Last month, an 81-year-old Italian man generated headlines around the world after he was filmed serenading his cancer-stricken wife while seated on a stool in a courtyard directly below her hospital room window.
GNOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
To paraphrase singer Jackie DeShannon, what the world needs now is love, sweet love… and a Christmas gnome promoting local establishments.
Jerry Gnome is a 20-centimetre tall Santa-like figure with 1,400 more Instagram followers (instagram.com/winnipeggnome) than a certain Free Press writer. A well-travelled sort, Jerry’s mug has been featured in photos taken as far north as Nunavut, as far south as Texas and at most points in between. (Yes, that's him in Ontario two years ago, with natural spectacle Niagara Falls in the background.)
As much as he enjoys hitting the road, what Jerry really gets a kick out of, especially during the build-up to the holidays, is showing off businesses a bit closer to home; that, according to his handler, who prefers to maintain their anonymity.
Already this December Jerry has showcased Dal’s Family Restaurant in Transcona (“BEST Greek salad ever”), Smak Dab mustard (“Smakadabadoooo, this mustard is for you”) and a custom-made shelf company called Hexashelves by Colin (“During this time it’s important to be SHELF aware”).
“We try to pose him at a different spot every day leading up to Christmas,” says Jerry’s keeper, who purchased the wooden character from Shelmerdine’s in August 2017, and created an Instagram account to document his escapades a month later. (Besides touting local goods and services, Jerry has also posed alongside a number of celebs including country sensation Jon Pardi, who held the hirsute gnome aloft during a show at Bell MTS Place in January 2019, when he was opening for Dierks Bentley.)
“A lot of the posts are super cheesy, puns are heavily involved and I think that’s what attracts people to the page,” they go on, mentioning Salisbury House on Lombard Avenue expressly invited Jerry by a couple of weeks ago, and he’s also turned up in shots publicizing the Marion Street Eatery and Nick’s Inn, the latter located in Headingley. “COVID’s been hard on everybody — you can’t travel, you can’t eat at the places you enjoy — and all we’re trying to do with Jerry is put a smile on people’s faces, and promote Manitoba while we’re at it. He’s a good little ambassador and the fact he looks like Santa Claus doesn’t hurt, either.”
— David Sanderson
Steffano Bozzini, a retired member of the Italian army, was unable to visit Carla, his wife of 47 years, because of COVID-19 restrictions in Castel San Giovanni, their hometown. He did the next best thing; decked out in dark trousers, a red pullover and a hat with a lone feather sticking out one side, the same sort he wore during his military days, he performed a succession of love songs, accompanying himself on the accordion. In a video shot by their son, Carla, who succumbed to her illness a few days later, can be seen wiping away tears as she watches her husband treat her to some of her favourite tunes.
Closer to home, Stan Bedernjak, a Winnipegger who has been renting himself out as an accordion-playing Santa Claus for more than 30 years, agrees the box-shaped instrument has a charm all its own.
"I call it the ‘magic box’ because I can be in a room with 50 kids, every last one of ’em screaming their head off. The second I pull out the accordion it’s instant silence," says Bedernjak, strolling through St. John’s Park on an unseasonably warm winter afternoon. "They stay quiet till I hit the first note then, for the next hour or so, they’re all singing and dancing away."
Bedernjak, a lifelong resident of the North End, takes a sip of his extra-large double-double when asked how he intends to entertain those who have booked him and his squeeze box — a year ahead in some cases — considering the province’s code red restrictions currently prohibit a certain, jolly old elf from seeing you when you’re sleeping, knowing when you’re awake, etc., etc.
"I’m what you call old-school. I’m not really one for all this online Zoom stuff, so no, that won’t be happening," he replies. "On the other hand, I don’t think there’s anything stopping me from walking down the street, playing the accordion. I can be pretty loud when I wanna be. You’re not gonna miss me if I’m in the neighbourhood, that’s for sure."
