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Interview

Santa’s Queen

Donna Strother Deekens recalls her ‘special connection’ with Miller & Rhoads’ Legendary Santa.

By Donna Gregory Burch

“Almost every little girl dreams of being a princess or a queen at one time or another,” begins Donna Strother Deekens’ book, “Christmas at Miller & Rhoads: Memoirs of a Snow Queen.”

Deekens’ dream came true in 1971 when, as a college student, she was hired by Miller & Rhoads department store in downtown Richmond to play Santa’s best helper, the Snow Queen.

Donning a beautiful, flowing white gown and a sparkling tiara, Deekens found inspiration in her own memories of visiting the “real” Santa at Miller & Rhoads as a child. She’d spend 20 Christmases playing the Snow Queen, bringing the joy and magic of the holidays to thousands of kids who came to sit on Santa’s lap every year.

Deekens officially hung up her tiara in 1991, after Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers department stores closed, but she continues to reprise her role as Snow Queen a few times a year while hosting children’s tea parties through her business, Teapots, Treats and Traditions.

(When Miller & Rhoads closed after the 1989 Christmas season, Santaland moved across the street to Thalhimers department store. Thalhimers closed just two years later. After several moves, Santaland is now at the Children’s Museum of Richmond.)

In October, Deekens released her latest book, “The Real Santa of Miller & Rhoads: The Extraordinary Life of Bill Strother.” Henrico Monthly recently sat down with Deekens to chat about her memories of the “real” Santa, Bill Strother.

How did you become a Miller & Rhoads Snow Queen?

I was a student in 1971 at Westhampton College of the University of Richmond. For years, I was in music and theater, and I was a music minor and a theater and journalism double major at University of Richmond. I heard [Miller & Rhoads was] looking for a Snow Queen. With my performance background and having loved Miller & Rhoads as a child and going to see Santa there, I just thought being Snow Queen would be such a wonderful job and something that I thought I could really embrace. I went down there and applied.

Snow Queens and Elves were considered special [employees] for the holiday season. We were paid just minimum wage and, for somebody in college, that was OK. I just wanted a Christmas job.

Little did I know it would turn into a job that would last 20 years. I continued [playing the Snow Queen] through my college years at Christmastime and then after I graduated, I began a full-time job and I would still try to take some vacation time at Christmastime to be the Snow Queen because I was so enamored with the idea.

I loved being part of history. It was a part of the tradition in downtown Richmond. Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers were not just traditions that were locally loved. It was folks from all over the state and the East Coast who would come to see the real Santa. I just felt very honored and privileged to be a part of that. It really made my Christmas.

What were your duties as Snow Queen?

The Snow Queen was really the main helper for Santa. Santaland was on the seventh floor of the store and that’s where he held court. The children would come up to the Snow Queen first, and she would chat with them and find out their names and put them at ease. [The Snow Queen would relay the child’s name to Santa using a special “connection,” which is still a secret to the general public.] Then Santa would be able to call over the child [by name] and say, “Well, hi Sarah. How are you? Nice to see you this year.”

It became the most important feature of visiting that particular Santa because he knew your name without you having to tell him. [The special “connection”] was patented for the first 20 years, so from 1942 until about 1962 nobody else could do that. It was a Miller & Rhoads thing. I think that was one of the things that set [Santa at Miller & Rhoads] apart from what I call the rubber-boot Santas on the corner ringing a bell.

Share some of your fondest memories of being the Snow Queen?

Santa would come down the chimney first thing in the morning, and he’d have a whole audience waiting to see him. The room would be packed and there would be a line that had formed all the way downstairs to come up to the seventh floor.

In one particular instance, I remember Santa came down the chimney and when he comes down, he makes his entrance, and he greets the crowd, and he introduces his Snow Queen and his Elf, and he’s combing his hair and getting ready to see the first child. While he’s doing that, that was the Snow Queen’s cue to talk to the first child in line. It was a busy day and a packed room and this little boy was the first in line. He’d probably been waiting there since before the store opened. He came up and I said, “Hi Benjamin. Wait right here and Santa will see you.”

So Benjamin goes over and gets on Santa’s knee and, of course, he’s excited because Santa knew his name. Santa’s chatting with him and asking if he’s been good this year and what he would like for Christmas. Benjamin gets off Santa’s knee and Santa says, “Now you be good and remember Santa loves you.”

