James Scheib’s 2001 Interview with Tom Scheib
Getting into Show Business
JS: Now, Eli was involved with you in an incident when he went into rut one year. Did he not knock you down? Was that not Eli?
TS: Oh, yeah. Eli.
JS: Do you want to tell me about that?
TS: Well, Eli came along in whatever year we have on his birth certificate there. I think it was probably 1990, that Eli was born. His sister and he were the two deer that got me in the pulling business because people knew I had reindeer and we had them lead-trained. I mean, they would walk on a lead line and we would walk around, but we weren’t pulling sleighs at that time. We were just simply walking around. We had a sleigh that we would put in a courtyard at Fitger’s in Duluth and we’d stand next to that sleigh with the reindeer and people would get in and a family member would take their picture and so forth.
Well, that year, or one of those years – the year before Eli was born, a lady from the Mariner Mall in Superior, Wisconsin asked me would I pull their Santa Claus into the mall. They were looking for some unusual way. They had brought him in with fire trucks and they landed him with helicopters, and semis, and horse and wagon, but they would like to have him arrive that year by sleigh. And we said, “Sure, we’ll be able to do that.” And that was just standing in the courtyard of Fitger’s in probably the winter of 1989.
By 1990, I had forgotten all about it. Then about a week before we had agreed to do this job, which I forgot, the lady called me on the phone and said, “Hi Tom. This is –“ Jean, or whatever her name was – “are you ready to pull Santa Claus next week?” And I drew a blank. I just couldn’t remember a thing. I had no recollection of any of that. We had no deer trained to pull and, you know, I kind of fished around a little bit and she finally mentioned where she was from in Mariner Mall and then light bulbs started coming on and I said, “Oh, yeah. Okay. Okay. Yeah, we’ll be there. What’s the date and what’s the time?”
Well, this is one week before we were supposed to pull. I had met the harness maker from the iron range in Minnesota that made harness for draft horses. So I called him and he said “Yeah, bring ‘em up here. We can measure ‘em and make some harness for them.” So, I put Minna in the trailer and we went up there and he measured them up and said, “Now, when do you need this harness?” I said “Couple of days.” He said, “No, no, no, no.” He said, “No way I can have it done then. I’m stacked up until March or April. There’s a good six months before I can make them.“ “Oh,” I said, “I got to do a pull next week.”
He said, “You’re kidding me.” I said, “No.” So, he said, “Well, I’ll see what I can do.” The guy’s name was Sampson. Sampson’s Harness Shop. And so he whipped up two harness and called me, about two days later and I went up and picked it up. In the meantime we put a sleigh together and put wheels on the bottom of it, put the harness on the two reindeer and had a circus. Hooked the reindeer to the sleigh and had even more of a circus and the wheels and the frame and everything and the wheels had broke. So we ended up then the next day, which was a Thursday, you know, rewelding everything so that the sleigh would pull on wheels. And then Friday morning -- we were going to do this pull on Saturday -- well, then Friday morning we took the two reindeer, Minna and Eli – Eli was about six months old at the time. We took them down to the Finland Cemetery where there was some blacktop. And I knew we had to pull them about half a mile and that was five loops around the circle at the Finland Cemetery, and away we went.
Arnold Albeck and Ron Johnson and myself were down there and again, it was quite a circus, but nothing broke. So we did that for about half an hour and put the deer back in the trailer and went home and came back Friday afternoon and did it one more time. Went a lot better, much, much better, and it was still, you know, it wasn’t a smooth operation, but they pulled and we went around the circle five times and the only time they really balked was each time they went under the entrance, ‘cuz it had a big metal arch over the top. Every time we went under that arch they got kind of excited and spooky, but we went around five times and got our half a mile in.
JS: So you had a handler for each deer and one person in the sleigh?
