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A South Philly street’s Christmas tradition still pumping despite deflating Santa

“He looks like me on a bad night,” said a human Santa, walking by a bent-over, half-inflated Santa, who looked like a Mummer after a long day on Two Street. What’s up with all these deflated holiday inflatables?

Santa has some issues on an otherwise flawless Christmas display on Smedley Street in South Philadelphia.
Santa has some issues on an otherwise flawless Christmas display on Smedley Street in South Philadelphia.Read moreAmy S. Rosenberg / Staff

Problem Santa was refusing to inflate.

Minute after minute beyond sunset on Smedley Street in South Philly, Santa remained doubled over at the waist, like a Mummer returning after a long day on Two Street. Had he been naughty?

Or was he just, like so many of his blow-up peers now crowding a lawn near you, chronically underinflated?

Nearby, Minnie Mouse Santa stood tall and judgmentally, inflated hand on inflated hip.

From behind, Grinch, all puffed up and green, smirked.

Even 18-foot Frosty (at $399.95 at Hammacher Schlemmer, Frosty is an elite inflatable) had come fully to life, leisurely realizing his mythical potential by filling with air, snowball by snowball, until he and his top hat stood tall over Smedley Street, the little neighborly block with an annual median-strip Christmas wonderland tucked in hard by Broad and Oregon.

But not Santa.

Embarrassingly, his limp figure was attracting attention.

“He looks like me on a bad night,” noted another Smedley Santa, this one a human one, walking the sidewalks of the always-festive neighborhood attraction.

It’s a nightly drama on Smedley Street, a 70-year-old tradition currently curated by residents Mike Montecalvo and Joe Brennan, and elsewhere, as holiday inflatables battle wind, mud, air-blown technology, and a simple existential question every person who chooses an inflatable must grapple with:

Is it OK to leave them deflated during the day?

Is it sacrilegious for your blow-up nativity scene to lie like a heap on your lawn all day, while across the street, a proudly traditionalist wooden reindeer and wreath never go off duty?

Is it worth buying yourself a blow-up Santa in a hot-air balloon, your Santa Minions in a snow cone truck, your Olaf from “Frozen,” your faux wooden soldiers, if they look like sad puddles of grounded Santa, mutated Minions, melted animated imaginary snowmen, and fallen soldiers in the off hours?

‘For God’s sake, keep them inflated’

On this night, it took a nudge by Smedley resident Barbara Oldrati, boldly reaching in and pulling out Santa’s legs, untangling him to allow the oddly placed rear-end fan to complete the blow-up job.

And like any proper Christmas parable, the day was saved, albeit with some South Philly snark.

“Santa’s down,” said Oldrati. “Call 911.”

Montecalvo and Brennan acknowledge the limitations of inflatables, now an integral part of the massive Smedley Street Christmas display, with a dozen or so inflatables including the original Candy Cane arches. They’ve rigged up poles to keep water, mud, wind, and a dubious fan placement from permanently downing their treasured holiday displays.

“When you first buy them, they only come with strings to hold them up like from the wind," says Brennan. "When it rains or snows, the ground gets all muddy, and then the inflatables get all muddy. Once it rains or snows, they’re very hard to get back up. They get heavy. You put the poles in, and it keeps them off the ground.”

There’s a simple fix. Just ask Steven Harris, the vice president of product development at Gemmy Industries, the Coppell, Texas-based company that has about a 90 to 95 percent share of the inflatables market (though not giant Frosty), and they’ve cornered the licensing market with the likes of Disney and Warner Brothers.

They’re the same company that marketed Big Mouth Billy Bass, the singing fish on a plaque that’s probably still in your basement, so do not underestimate these people.

They’re also responsible for the projection displays that project dancing lights and images on people’s houses with the flip of a switch, no pesky ladders required to hang actual Christmas lights.

To the likes of critics like @bleusharque who opined on Twitter that Christmas inflatables are “obnoxious enough when they’re inflated … [b]ut … TOTALLY demoralizing when they’re DEflated,” and urged his neighbors, “FOR GOD’S SAKE, keep them INFLATED!” Harris doesn’t defend the deflated.

“You don’t need to leave them as a deflated item in your yard during the day,” insisted Harris, the Gemmy product developer.

“One of the great things about air blows is they look awesome during the day,” he says. “The metallics, they radiate. It’s really not a lot of electricity. It’s basically the same amount of power as a regular string of lights.”

But on Smedley Street, they’re not buying it. Their entire display is on a timer — lights, inflatables, and all. It goes on around sunset.

“That’s all good and all, but is he going to pay for the electric bill? And the lights?” says Brennan.

“The lights only run for so long,” says Montecalvo.

“Each year, we had to replace all the lights inside all four of these candy cane archways because they blew out,” says Brennan. “The grinch, that’s over there in the circle, the motor completely blew out. We had to replace this.”

Care and feeding of inflatables

Yes, the care and feeding of inflatables is a touchy subject.

But there’s no denying their ever-spreading popularity. They’ve inspired condo-association fights in San Antonio, and neighborly eye-rolling in Lower Merion, particularly in the case of a 100 Day Countdown to Christmas Santa Inflatable, which required being installed back in, well, you do the math.

The inflatable craze was the brainchild of Gemmy co-owner Dan Flaherty, Harris said, inspired by “the gorillas in front of car dealers.”

“We invented the category,” said Harris. “We patented our fans. We use exclusive fabrics that inflate well.”

Every year, the inflatables get more intricate, and now include options for projecting animated designs or words onto the inflatables, computer mapping, and snow globes with recirculating Styrofoam pellets.

“Our living projections was a new launch for this year,” Harris said. “We map it. It basically puts specific designs on the air blows."

The new projection-mapping technology is featured on the Gemmy’s 8-foot Mickey Mouse globe — at Lowes, now $134.50, reduced from $269.

“You’re going to get one projection on the head of the Mickey, another design on his two ears," explains Harris. "On the bottom, something that says something festive.”

Back on Smedley, the basic technology is hit or miss with their problem Santa. But on this neighborly street, someone is always around to help out an inflatable at showtime.

“Frosty down there, he takes a couple minutes to get up because he’s so gigantic,” says Brennan. “Santa right here, he has trouble sometimes because there’s no way to secure his feet on the bottom. On this one, the fan is on the back. It blows into Santa. That’s how it was made. Last night, Santa was halfway blown up. I had to reach in, and now I’m being swallowed by this half-blown up Santa. It doesn’t happen every night.”