Spend a few minutes with Ra’ul Umana as he puts the finishing touches on Archie the Snowman and you realize you are experiencing an encounter with Akron’s “Father Christmas.”
In the basement of the old O’Neil’s building on South Main Street near Lock 3 Park, Umana looks at the 15-foot-tall talking snowman — which will welcome visitors starting Friday — as if he is looking at a beautiful grandchild or a perfect piece of blown glass he has just created.
“I was in charge of the Archies, and I hired the pixies and Archie voices,” said Umana, 64, speaking with a voice of authority on the topic of the Christmas icon that was on display at Chapel Hill Mall from 1968 until 2004.
This year, the festive-looking Umana was put in charge of re-creating Archie and putting together Archie’s Enchanted Encounter, located in the basement of the longtime downtown department store. It includes some displays from the old O’Neil’s Christmas windows.
Umana spent time making some of the Archies in years past and was the voice of Archie for many holiday seasons, talking to an estimated 21,000 kids one season. Archie was resurrected this year after local fans Tommy Uplinger and David Burkett urged on a Facebook page that Archie be brought back.
While the original Archie was 20 to 22 feet high, this year’s version is 15 feet high and is strong and solid.
“You can actually put a Cadillac” on the half-inch plywood that makes up the body core of the snowman, Umana said.
A graduate of Akron’s Hower Vocational High School, Umana served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era as a medic in Okinawa. His work has taken him to many places.
A University of Akron theater major, Umana was a male go-go dancer at Salem’s Lounge, worked as an acrobat and dancer, served as a glass blower and owned his own glass company, spent a dozen years as a machine builder for Akron Crane and Conveyor and, of course, is an entertainer.
While he works on Archie, his harlequin macaw BeBe is always close by. After Umana’s wife, Lucille, died in 2006, he said he got the colorful bird.
“Watch this,” he said to a visitor. “He does tricks.”
Then Umana, who once performed in a private show for Akron’s LeBron James, looks at the bird and said dramatically, “Shoot bird,” pointing his finger at BeBe.
The bird then flips over on his finger, playing dead.
“I’m an entre-manure,” he said with a laugh and a wide smile.
“It’s just what it sounds like. If I was making money, I’d be an ‘entrepreneur.’ ”
As the voice of Archie for a few years, he learned some tricks of the trade. A big one: Never call any woman “grandma.”
“You always say [to the child], ‘Is that your mother?’ ”
Umana believes Archie 2012 looks good.
“He has the biggest broom he has ever had,” he said of the 12-foot-tall accessory.
Akron Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth hired Umana to design Archie and use the old Christmas windows to make a holiday display after getting a recommendation from the Archie Facebook page advocates Uplinger and Burkett to bring him on board.
“Akron is fortunate to have a stable of creative people who with their eccentricities make Akron an interesting place to live,” Lieberth said.
The holiday display should appeal to a wide range of people who have memories of Christmastime in Akron, he said.
To Umana, father of two and grandfather of four, Archie represents all that is Christmas and the holiday season.
“I wanted to bring them not something techno, not something they will look up on their cell phones or computers,” he said. “This is something you have got to see [in person].”
A 4-year-old, he said, “will always be a 4-year-old.”
And, according to Umana: “The same things that make a 4-year-old’s eyes pop out now did in 1900.”
As Umana walked past the displays that will open to the public Friday, he said there is nowhere in the world he would rather be than inside the O’Neil’s basement this week getting ready for Christmas.
“I can’t think of anything I like better,” he said.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.