Tuesday, June 22, 2021
Sun Valley Santa was One of a Kind
Santa, who went under the alias of Jack Williams 11 months of the year, was a fixture in Sun Valley.
Saturday, May 15, 2021

Sun Valley Santa was an Icon

He was a Sun Valley Icon—the only Santa many youngsters growing up in the Wood River Valley ever knew.

As Santa, Jack Williams had to ride in a horse-drawn sleigh through the streets of Ketchum during the 1980s because the city didn’t keep them plowed as well as today. He showed up to Ketchum tree lightings riding in a fire truck bucket. And he was a mainstay at Sun Valley Resort’s annual tree lighting ceremony, often in a sleigh pulled by a miniature horse.

Williams passed away this week at age 90. And he was immediately hailed by some as “Best Santa ever.”

Paula and Keith Perry remember filling up at a gas station where they spotted Jack Williams wearing jeans and a denim jacket. “My daughter Courtney whispered, ‘Dad, I think that’s Santa, and he’s dressed just like us,’ “ Keith Perry recalled.

Here is a look at Sun Valley’s Santa:


The road to Santa’s house—a log A-frame home in the shadow of Bald Mountain—is not lined with peppermint sticks.

But you know once inside that you’ve arrived at a very special place.

Margaret Kraft calls on a child with a question for Santa at the Wood River Community YMCA, where Santa often traded his red suit for swim trunks to teach children how to swim.

Everything smacks of Santa—from the array of Old World Santa figurines sitting on the knotty fireplace mantle to the stockings draped over Santa’s rocking chair to the candy cane box sitting on the kitchen counter.

“I look forward to this time of year. I love seeing the excitement radiating from the kids, the joy in their faces,” Santa says, turning on Christmas music before he settles into Santa’s throne, a wicker chair in which he can bask in the sun streaming through the large picture windows.

Santa arrived in Ketchum in 1977 disguised as Jack Williams—photographer. A native of San Francisco, he had been enchanted by the dog sled scene in the movie “Sun Valley Serenade” and wanted to be to Sun Valley what photographer Ansel Adams was to Yosemite.

But it was when he donned his famous red costume to pose with people having their picture taken on top of Bald Mountain that he realized his true calling.

Santa wasn’t just for kids. He also posed with the girls at the Senior Connection—Marie Gallo, Teresa Beahen Lipman and Leslie Silva.

“If he’s not the perfect Santa, I don’t know who is,” says Ketchum resident Carol Harlig. “Do you know anyone who looks more like Santa? Look at that little twinkle in his eye!”

It took some special skills to be a mountaintop Santa. A number of drinking clubs inhabited Sun Valley in its early days, and when they toasted the mountain, Santa had to toast it with them.

Then he had to snowplow 3,400 vertical feet of mountain very carefully, waving his hand in the manner of rodeo queens while greeting skiers with his “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

“It was hard on the quads but it was the only way. It wouldn’t have done for Santa to have fallen, for the kids to see Santa parts all over the place,” he says.

Jack Williams, who stood in for Santa in Sun Valley for years, served as the Grand Marshal of Ketchum’s Wagon Days parade in 2018—and he was quick to drink milk and cookies, even while wearing a cowboy hat.

Ketchum didn’t used to plow its streets as readily and thoroughly as it does now, which meant Santa could go to his gigs in a horse-drawn sleigh.

His busy Christmas Eve schedule at private homes throughout the valley included the home of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore when their three daughters were young.

“I remember one time, going to their home and sitting down and eating the cookies and milk they’d left out for me while Bruce went to get the girls. Next thing I know Bruce was saying, ‘That’s perfect.’ I said, ‘I haven’t done anything.’ But he had awakened the girls and they saw me sitting there and they knew Santa had come.”

A twinkle brightens Santa’s eyes: “I ask people, ‘How come Demi Moore paid me to sit in my lap? It’s because she hired me as Santa.’ ”


When it comes time to make an appearance as the jolly old man, Santa retrieves his red velvet suit from among the flannel shirts hanging in his walk-in closet and dons it over red underwear—“the kids don’t like you to wear street clothes underneath your suit,” he confides.

He pulls a pair of white dress gloves out of a red velvet bag trimmed in white fur, sets a pair of spectacles atop his nose and pulls black irrigation boots on over his feet.

