Two young actresses, Julianna Toth, left, and Kaia Russell, right, get to play Susan Walker with Hal Kerbes in the role of Kris Kringle. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

Hal Kerbes back in Chemainus for a favourite holiday blockbuster

Veteran actor comes out of retirement to play Kris Kringle and make us believe in Santa Claus

Veteran actor Hal Kerbes, who plays Kris Kringle in the Chemainus Theatre Festival’s holiday blockbuster, Miracle on 34th Street, has never appeared in this play before.

“I have done a lot of Santa-ing but I have not done Miracle on 34th Street. I basically retired from the stage four years ago. I was ill for a while and I went back and a couple of colleagues very kindly offered me a couple of roles.

“The last one I did was Elf, when I came here. That was four years ago. It’s a very fun show.”

Kerbes has spent a number of years away from the stage, in a different field entirely.

“When you get to be my size and my age, opportunities are more limited. I was very fortunate at that time to get a job with the faculty of medicine at the University of Calgary, where I worked as a standardized patient for many years. Now for the last four years I’ve worked there as a standardized patient trainer. I do a lot of managing and juggling, and training and teaching: things like that. I love it. I love being there. I feel as if I’m doing something of value, making better doctors for tomorrow.

“But, I’ve always said there are two or three things that would get me back on stage and this was one of them, so when Mark [DuMez, Chemainus Theatre Festival artistic director] asked me if I was willing to come out and do it, I said, ‘Yeah, I would.’

“Retirement is something you don’t actually look at when you work in the arts. These jobs don’t come with a pension; for most of four decades I’ve been self-employed. But we survived. We managed to raise the kids. It’s all good.”

Kerbes agreed that this show does come trailing its own clouds of glory and that it’s not always easy to present a story everyone already knows.

“But I’ve been Santa for a very long time. I have a great affinity for all the Santa shows. Elf was one of my favourite shows ever to do. I have done all the kinds of Santa Clausing you can do, from private parties to gigantic malls — all that sort of stuff — and I’ve written many Christmas musicals on and around Santa as well.

“This is just a delightful story; it’s so fun to do,” said Kerbes, a man who loves Christmas.

He worked with a theatre company in Calgary for several decades doing murder mysteries, Stage West for kids, corporate events and shows in connection with the Alberta Praire Steam Train. A lot of the shows had the actors get right down with the audience. Quite a few had a Christmas theme.

“The Christmas kids shows I did for Stage West were always musical, usually something Santa-based. We couldn’t do religious things because they were a very secular organization but we would go with something traditional but secular. It was fine. Our kids grew up on that stage and doing the shows with us. It was a family tradition.

“Before that, I was a professional Christmas caroller for a decade. Christmas has a long time association with me.”

Asked if there was anything special that the audience should watch for in this production, Kerbes said, “Well, one thing in particular is that it’s a very small cast. You might wonder where is everybody else because so many of the cast play other characters. Basically it’s even Fred, and Doris, and I. Everyone else, even the girls, other children, and the others have mulitple roles. There are some pretty fast costume changes back there.

“It’s such a delightful, wonderful group of people who are skilled and good natured and all the rest of it, working to put together a piece of family magic for Christmas. The little girls and boys are delightful. Our set is so whimsical. I think they’ve done a wonderful job of evoking the city and all the things we associate with Miracle on 34th Street. It’s so much fun.”

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