful history beginning as a roadside attraction and oversized piece of folk art anchoring a small, but diverse community of shopkeepers, workers, and their families in coastal Santa Barbara County during the 1940s, to its new home in Nyeland Acres near Oxnard, Santa’s journey as chronicled in “Roadside Santa” provides a window into the forces that have shaped post-World War II California.

In the film community members in both places Santa has called home — Nyeland Acres and Carpinteria — share their stories and memories about the larger-than-life iconic figure in this documentary.  Local scholars and community experts interpret these stories and explore how elements of the built environment, such as the Santa figure can become dynamic icons of community identity invested and reinvested with meanings by both residents and visitors.

Through melding stories of community residents, interviews with scholars and activists, archival footage and stills, the documentary explores themes of cultural transition in California as experienced in the disparate communities that Santa has called home.  By preserving and sharing the memories and stories of the now-vanished Santa Claus Lane, “Roadside Santa” creates a tangible reminder of a different time and place in California history that can mediate larger discussions of identity, memory, place, and the past at a time when American culture has become increasingly more uniform, homogenized, and gentrified. “Roadside Santa” illuminates how the residents of Nyeland Acres have welcomed Santa to their neighborhood and reinvented him as a potent and positive symbol of community identity, demonstrating the adaptive capacities of new immigrant communities and American culture alike.

History of Santa Claus Lane

Constructed in 1947, near the community of Carpinteria, Santa Claus was part of a roadside attraction known as Santa Claus Lane, a two-lane roadway that paralleled the south side of U.S. Highway 101, just west of the City of Carpinteria.  Between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, Santa Claus Lane featured a thriving array of stores restaurants, motels, and a post office, as well as attractions, including a child’s train, small zoo, and pony rides, that catered both to travelers and nearby communities.  It was home to some 25 residents, including the McKeon family, who created Santa Claus Lane, shopkeepers and others who lived and worked there.  With its visual juxtaposition of the rolling surf of the Pacific Ocean and an imagery more traditionally associated with the North Pole, Santa Claus Lane became a successful roadside attraction. For those who lived and worked there Santa Claus Lane provided both a home and an opportunity for realizing the American dream through entrepreneurial business ownership.

In 2003, amidst much controversy, the Santa figure was removed from the rooftop of Santa’s Kitchen on Santa Claus Lane and relocated 30 miles south to the community of Nyeland Acres in Ventura County, where it now resides enshrined and restored in a well-manicured enclosure facing the freeway.  Although geographically close and linked by the 101 Freeway, these two communities are culturally, economically, and socially diverse.  Nyeland Acres is an unincorporated, rural region in Ventura County. With a population of 3,000, the community is 95% Latino.  Comprised primarily of Mexican immigrants, it includes indigenous Oaxacans (Mixtecos), and American Chicanos. This underrepresented and economically impoverished community, marginalized for years by the larger Oxnard area, has changed dramatically with the arrival of the “larger than life” roadside hero.

Although Santa did not initially receive a warm reception from everyone, the figure is now embraced as a positive symbol of community identity by forming a focus for events and seasonal celebrations, such as Posadas, parades, toy drives, and a fundraising half marathon, “Santa to the Sea.” Since its arrival the Latino community has integrated Santa Claus into its community and cultural life.  Without jettisoning its own rich traditions a stronger, more cohesive community has emerged. As one teen commented, “People notice us now. Santa gave us hope and an opportunity to make some changes in our community.”

Project History

I have been working on “Roadside Santa” for the last five years gathering documentary footage, interviews and historical information.  Approximately 45 hours of footage has been shot and is now in the process of being edited into a 30 to 60 minute film.