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Ironing out the Kringles 

If you think the vacuuming up of pine needles is the sight that's most likely to induce the postholiday blues, be thankful you weren't at west Winter Park's Allied Costumes the Monday after Christmas. In the back room of the small but well-stocked specialty haberdashery, fuzzy red hats and white beards were thrown into plastic garbage bags. Their sad numbers were regularly augmented with new, identical arrivals as customers surrendered the last vestiges of their seasonal vestments. This was the beginning of Return Week, the period in which amateur Santas brought in the suits they had hired out for holiday parties and family get-togethers.

"Easter time, these racks are filled with rabbit heads," the shop's manager, Mia Scarfato, blithely noted. Depression, meet revulsion.

An old hand at the game after nearly three years of working for Allied, Scarfato carefully checked all pieces for completion and condition before placing them in shopping bags. From there, she explained, she once would have taken them home to her apartment complex for a thorough cleansing; now, the store has a relationship with a legitimate laundromat.

Scarfato kept her spirits high as renter after renter brought back the goods. This week would be relatively enjoyable, she predicted. The only costumes that were still out were the ones that had been retained by private individuals for personal use; suits had already been returned from the corporate accounts. You know the type: the modern-day Scrooges who dress as Santa at company parties -- or better yet, hire someone else to do it -- to prove to the Bob Cratchits in their employ that working for The Man isn't so bad after all.

Have a nice sleigh

Though Dec. 26 is traditionally the kickoff of Go Back to Being Rotten Week, Monday's customers were still in the throes of good cheer. Many perpetuated the holiday tradition of giving by returning more than they had taken. One gentleman's costume included a string of reindeer bells that, he had to be reminded, wasn't an Allied product. It belonged to his daughter, he noted in sheepish recognition. What is Christmas, after all, without a rousing game of bell-the-big-guy?

Another woman was all smiles as she testified that her male neighbor had looked positively smashing in the Saint Nick getup she was delivering.

"Santa just happened to arrive on a BMW!" she crowed. That's Winter Park for you.

At Allied, good will toward men isn't merely the province of the clientele. Owner Dennis Phillips -- a magician and college professor who teaches theatrical makeup techniques -- has made it his policy to vend no simulated weaponry of any kind, even to the medieval-fantasy buffs who account for a large portion of his off-season business. (Seeing one of your Santas on "Eyewitness News" knocking over a Kwik Stop with a cap gun is just poor community relations.) No military uniforms are included in the shop's inventory, with the exception of a single Nazi outfit that, Scarfato says, is only rented for educational purposes. It's a humdinger, though, one that's listed on the store's wall catalog as the "Deluxe Nazi." I suppose it comes with a side order of sauerbraten.

That's snow business

The costume business was strong this Christmas season, Scarfato assessed as the prodigal parkas continued to pour in. By her estimation, Allied rented between 20 and 25 holiday ensembles in 1999, including Kringle-wear, reindeer garb and elf wardrobes. But it was still a wise move, she added, for Phillips to supplement his regular income by building mascot regalia for sports teams.

"Times are hard," she soberly judged. "It's an extravagance."

Although BMW-riding indulgence may have turned the tide for Allied this Yule, the patrons who passed through the store's front door Monday seemed like a pretty sane and rational bunch. Scarfato knew many of them by name, a luxury she couldn't have enjoyed in her past job of sewing rhinestones onto the costumes worn by cruise-ship entertainers.

Still, I was slightly disappointed that not one of her new clients struck me as remotely Santa-like. Yes, I know that's what the costume is for, but some small part of me hoped to run into an Edmund Gwenn double who would throw his parcel on the counter and chuckle "Les starch next year, please," thus restoring my faith in the possibility of a Miracle on Fairbanks Avenue. (Scoff if you will, but I've been let down by the New York Mets and the Democratic Party in my lifetime. I need something to hold on to.)

And then, sometime in the early afternoon, he walked in. The beard was shorter, certainly, but still white as snow. The eyes were a-twinkle. And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of ...

"It fooled the kid," the jolly non-Santa howled in delight. "He believes, man!"

Those kids. They'll believe anything.


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