TS: Yup. Yup. We had a person in the sleigh and one of us was on one deer and somebody else was on the other deer and we did this and went around and Friday night, we put the deer in the trailer and went to Duluth. And my good friend Jimmy Johnson volunteered to hold one of the deer the next day over at the Mariner Mall. So we were at this center across the street – I can’t remember the name of it – but they had buses where they bring the people that work there and you know, it’s mostly handicapped children and they had the buses set up so we could pull in behind the buses with the truck and trailer and unload the reindeer and the sleigh and put the harness on them. And we went back and forth behind the building once or twice and Jim and I, and boy, the deer were really wild. And about that time, Santa Claus showed up and said, “How’re you doing?” “We’re fine, Santa. How are you?” “I’m okay,” he said. “You boys have done this a few times?” “Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, we’re ready to go. We’re doing – we’re doing well.” And there was, you know, lots of people at the Mariner Mall. Lots of people, ‘cuz this was advertised Santa Claus was coming in being pulled by a reindeer.
So, we got the high sign and away out from behind the building we came, out across the street into the parking lot where there was a little alley there where we had to go through this break of people. And they had the cones in the parking lot and we were supposed to do about three laps around the inside of these cones and outside the cones it was lined five, six deep with people. And then we were supposed to pull up to the front door. And as soon as we got inside those people, Eli just looked like, “Hey, I’m on stage. Look at me.” He put his head up and pranced, and he just acted like, “I’ve done this a hundred times. I’m a real hot shot here.” And Jim Johnson and I both looked at each other like, “Whoa. Look at this guy, you know. How did he figure this out?” And Minna was on the other side, and we went around a circle and pulled out at the door and he stood like a champ. And the kids crawled all over him and petted him and, you know, petted him on the side, petted him on the nose, and he just stood there like, “Hey, I’m comfortable here. I’ve done this all my life.” Santa popped out, went in, sat in his chair, and, we did it for about ten years after that at the Mariner Mall in Superior.
JS: So that was his first break out performance?
TS: Yup, and then, you know, they had TV cameras there and they got it on TV and so I guess a day or two later one of the TV stations came to Finland and did a special on the reindeer for Thanksgiving evening. And Rick Lindbergh was there helping me in Finland, and so we put the reporter in the sleigh and we went out the driveway. And the old dog, Hakey, was in the front jumping up and down right in front of Eli and the photographer was sitting in the sleigh and we gave him a ride. Down and out County Road 6 we went and gave him a ride for, I don’t know, quarter mile or so, turned around, came back, and then did the question and answer thing. And that was probably the first that we actually did some special event on TV other than being filmed in a parade.
JS: This was when Eli was young – this was before he was fixed?
TS: Oh, yeah. This was well before he was fixed. He didn’t – Eli didn’t get fixed until he was probably four years old because everybody told me. They did say, “Well, he’s going to get you one of these days.” And I said, “No, not Eli. He’s a good boy. He behaves well and he does this and he does that.” Then when he was four years old and he was pretty grumpy one day. It was the rut season and I was moving him from one pen to another and then he went at me.
JS: Tell me about that.
TS: Well, I was just moving him from one pen to another. It was a distance of about 50 to 75 feet, I suppose.
JS: Did you have a hold of him?
TS: Sure, he had his halter on and his lead line just like we always did. Then we got about halfway across the lot between the gates on the two different pens and all of a sudden he just turned on me and hooked me with the antlers and drove me right into a big draft horse sleigh that we had sitting out there in front of the house that we used for giving sleigh rides with a team of Belgians we had. And he stuck me in the air and he had me, his brow tie was up under, was up under my Carhart. He went through that and he went through my shirt and he went through my down vest and he went through the skin up under the rib cage. And things were starting to drip down the antler and you know, I said to myself, “Boy, this is it.” I mean, there was nothing I could do. He had me off the ground. My feet weren’t even touching the ground, jammed up against this sleigh, and every time I wiggled a little bit then he would poke me even harder. And I guess I was hanging there, I don’t know, 15 minutes or so, and – I used to sell dog feed, horse feed, things like that, out of our pull barn, and a guy came in to buy a hundred pounds of corn and Eli saw him. The guy saw what was going on over here and he made a couple of noises and Eli kind of turned his head and dropped me and kind of headed for him.
He got out of the way and I rolled under the sleigh and then we managed to get him back in the pen. Gaylen Adkins, the State vet, was coming up to do some TB testing in a few days and so we ran Eli into the trailer and sedated him and castrated him, and after that he was a gelding.
JS: Now, what time of the year was that?
TS: That was, oh, probably, oh that was probably November or December.