Bedernjak, 61, was four years old when he took up the accordion at the urging of his Slovenian-born parents; six when he was invited to show off his skills on an amateur talent show called Calling All Children, which aired on a local TV affiliate. By the time he was 15 he was sitting in with one polka band or another almost every weekend. That all changed the day a fellow accordionist showed up at a gig with a sunburst-finish bass guitar in tow.
Forget the accordion, that’s what he wanted to play, Bedernjak said pointing at his counterpart’s axe. "For $30 it’s all yours," came the reply.
"I brought it home and taught myself to play, using one string for a solid month," he recalls.
"Buddies would come over, I’d be in the basement going boom, boom, boom along to my Alice Cooper records and they’d say, ‘Aren’t you supposed to play the other three strings?’ ‘Nah, one’s all you need,’ I’d tell ‘em." (Bedernjak eventually learned the error of his ways; since the late 1970s, he has played electric bass in a succession of well-received rock bands, among them Woodwork, Strawdog, the Vice and the Kenny Shields Band.)
Despite Bedernjak’s newfound success, the accordion was never too far away. Lots of times when he was on the road touring, he’d trot it out the moment he and his bandmates were back in their hotel room, playing into the wee hours while everybody sang along. For a spell, he was also a featured guest on a 92 CITI-FM segment called Polkas from Hell. His job: play a tune on the accordion, one originally done by the likes of AC/DC, the Doors or Guns N’ Roses, then invite listeners to call in and identify the ditty-in-question in order to win a prize.
"It worked out pretty well because the Christmas season was usually a dead time of year for those of us who played the bars on a regular basis." – Stan Bedernjak, accordion–playing Santa Claus
In 1988, one of Bedernjak’s buddies was all set to surprise his children on Christmas Eve by dressing up as St. Nick and heading up onto the roof. At the last moment he thought it would be a better idea if Bedernjak filled in, so that his kids wouldn’t notice him missing and put two and two together. Bedernjak agreed. While he was up there bellowing "ho ho ho," he played a few carols on the accordion. You can probably guess what happened next. As word got out about Bedernjak-as-accordion-playing-Santa he began getting hired for private parties, office functions and charity events all over the city.
"It worked out pretty well because the Christmas season was usually a dead time of year for those of us who played the bars on a regular basis," he says, holding up a snapshot of him and Burton Cummings taken the night the the ex-Guess Who frontman joined him at a fundraiser and lent his voice to an accordion-addled version of Jingle Bells. "After about three years I traded in the ratty, old suit I’d been wearing for a really nice one from Mallabar’s. It cost me an arm and a leg but I was able to make back what I’d spent on it in next to no time."
In the past, Bedernjak has been kept hopping on Christmas Eve, often until two or three in the morning. And while the real McCoy is usually able to put his feet up by Boxing Day, that hasn’t always been his experience, especially in a city where so many people celebrate Ukrainian Christmas. (Though his Ukrainian is a little rusty, he does his best to mix in a few traditional numbers alongside time-tested faves such as Deck the Halls; also, he rarely gets back to his vehicle without performing The Beer Barrel Polka, a crowd-pleaser 365 days of the year.)
Like he mentioned, with less than a week to go before the big day, Bedernjak still isn’t 100 per cent sure how things are going to play out this year. Perhaps he’ll don his red suit, hop in his pick-up truck (no sleigh, sorry) and go for a drive, keeping his eyes peeled for impressive light displays, at which point he may park and play a song or two for passers-by.
"My beard already has a built-in spit guard and if I wear my mask over top of that, I figure I’m doubly protected," he says, adding some Winnipeggers have invited him to play at the end of their driveway, intending to watch from just outside their front door. "I’ve been at this for 30-plus years now. It’s become as big a part of the holidays for me as for the people I visit year-in, year-out. I know things are supposed to get back to normal by next Christmas but it’d be a shame not to be able to be able to spread a little bit of cheer, this one too."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.