Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa's Rocket Sleigh

I was a kid during America's "Space Age", which I would define as the period between the launch of Sputnik and the end of the Gemini space capsule launches. Anything to do with space, rockets, and astronauts was hot stuff, especially for young boys like myself. Space helmets, futuristic toy rifles and pistols, astronaut costumes, space-related games and model kits, all were popular, especially at Christmas time. Even Santa Claus joined the space age. I know because I took a ride in Santa's Rocket Sleigh.

It was a few days before Christmas in 1964, and my dad announced that Santa's Rocket Sleigh was coming to the new Greenwood shopping center on Indianapolis' south side. My brother and sisters and I put on our winter coats, piled into Dad's big old Buick, and headed out for a rather strange space-age holiday adventure. It was a cold sunny day, but there had been snow earlier so there were big melting "ice bergs" in the corners of the shopping center parking lot, deposited by the snow plows.

Santa's Rocket Sleigh was parked in the northeast corner of the gigantic parking lot. It was actually a customized bus with a white aircraft-like body, red trim, and big rocket tail fins. The front hatch opened like an old-style airplane entrance, hinged at the bottom so that it folded out-and-down to make a small stairstep entry. I think Santa was somewhere behind the rear of the rocket having a cigarette when I boarded the wierd craft. A woman in a very short Santa's helper dress guided us inside. The "cockpit" was pretty much like that of any city bus, and I remember there were porthole-style windows along both rows of seats.

Without fanfare, Santa entered the rocket, waved HI, and proceeded to drive us around the shopping center parking lot, past the grimy ice bergs of melting snow. The rocket's suspension showed its age, because I remember the ride was bumpy and rough, but I enjoyed it all the same.

After some research I discovered that the rocket sleighs were a travelling attraction in many parts of the United States during those years, even in Alaska. But, sadly, I've not been able to find any photos of this space-age holiday oddity like the one I rode in 1964. The Alaskan version has two booster rockets up top, almost like the space shuttle's, but the rocket sleigh in Indiana was much more streamlined. I did find a photo of the remains of another version, rusting in a junkyard, located by another grown-up rocket sleigh rider who remembers it like I do.

My home state of Indiana has another link to Santa's Rocket Sleigh. The late rockabilly singer Bobby Helms, who lived in Martinsville, Indiana, for most of his life, recorded this odd space-age Christmas song: CAPTAIN SANTA CLAUS AND HIS REINDEER SPACE PATROL. It would have been a great soundtrack for a rocket sleigh full of happy children, eagerly looking forward to the magic of Christmas day.

I wish everyone a very Merry Space-Age Christmas, and a prosperous, safe, and Happy New Year!


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At 12:00 PM EST, Blogger Scott Santoro said...

I'm quite happy to see pictures of the sleigh again. As you can see, I've been wondering about this for some time. Thanks for all the information. I suspect more than one version visited Dixie Manor in Louisville over the years.

At 8:54 AM EST, Blogger Mark Tabor said...

Here's one like the one we rode in Louisville, KY.

The one in Martinsville might have been the same one.

At 10:16 PM EDT, Anonymous Del Case said...

Last year the Louisville Orchestra performed a new piece I wrote - entitled ROCKET SLEIGH - on their holiday pops concerts. I didn't even know about the Louisville sleigh! Ah - the magic of Christmas.

Take a listen to the piece hear and let me know if it paints an effective musical picture:

At 10:10 PM EDT, Blogger Scott Santoro said...

Posted your youtube link, Del, on Facebook, along with pictures of the sleighs. How inspiring! Congratulations!

At 8:47 PM EST, Anonymous Jeff said...

Thank you so much for posting the Santa's Rocket ship info!! I was a passenger on Santa's Super Rocket in either 1962 or 63 and it is one of my earliest memories. At my age at the time it was a little confusing and I was waiting for takeoff at any moment. Another thing about that trip was I learned a new word. "Gimmick" I'd never heard it before and when the pretty lady came up the isle with pictures of the Super Rocket Sleigh I wanted one real bad. And then my dad said no, After the pretty lady in her costume passed our row he told me it was a gimmick and cost lotsa money. A few minutes later we pulled back up to the Sears and Roebuck store and got off the bus but I just stood and stared as the next load of kids pulled off.
It confused me because I had learned Santa had sleigh, and I held on so tight but the rocket never took off !!
But even at that young age, I will never forget the sweet pretty lady in the helpers costume! Never knew one day that eye candy would confuse me for the rest of my life!
(This was in Tuscaloosa Alabama at the Sear's shopping Center on 15th street and Hackberry Lane)

At 11:44 AM EDT, Blogger gificor said...


How are you doing? I miss your stories. I hope that you are doing well. My wife and I just had our first child, a boy, last month. I would love to read your stories to him. It will be a great way to get him started on some well written SF.

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