By the halfway point of North Pole, NY — an hour-long exposé on the history and hardships of the theme park known as ‘Santa’s Workshop’ in upstate New York — one thing is undeniably clear: director Ali Cotterill, who also served as co-writer, editor, and camera operator, has an unyielding affection for her subject matter. And why shouldn’t she? After all, the citizens of Wilmington, New York—a sleepy tourist town snug in the Adirondacks—couldn’t be more endearing in their devotion to Santa’s Workshop, the holiday theme park upon which their idyllic community has grown and, ultimately, come to rely.
It’s not all tinsel, though. The park, founded in the late 1940s by businessman Julian Reiss and later bequeathed to his son Bob, has been on a downward trajectory since the Eisenhower years, when theme parks and car trips were supplanted by the arrival of jet travel which took public interest elsewhere. These days Santa’s Workshop—which receives hundreds of letters to Kris Kringle each year—operates less as a commercial attraction and more as a gauzy piece of post-war nostalgia. See, in one particularly sobering sequence, as long-time park performer and historian Julie “Jingles” Robards drives her ’54 Dodge around Wilmington, pointing out what were once neighboring theme parks like “The Land of Make-Believe” but today resemble the sort of overgrown and decrepit structures you’d forbid your children from playing on.
Cotterill knows better than to wallow. After all, there is plenty of good to focus on here: the jobs for local teenagers, the decades of tradition kept alive by returning visitors, and the overall feeling that yes, magic still exists in the world, even if it doesn’t pay well. Never do the scales tip to full-blown despair. There is a villain, businessman Greg Cunningham, whose brief ownership of the park in the late 1990s turned sour after tales of his past criminal misconduct came to light, but even his story (which takes up less than four minutes of screen time) plays like a curious detour in a bigger tale of indomitable community spirit.
It’s the balance between the magical and melancholy that makes North Pole, NY such a compelling documentary. It operates on a two-fold illusion: the precious and short-lived one kids know as Santa Claus, and the existence of his workshop as a place of perpetual wonder in the face of bankruptcy, disinterest, and gentrification. Watching these awestruck children—whose interviews make up some of the funniest (and weirdest) parts of the film—react to a ‘talking’ tannenbaum or stand giddily in line for their moment with St. Nick, I found myself both moved by their innocence and depressed for the day when they’ll grow up and see behind the curtain.
Ultimately that’s what rounds out North Pole, NY and gives it such an engaging air: the people. Some of them, like Jingles Robards, seem at times almost too sincere to really exist in 2018. Others, like park manager Matt Stanley, are palpable in their believability. As he makes the morning rounds repairing broken games and reading customer complaints his cell phone erupts into a rock rendition of “Carol of the Bells.” It’s a moment that in a fictional film might feel cheap or obvious, but here rings true. Despite the daily grind, this guy really, truly loves Christmas. That’s how, after seven decades, Santa’s Workshop continues to survive: on the selflessness of people who believe in it. The park, just like this splendid little film, is a labor of love.
North Pole, NY premiered in New York on November 9th at IFC Center as part of DOC NYC.