Stars of Wonder

Photos by Med Dement
Interviews by Julianne Hale

Every year, scores of beloved holiday characters journey to Chattanooga to light smiles on our faces and make the city a more magical place. Whether they come from Santa’s workshop, back in time, or somewhere high in the sky, they’ve come to love the Scenic City and are eager to spread holiday cheer to all. We caught up with a few to learn what they have in store for us this season.

Opera Tennessee’s Christmas Carolers

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Played by: Sara Snider Schone, founder of Opera Tennessee, and other members of Opera Tennessee (Pictured here L to R: Sara Snider Schone, Rachel Henderson, Bob Roza, and Rita Heckrotte)

Years Active: 4

Where to Hear Them Sing: Breakfast with Santa at the Chattanoogan Hotel and various Scenic City locations throughout the holiday season

CS: What compelled you to start a professional caroling group?

Sara Snider Schone: It’s a fun thing we started four years ago to entertain the people of Chattanooga and get them in the Christmas spirit. Last year, we sang in the lobby of the Chattanoogan Hotel. It’s a great thing for professional singers to do during the Christmas season. We have a roster of about 24 people and we sing in quartets.

CS: Do you always wear costumes? 

SSS: That depends on the event. We’ve made these ourselves and most people love the old-fashioned look! We decided to look like typical Dickens characters, with the women wearing full skirts and bonnets and the men wearing long capes and top hats. But we’re willing to change up our outfits. We did a private party once where the hosts asked us to wear ugly holiday sweaters, and that was fun for us.

CS: Do you interact with the crowd while you are caroling?

SSS: I certainly do! I’m a pretty chatty caroler. Sometimes we’re stationary and sometimes we move around. It depends on the gig but we like to engage with listeners.

CS: How do people react to you when they see you singing?

SSS: Some people stop in their tracks when they see us, some people sing along, and some just hang out for a while and take it all in. Last year, we were about halfway through our set in the lobby of The Chattanoogan when an older couple came and sat down in front of the fireplace. They stayed for about an hour just listening. It turned out that the woman used to go Christmas caroling when she was younger and hearing us sing really meant something to her.

CS: Do you vary the songs you sing or do you stick to the same set list?

SSS: We try to cater our set list to our audience and hosts. Our goal is to make sure everyone has a great time, so you can find us singing everything from sacred carols to “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” and other secular standards. 

The Tennessee Aquarium’s SCUBA Claus

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Played by: Tennessee Aquarium volunteer
SCUBA divers

Years Active: 6

Where to Find Scuba Claus:  At the Tennessee Aquarium, SCUBA diving in the River Journey in his red suit, from the weekend before Thanksgiving through the weekend before Christmas

CS: We all know that you live in the North Pole. How did you end up in Tennessee?

SCUBA Claus: A friend at the Tennessee Aquarium noticed I had a bit of downtime just before the holidays. I really love to SCUBA dive so he thought I might enjoy coming here for a few weeks. Ho, Ho, H2O, I like to say!

CS: How do you interact with guests when
you are underwater?

SC: I’m in the River Journey so I can’t communicate with words, but I don’t let that stop me from interacting with the girls and boys who come to visit me. Their eyes light up when they see me swimming in the tank. Sometimes I play rock, paper, scissors. I like to wave and lots of parents snap pictures of children with me waving beside them. 

CS: What is it like to swim in that big red suit?

SC: Well, here at the aquarium, the exhibits are kept at a comfortable temperature for the fish but it feels pretty cool to me. The suit helps keep me warm in the chilly water. Plus, I feel most comfortable in my business suit, even when I have my diving equipment on over it.

CS: Do you often SCUBA dive when you aren’t making and delivering toys?

SC: Yes, I do it as often as Mrs. Claus will let me. She doesn’t mind too much because scuba diving helps keep me in shape. We all know I have a belly like a bowl full of jelly and I have to make sure I can fit through the chimney.

CS: Does anyone bring you cookies when you are working at the Aquarium?

SC: Cookies? No, but I get lots of treats. I always have my fill of Little Debbies and Moon Pies when I’m in Chattanooga. Yum!

CS: What do the elves think of you swimming with the fish?

SC: Well, I do feel bad that I’m here enjoying myself while they are working so hard, but I try to send them elfies every time I get the chance, you know, to keep their spirits up.

The Creative Discovery Museum’s Jack Frost and Suzy Snowflake

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Played by: Kaylee Barrett (age 12) and Roman Penney (museum educator)

Years Active: 6

Where to find Jack and Suzy: The Creative Discovery Museum’s annual Snow Day Celebration on November 19

CS: What is the Snow Day Celebration at the museum?

Amy Barrett, Museum Experience Manager:  Snow Day is an annual celebration at the museum that is all about snow, winter activities, and things families can do together during the holiday season. We also have the honor of providing the first snowfall of winter inside the museum. Jack Frost and Suzy Snowflake help us make that happen.

CS: Tell us about Jack and Suzy.

AB: Jack Frost and Suzy Snowflake join visitors in the atrium on Snow Day, along with dancers from the Tempo Dance Studio in Fort Oglethorpe. Jack isn’t like some of the portrayals of him on TV and movies. He’s a nice guy in a tuxedo and red scarf and Suzy is a giant snowflake. They dance and sing with our guests and Jack juggles snowflakes and ushers in the first snow of the year.

CS: How does the museum manage to bring snow indoors?

AB: It’s the magic of Jack Frost – not the museum. He walks in and it starts snowing. It’s magical. It comes down right in the middle of the atrium. It’s so much fun to watch our guests’ faces light up when it comes down.

CS: Jack, could you tell us about this snow?

Jack Frost: Sure! It ushers in the holiday spirit. You can just feel Christmas in the air and the holidays around the corner. I love to bring the snow because it turns everyone into a kid again. It’s the one time adults run faster than kids!

CS: How did you meet Suzy?

JF: I found her one day just sitting by herself. I just couldn’t believe what a beautiful little snowflake she was so I invited her to join me. Suzy comes up with me every year to help bring the snow.

CS: What brings you to Chattanooga?

JF: I love the hills and the river and everything about the Tennessee Valley. It’s a such a beautiful place and it looks better with snow on the ground, so I come to make that happen. The energy and excitement that the first snowfall brings cannot be beat!

Tennessee Valley Railroad’s Mary Winters

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Played by: Mitzi Sanders (veteran
Tennessee Valley Railroad entertainer)

Years Active: 13

Where to find her: Tennessee Valley Railroad’s North Pole Limited Train Ride, from November 18 to December 31

CS: Can you tell us about Mary Winters?

Mary Winters: Well, lots of people don’t know this but Mary Winters is Jack Frost’s cousin and one of Mrs. Claus’s dearest friends. She lives about 100 miles south of Santa’s workshop where she herds penguins. One day, she brought her penguins to the North Pole to visit with Mrs. Claus and learned Santa’s elves were in trouble. They’d worked so hard making toys that they were sleep-deprived and had stopped dreaming altogether. Dreaming is a critical component of successful toymaking, so Santa asked Mary if her penguins might be willing to help out. They agreed and now Mary and her penguins join Santa and the elves every year.

CS: Can you tell us about Mary’s outfit?

MW: I wear a long black dress with black boots and a magical, fur-trimmed silver cape that was made by none other than Santa’s elves. One child pointed out to me that I was copying Elsa’s dress and I had to set her straight: Mary Winters was around long before Elsa ever wanted to build a snowman.

CS: What does a typical ride on the North Pole Limited like?

MW: You will board the car and, if I’m your host (there is one host per car), I will greet you and help you find a seat. Then, I’ll pass out refreshments and tell you the story of how I got involved with helping Santa each year while the train barrels towards the North Pole. Once we pass through the magic tunnel, I will point out the elves’ houses and you’ll get to see the beautiful lights of the North Pole. Passengers can even catch a glimpse of where the toys are stored in the warehouse and the coal pile Santa uses for the unfortunate children on the naughty list. On the way back we sing Christmas carols and I pass out gifts to each passenger.

Rock City Gardens’ Jerry the Toy Soldier

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Played by: Jerry Bowman (professional actor)

Years Active: 4

Where to find jerry: Rock City’s Enchanted Garden of Lights on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights from November 18 through December 31

CS: Tell us about Jerry the Toy Soldier.

Jerry Bowman: Jerry the Toy Soldier is a character I created for Rock City’s Enchanted Garden of Lights. I’m an actor and I specialize in pantomime. I worked at Rock City as a mime during Rocktoberfest and after the third season, I discussed the possibility of doing a Christmas character. Thus, Jerry the Toy Soldier was born.

CS: What does Jerry’s costume look like?

JB: I created the suit myself, piecing it together from a band uniform and hat I bought online, along with some battery-operated LED lights. I sewed them into my costume’s lapel area, and I can control the lights. The uniform evolves a little every year. This year, I plan to add some music and flashing lights.

CS: How do people respond to you as the toy soldier?

JB: I have this podium I stand on and my training in pantomime allows me to stay perfectly still. When I do move, I move robotically so many people assume I’m an animatronic. This can create some confusion so I’ve developed a little wink and smile to let people know I’m human. I do jokes and gags and I let the kids turn me back into a toy soldier. It’s pretty interactive and I think visitors young and old love the act.

CS: What’s the funniest reaction you’ve ever had?

JB: I had a guy come up to me who had absolutely made up his mind I was not human. He shook my hand, and when he felt the warmth of my skin he totally lost it. Sometimes people will take pictures with me, assuming I’m a statue or a robot, and I’ll wait until the second they hit the shutter button and come to life. It makes for some pretty funny reactions.

CS: What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened since you started working at Rock City?

JB: I’d have to say when Bill Chapin (owner of Rock City) and his team put together an ad campaign that included a billboard with a picture of me on it. I felt like a local celebrity.