I’m expecting Santa to [greet the next child in line] but Santa puts down his microphone on his chair and he stands up … and he says, “Moms and dads, boys and girls, I need to take a quick break to check on the reindeer.” When he says that, the whole crowd says, “Oh, no!” because some of them had been waiting a long time to see him.

I was perplexed because we had just started and I couldn’t imagine why he was taking a break. I was concerned that something was wrong with him – that he was ill or something.

We go back behind the set and we shut the door. I said, “Santa, what’s wrong? Why did you break so early? We just started.”

He said, “Little Benjamin was so excited that he peed on me and I have to change my pants!”

Tell us about Bill Strother, the “real” Santa of Miller & Rhoads and the inspiration behind your latest book.

[Bill Strother] was the Santa of my childhood that I remember. In my book, you see a picture of me and my sister visiting him in 1956. I always felt like he was my magical Santa.

We were living in Portsmouth at the time and would come up to Richmond, like so many other families did, from Hampton Roads to visit the real Santa at Miller & Rhoads. My father told us later after we got older that [Santa’s] real name was Bill Strother, and he felt we surely were related because Strother was such an unusual name. I always felt that was a neat link that I had to him, especially after I became a Snow Queen. I knew he sort of started [the tradition of Santa at Miller & Rhoads] in 1942, but we didn’t know for sure the confirmation of the family link until my sister, Judy, … traced our lineage back to the same Jeremiah Strother who settled down in North Carolina and South Carolina, and that is the direct [ancestor] of both Bill Strother and my family. So, we’re cousins.

I [had] heard he was the “Human Spider,” but I knew very little about him prior to his Miller & Rhoads years. In doing the research for this book, it took me on a fascinating journey of his climbing years as the Human Spider, climbing over 1,000 buildings in the United States and Canada from about 1914 to about 1926.

When he couldn’t climb anymore, he decided he wanted to work solely with children if he could. As Santa Claus, he almost felt like it was a calling. He had that same “Miracle on 34th Street” kind of commitment and passion that I feel is what set him apart from some of the other Santas.

It’s a fascinating journey of his life and had he lived longer than his 61 years, I think he probably would have stayed at the store.

His real vision was to be a year-round Santa … because he felt like Santa Claus should bring the spirit of giving all through the year and not just at Christmastime. He really felt like he was the real Santa and, of course, I feel like that, too – at least he was for me.

Over the years, you’ve written four Christmas-related books. What inspired you? Are there any more books in the works?

My first book, “Christmas at Miller & Rhoads: Memoirs of a Snow Queen,” published in 2009, was a project I envisioned writing for years. With the sad demise of the downtown department stores in Richmond and nationwide, I felt it was important to chronicle the influence and importance of such a time. People who remember the days of Miller & Rhoads say there will never be anything like it again.

I was encouraged by Earle Dunford and George Bryson, co-authors of “Under the Clock: The Story of Miller & Rhoads,” to pen my memoirs. They had interviewed me for their book, and I had told them of my dream to someday write down the memories of my time as a Snow Queen at the store.

In 2010, a children’s book, titled “Santaland: A Miller & Rhoads Christmas,” followed.

In 2013, I thought it would be very interesting to tell the story of the Santa Claus trains, so I enlisted the help of retired railroad engineer and author Doug Ridell, and together we co-wrote “Virginia’s Legendary Santa Trains.” I had the privilege of riding the last Santa Train that ran from Richmond to Ashland in 1971.

I had always thought Bill Strother’s life was fascinating. With my background as a former Miller & Rhoads Snow Queen, and since I recently confirmed that indeed we are cousins, it seemed like a good idea to pursue learning more about him.

There are no other books in the works at the moment, but I’m always fascinated with history.

What are a few of your family’s favorite Christmas traditions?

Before the downtown Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers stores closed, my family would make it a tradition to view the beautiful store windows and marvel at the lights and decorations. My children were small in the late 1980s into the early 1990s, but it was still fun to savor the Christmas wonder of downtown, especially since I worked as a Snow Queen at the time. Through the years, we have continued to enjoy decorating our home, both inside and out, with treasured Christmas decorations that have been passed down to us through several generations, from both sides of our families.