For more than 30 years, Scrooge has berated and entertained shoppers at Dallas’ NorthPark Center. Stand outside his window and you never know what insult the puppet might hurl at you. KERA’s Stephen Becker talks to the man who’s performed the show from the beginning. And it might surprise you to learn he’s actually a pretty nice guy:
KERA Radio story:
At precisely the top of the hour, the shutters creep open and a crotchety old man emerges from his second story window. Through the round glasses perched on the end of his nose, he glares at the crowd of squaters outside his house. And then he opens his pursed mouth to ask just who exactly is making all that noise?
SCROOGE: “Chitter chatter, chitter chatter – it’s all I hear all day long. Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. Hum-bug!”
It’s a version of the same crabby opening to the Scrooge puppet show that generations of shoppers have heard at Dallas’ NorthPark Center. And for all those years, John Hardman has been the voice and puppeteer behind Christmas’ most famous curmudgeon.
At this point, it’s part of his identity. Between shows, he laughs easily and smiles often while sipping coffee and telling stories of his 50 years as a professional puppeteer. But come late November, even Hardman’s wife says he and Scrooge become one.
HARDMAN: “She says I get into Scrooge a week before and it takes me a month to get out of it.”
Hardman got his start performing a Punch and Judy show at Six Flags in the 60s. NorthPark founder Raymond Nasher saw a performance and let Hardman know that he was looking for a Christmas show for the mall.
Thirty three years and two scrooge puppets later, Hardman is still performing the show – as many as 10 per day from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. That’s about 300 per season. Lucky for Hardman, he’s mostly retired. And like Santa, he’s got the rest of the year to get ready for the holiday grind.
At this point, the basic structure of the Scrooge show is set. First, Hardman looks into the crowd for a guy – always a guy – to rib.
From there, backdoor compliments – usually about what they guy’s wearing – get things rolling.
SCROOGE: “Be thrifty like that gentleman standing up there in that sport jacket with his hands behind his back. Now there’s a thrifty man. That’s a good lookin’ jacket, sir. When that comes back in style, you’re gonna have you a winner.”
HARDMAN: “One of the secrets of this whole thing is knowing who not to pick on. … I can look at a person and just about tell you what I can say to them.”
The insults are pretty standard – if you don’t look like you have it all together, Scrooge will probably say you’re either an Aggie or from Oklahoma.
And though he takes it easier on the kids, they’re not immune to Scrooge’s complain’ either. Scrooge always asks a kid his name and how old he is. From there, it’s open season.
SCROOGE: “You’re never going to get a good job if you stand around with your hands in your pockets. It makes you look lazy. I’m sure you are, but there’s no reason to advertise it.”
When Hardman was developing the show, he ran basic lines by a child psychologist to make sure nothing he said would really hurt any of the kids’ feelings long-term. Once the kids have been mildly chided, Scrooge usually has a special present for them. At the end of the show, he asks them to stand up and open their arms wide for their present. And then he pulls out the squirt gun.
HARDMAN: “Now they all know it’s coming, and they all want it, and now they get angry or upset if they’re not squirted. … It’s become a badge of honor or something.”
Scrooge doesn’t care much for most people. But he does have a soft spot for older women. He loves ‘em – the older, the better. And if he spots a white-haired woman sitting on a bench, Scrooge is on the prowl.
SCROOGE: “How are you lady? … I know I’m interested. I just don’t remember why.”
Part of the appeal of the show is that, during a time when people are bombarded with do-gooding and holiday cheer, Scrooge sticks to his guns. He’s just as surly at the end of the show as at the beginning.
Except for the very last show on Christmas Eve.
HARDMAN: “He finally comes out and says Merry Christmas. But it takes him three minutes to do it. And it’s very difficult for him, but he finally does it. And then he’s happy about it.”
But come Thanksgiving, Scrooge will have that sour taste back in his mouth.