JS: So what were his antlers like then?
TS: They were hard and hard-boned.
JS: And sharp?
TS: Oh yeah, all shined up.
JS: The worst time to be caught by them?
TS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
JS: But he wouldn’t keep them much longer than that?
JS: When do they drop them?
TS: Well, the older bulls generally have them off by, before Christmas. The younger bulls, they’ll keep them until the middle of January. But the older bulls, all those guys four years old and older, sometimes they’re even gone before Thanksgiving.
JS: So when Eli dropped his antlers down in Branson, Missouri tell me about that.
TS: Well, Eli was a gelding when we went to Branson, and I can’t remember what year that was, but Eli was probably six or seven by then. Eli was out in Minot, North Dakota. We were doing an event for the Norsk Hostfest in Minot, North Dakota in the early part of October at whatever year that was – ’94-’95 – somewhere in there – ’96. And one of the main entertainers that year was Wayne Newton. Charlie Mayo, my father-in-law, and I, we were doing something and Eli was right by an entryway where the busses that bring the entertainers into the parking lot went right by where we were.
And about half an hour later a young lady came over from Wayne Newton’s entourage and asked us if we had time to meet with Wayne Newton that night. And I said, “Well, we were really pretty busy here. I’d like to meet the guy but, you know, we have a schedule we have to keep.” We were being paid to be there so we didn’t feel that we had the option at that point to sit down and discuss Eli with Wayne Newton, but if we got the address we’d get back to him, which we did. We talked on the phone and they asked me to come down to Branson and see the setup.
I was delivering a couple of young heifers down to the Memphis Zoo for exhibition for about 60 days during that Christmas season. On the way back, it was probably late October, I stopped in Branson and talked with Mr. Newton and his business people and we decided sure, we can do what they wanted to do. We went home, loaded things up, and down to Branson we went with about three or four deer plus Eli.
JS: Mark was with you?
TS: Yeah, my son, Mark, came with me because I had a whole bunch of engagements to do and Mark was going to stay in Branson and do two shows a day with Wayne Newton. What we ended up doing was prior to Mr. Newton’s performances, which were generally 3:00 in the afternoon and 8:00 in the evening. We would move a couple of reindeer at 2:30 up in front of the theater so that the people going into the show could see reindeer in front of the theater for Wayne’s Christmas show. When the curtain went up Eli came across the stage with Wayne Newton in the sleigh, stopped in the middle of the stage, Wayne got out and Eli went off to the other side of the stage. And that’s how Wayne did every Christmas show that year, two shows a day.
JS: Was there a handler with Eli?
TS: Mark was with Eli. I went back once we got things set up and went through a rehearsal and the first live show and then I watched Mark do it one time. Well, then I knew everything was going to go all right.
JS: Were you there for the last show?
JS: But Mark told you about it?
TS: Mark was there for the last two shows. Yeah. And on the next to the last show, Eli made a trip across the stage like he always did, stopped in the middle, shook his head, and the inside antler fell off and hit the stage. Somebody grabbed it and threw it in the sleigh and after Wayne jumped out, Eli trotted off the stage with Mark and the sleigh and the antler was in the sleigh, but he still had one antler on which was facing the audience.
At the 8:00 show that evening, Eli came out, stopped, went across the stage. Wayne jumped out. Eli went across the stage and as soon as he got off the stage, he shook his head and there went the other antler. So if there would have been one more day of shows, Eli would have been a bald-headed reindeer.
JS: Didn’t you have any females that could have pulled him?
TS: Yeah, we could have used a female, but it would have been a whole different deal, ‘cuz Eli knew exactly where he was – There was no room in there. We had about six inches on each side of the wheels going across the stage, and the band was right up against the sleigh. I mean there was no excess room on that stage.
JS: But the females still had their antlers?
TS: The females still had their antlers.
JS: What’s the story on them?
TS: That’s the way God does it.
JS: They keep them longer.
TS: They keep them until the calves are born in the spring if they’re pregnant. If they’re not pregnant, then their antlers will fall off, their antlers will fall off in either late January or early February. So all this nonsense you see on the Internet, you know by these women’s groups that say well, we knew Santa had to be pulled around the world by a bunch of females, is nonsense. