This Talented Thespian & Stage Combat Choreographer Puts the ‘Saint” in St. Nick
Photo By Will Masters
Story By Randy Gross – email@example.com
It would be an understatement to say that Dan Burke has been the wearer of many hats.
Starting in the 8th grade, it would have been a top hat, as a member of the dance troupe in Cedar Cliff’s production of “Hello, Dolly” – the young Burke’s first time on stage.
Fast forward several years, and his head was adorned with a mortarboard, having graduated from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia with a BFA in acting, with an emphasis in Stage Combat.
Burke’s early working years would find him wearing the “hats” of a factory worker at Atlas Roofing Corporation, and eventually a salesman for a national company called Safety-Kleen. The sole breadwinner in the household while his then wife got her teaching certificate, Burke would come full circle after getting laid off – donning the cap (picture maybe a Shakespearean bourrelet) of his first love, returning to acting and directing while launching his own business, Safe Violence by Dan Burke.
Keeping actors and audiences safe by choreographing hundreds of stage combat scenes (and, more recently, also stage intimacy scenes) has been both Burke’s mission and passion for decades now. Equally devoted to the stage and his community, you may also catch him these days at the recently refurbished West Shore Theatre in New Cumberland, fulfilling his duties as Vice President of Friends of West Shore Theatre. Which is where we found him recently, wearing a hat of, literally, a different color.
The Reluctant Santa
“Santa” Burke hasn’t spent all his adulthood wearing a red velvet suit and matching cap. In fact, when pressed he admits “I’ve never had an interest in portraying St. Nick.” Nevertheless, here he was, attired from head to boot in a suit hand-stitched by his mother. Burke explains, “She made this suit for me, because her side of the family has a family Christmas party every year, up near Williamsport, and they would have a Santa come in and pass out candy canes or presents.”
“And my mom said, ‘we don’t need to hire anybody … Daniel can do it!’ So, I was like ‘ahh, I don’t really want to do that.’”
Want to or not, as the youngest son – and a good sport – Burke played along, reluctantly at first, while vowing never to partake of the stereotypical department store, kid-bouncing-on-knee Santa routine. “It was a real pain,” he says, ably hiding a wince behind his cascading white beard. “It’s not easy getting into this garb, what with the boots and the pants. And it’s hot! I really didn’t enjoy it.”
But the enjoyment level took a decidedly positive turn one day when Burke – in full Santa regalia – was visiting one of his favorite local haunts, Nick’s 114. “I started coming in there randomly and passing out candy canes, and he [Nick] hires me,” Burke says with a laugh. “So now, he comes and picks me up, takes me down, and I work the room for an hour and pass out candy canes, tell stupid jokes, and if there’s kids there I squat down and ask them what they want.”
As they say, Christmas comes but once a year, and renting himself out to restaurants and bars has become a seasonal activity that Burke looks forward to. “I don’t belong to any improv troupe,” he says, “but I’m an actor, so I know how to improvise and play with people. Now that’s what I like!”
And he likes it enough to sometimes offer his Kris Kringling services gratis.
A Heart of (Silver &) Gold
“I’m gonna tell you what was really cool, and what really launched me.”
That is how Burke humbly prefaces his tale of kindness – a story that would make the original St. Nicholas of Myra blush with pride. Because, after all, every Santa and Santa’s Helper must be some part of an existential brotherhood, right?
Anyway, the “thing” that not only launched but further cemented Burke’s yearly goal to bring Santa to the masses was … Covid. He explains: “when everything was shut down, and the kids were going through so much. They weren’t in school, no contact … so, I started doing Zoom sessions for Santa. And I set up my living room. In front of the fireplace, I had ‘Merry Christmas’ and I had lights and stuff, and I had a chair. And, if somebody booked me, I would talk to the parents, and beforehand I would know the kid’s name, I would know their favorite Mighty Pup, I’d know what they had for breakfast, I’d know their favorite friend, I’d know what sports they liked. So, Santa knows when we Zoom in. I can say ‘so, I hear you like this Mighty Pup,’ or I’d pull up my phone and be like ‘here is my favorite Pokemon.’ And they were blown away. And I was like ‘Oh, how was your spaghetti and meatballs tonight?’ And they’re like ‘whaaat?’ (laughs) Santa knows.”
And get this: Burke didn’t charge anything for the sessions. Dozens of Zoom sessions with people across the country – yes, for free!
“They were like ‘what do you charge?,’ and I said ‘nothing.’ I said ‘if you want to give me anything, I have a Venmo account, or you can drop off a check or send me a check or money, I don’t care.’ But I’m doing it for the kids. I’m not setting a price on it.”
He continues, “It was fun, and it made me feel good. Because I would talk to the kids and get to hear what they want for Christmas, and I would ask them if they wanted to sing ‘Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ with Santa, and they all did, so we would sing Rudolph. And I would end it by saying ‘would you like Santa to read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’? And everybody says ‘yeah.’ So, I would read it and show them the pictures and stuff.”
A ‘Character’ Getting Into Character
With Covid in its waning days and a degree of normalcy returning, Burke has moved away from Zoom and is back to promoting the bar thing. “But” he says, “I need a big enough space, because I like to work for an hour, and then I’m gone. And I do charge for that. I charge 100 bucks an hour.”
Never straying from character, he takes a moment to share a few of his favorite “stand-up” Santa jokes. Just promise to pretend you haven’t heard any of them before – and laugh – when you’re at The Blue Sky Tavern in Newberry Township at noon on December 9th or 10th; or at Nick’s 114 in New Cumberland (dates TBD). Other venues and dates TBA.
“How much did Santa pay for his sleigh?” “Nothing. It was on the house!”
“What do you think you’ll see when you hear ‘oh-oh-oh?” “Santa walking backwards!”
“Why does Santa have three gardens?” “Because he likes to ‘ho-ho-ho’!”
And what does Burke’s mom think about his burgeoning side-career? “Oh, she loves it,” he exclaims. “I’ll call her up and I’ll say, “I hear there might be a Santa sighting at Nick’s tomorrow night.’ And then I walk in the door and there she is sitting.”
Editor’s note: Burke is available for Santa gigs on a first-come, first-serve basis, from now until Christmas Eve. To book a date, call 717-319-2082; or email firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also available to help your high school, college, or professional theatre production with any Stage Combat or Stage Intimacy issues at www.safeviolence.com.