“The kids don’t like Sorrels, either,” he says.

Properly attired, he heads off to his gig—at Giacobbi Square, F Stop, Sun Valley’s Tree Lighting Festival, the Valley Club...

At 83—he’ll be 84 in January--he’s had plenty of time to refine his techniques.

He’s learned how to hold his hand and how to purse his lips when the picture is snapped. He encourages mothers to sit with their children to calm those who might be a little shy and to give them the opportunity to hear what their children are telling Santa.

And, given the opportunity, he asks the child’s parents if they can tell him something special about their child.

“Maybe it’s something they’ve never said to the child, something the child is hearing for the first time,” he says.

“My main job is checking his gloves and making sure they’re clean,” says Mrs. Claus, who goes by the name Patti Williams. “He says Santa gets them dirty going down the chimney, but I don’t think it would do for Santa to have dirty gloves.

“He takes his job so seriously. He practices ‘Frosty the Snow Man’ and other songs every time the holidays approach. He keeps up on which toys are popular. He even curls his hair with a curling iron.”

Santa has carefully constructed answers for the questions he gets asked year after year.

“I tell them Santa doesn’t need his sleigh except when he’s delivering presents. Or that I can’t bring the reindeer with me to the ice rink because the reindeer would slip and slide on the ice. They ask me how I get around the world so fast—I tell them that I don’t really know how it works—that the elves take care of the presents and the reindeer get me where I need to go.

“But I always tell them to look hard and they might see the sleigh go through the fireworks on Christmas Eve and that they need to check their presents for burn marks.”


Oftentimes, a parent will confide something that needs correcting.

“I asked one little boy, ‘Do you think you can try not to wet your pants, anymore?’ Immediately he went home and said, ‘Daddy, I need big boy pants now.’ Another time, I told a little boy that I didn’t want him to hit his sister anymore. His mother told me he did well for two months then started to pull his hand back. Suddenly he looked around as if to see if Santa was around.”

Over the years, “Star Wars” games, Barbie dolls and Cabbage Patch dolls have given way to “Frozen” toys.

Santa’s been asked to pose with a snake and a pet crab. He’s commiserated with children who confide in him that their daddy won’t be with the family this Christmas. And he’s exhorted children whose parents have lost their jobs to remember that the love of family is more important than a bunch of presents under the tree.

“I had a little girl tell me she was Jewish. I tell her, ‘Well, Santa has enough love for everyone.’ ”

He pauses, “I like to think that Santa expresses Christ’s love—that he expresses unconditional love, just as Christ expresses unconditional love.”

That extends for adults, as well as children.

When Mary Austin Crofts returned to the valley in agony and pain after her husband was murdered in a botched burglary attempt in Panama, Santa bought her lunches and coffee, accompanied her to Salt Lake City to pick up her dog, and took her on daily walks pointing out the beautiful light in the creek or the way the light was hitting the snowcapped peaks.

“I can tell you that Jack Williams lives in the spirit of Santa every day,” she says. “When I moved into my new place with very little, he brought me three beautiful prints to frame and told me the story of each one.  He cleaned out his tools and put together a care package for me so I could hang prints or measure things. He and his wife Patti invited me everywhere. They called me to be sure I was okay and they included me in all of their activities.

“He has a wonderful sense of humor and personifies goodness. He is Santa every day.”
  It doesn’t seem to faze the children of Sun Valley when they see Santa walking around in a Hawaiian shirt in summer.

“I’ve overheard kids say, ‘Mother’s that’s Santa in disguise.’ Another time I was at Grumpy’s and I heard an Australian child say, ‘Daddy, you’re right. Santa does drink beer.’ Kids are going to put all the odds in your favor,” he says.

When Christmas is over, Santa’s ready for a break, especially considering he still works a good 15 gigs a year.

“It’s a relief to be myself again, to walk into a room and not be the center of attention,” he says.

But—after 35 years--all it takes is someone to look at him and smile in a knowing way or to greet him as Santa, even on Easter, to get him thinking about Christmas again.

“I’ve been blessed with health and privilege. And being Santa has given me a tradition to look forward to,” he says. “I used to be Jack Williams—photographer. Now I say, ‘No, I’m Jack Williams—Santa.”


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