At this time of year for the last three years, Joe Gruslin of Pawtucket has visited the Warwick Mall for a gig that has him smiling.
He’s cut out for it, too. He has a short, neatly trimmed moustache, a white beard and a twinkle in his eye. His figure is a little on the heavy side, but that’s just perfect. He enjoys kids, which is a good thing. He has five of his own and another four stepdaughters from his second marriage. And then there are 10 grandchildren.
COVID-19 wasn’t going to stop Joe from being Santa, although the virus took his mother on Aug. 20. He said he was a bit anxious and wanted to make sure his visitors were safe. He was prepared Saturday, the first day of photos with Santa as taken by Fernando Martinez and his helpers from Melino Photo of Warwick. Santa wore a clear shield that fit snuggly under his cap without distorting his visage. A low bench is in front of him where his visitors are sufficiently distanced, yet from the angle of the camera gives the appearance they are close to sitting together.
Joe is a little put off by the precautions. Kids won’t be able to sit on his lap and whisper into his ear what they would like for Christmas. As he and the kids will be facing the same way, Joe laments, “I won’t be able to see their smiles.” Yet, by the same token, he imagines there will be far fewer of those situations in which a child, excited about their visit with Santa, freezes when they finally come face-to-face with the jolly elf, even breaking down into tears.
There was none of that Saturday morning as brothers Nova and Nuko Cilley of Middletown became his first visitors of the season. There wasn’t a crush of people waiting for their photos, which gave the boys the chance to share their Christmas wishes. The boys pondered what they would like for Christmas, seemingly lost for words while Santa leaned in on a knee to catch what they had to say when they had the gumption to tell him.
The boys’ parents seemed to be enjoying the moment as much as their kids.
It was Joe’s parents’ health that brought him and his family back to Rhode Island from Tampa, Florida, where he had worked for 12 years as a pipe fitter on heating and cooling systems. His father passed away some time ago and then when his mother, who had breathing issues, caught COVID, he said it was only a matter of 24 hours before it took her.
Now retired, Joe is happy donning a Santa suit and being a star attraction at the mall. Warwick Mall is the only venue he frequents as Santa. He’s happy with that.
For the Martinez, who now runs the photography business Gary Melino started, the pandemic has brought uncertainties. He wonders how many people will be comfortable visiting the mall, no less bringing their children along with them. While supplies last, he’s giving Christmas themed masks to his visitors and providing those who come early before the anticipated rush the week before Christmas with a QR code enabling them to access their photos digitally at no charge so they can share it with family and friends.
Linda Campbell, mall marketing director, said there was never a question whether Santa would be returning to the mall this year in spite of COVID.
“They’ll all be wearing masks,” she said last week when asked if Santa would be coming.
“Well, yes even the reindeer and Rudolph.” And then she started laughing. If Rudolph was masked, how was he to guide Santa to Warwick Mall?
He’s there, however, from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.