“They just sort of appeared and walked towards me,” says fiddler Bill Lestock. "And as fast as it happened, they disappeared.”
Lestock set his pitch on the corner of the Higbee’s building on Oct. 8, 1987. The high was 46 degrees, three notches above the busker’s personal cap. Wary of May Company’s anti-busker stance, an American fiddle tune radiated from his amp.
The Santas — completing the costume with white sneakers and cowboy boots —began to do-si-do. From the 1970s to 1990s, members of Case Western Reserve University’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity volunteered an annual Santa Claus cameo for the American Heart Association’s cookbook, restaurant guide and greeting card sale.
In 1978, the “red brigade” paraded downtown with Julie Ann Cashel, Playboy model and Dick Goddard’s longtime girlfriend. In 1980, the Santa horde crowded the RTA rapid from E. 120th Street to Euclid Avenue to sing carols at the Terminal Tower. In 1989, they rode a rocket around Public Square.
After busking in frigid Portland, Maine, and the volatile Florida Keys, a dozen underweight Santas didn’t surprise Lestock.
“That’s the spontaneity of playing in the street,” Lestock says.
In addition to playing, Lestock taught at Goose Acres Folk Music Center and drove a cab (the latter he despised).
Today, CWRU’s FIJI brothers volunteer at an urban farm, Vel’s Purple Oasis, and rake leaves and purge litter from Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens. Lestock, a Chardon resident and Cleveland firefighter, still plays — guitar, mandolin and fiddle — and is in the band Mo’ Mojo.