The grainy video image panning around a Portland, Ore., karaoke bar called the Alibi reveals 100 male and female Santa Clauses in various stages of inebriation, all rocking out and singing along with an ancient Led Zeppelin song: “Honey! You need…LOOOOOVVVVEEEE!!!” The guitar riff to “Whole Lotta Love” kicks in, and the Santa hats bounce in unison with such vigor that even Jimmy Page would have to approve the effort.
A new season of films kicked off last week at Artists’ Television Access (ATA) in the Mission, and the highlight of the evening was the 45-minute documentary You’d Better Watch Out: Portland Santacon ’96, an extremely silly chronicle of a December assault on the City of Bridges by Santa Clauses from West Coast chapters of the anarchistic, art-for-art’s-sake organization the Cacophony Society.
Produced and directed by San Franciscan Scott Beale, the so-called “Santa Offensive” opened up at SFO, where 40 Bay Area Santas are shown boarding a Southwest Airlines flight in full uniform, one lingering behind to point a cautionary finger at the departing passengers: “Naughty…nice…naughty…naughty…” The Santas later joined up with St. Nicks from L.A., San Jose, and Seattle and prepared to abuse Oregon’s first city with Christmas cheer.
One reason for the Santa field trip: The past two annual Santa Swarms have been held here, and those events were known for nude flashing, guzzling beer from Pine-Sol bottles, and police arrests. This year the Santas vowed to visit Portland and tone it down. “We went in with the intention of being a kinder, gentler Santa Rampage,” says Beale. “Last year is was closer to mob mentality.”
Such mob mentality is now confined to the audience at the ATA, noisy with booze and loud laughter. Hilariously narrated in hard-boiled Dragnet style, the film shows the renegade Santas taking advantage of Portland’s playground seesaws, a roller-skating rink, and a titty bar, all the while referring to the crowd as the “Red Brigade” of the “Sant-archists.” Santas are seen walking through residential neighborhoods, singing off-color carols, chanting “What do we want? HO! When do we want it? HO! HO!” or simply dog-piling on top of each other in front of someone’s house.
SFPD apparently warned Portland cops of the Santas well in advance; one Santa proudly hoists up to the camera a copy of a warning mailed to Portland merchants by the Police Department, cautioning them about a “possible disturbance.” Indeed, Portland squad cars and bicycle cops are seen, discreetly watching the Santas from a distance, but the surveillance seemed harmless enough that one brave Kriss Kringle walked up to a car and asked the officers inside, “Have you been a
good cop, or a bad cop?”
But when the increasingly drunken Santas attemped to invade Lloyd Center, the largest mall in Portland, they came upon dozens of police. The camera pans over the rows of cops, all wearing riot shields and wielding billy clubs like it’s the Simpson verdict, instead of a dumb art prank.
“They were ready to haul off a lot of Santas,” says Beale. Not wishing to get their skulls crushed, the Red Brigade quickly backed off. Two San Francisco Santas were jailed temporarily for “furnishing pornography to minors,” i.e., handing out cheap homemade toys wrapped in old Playboy centerfolds, and were later released on their own recognizance, just in time for an all-Santa finale show at the Suburbia punk club.
Reprinted from Slap Shots in the SF Weekly, March 5-11, 1997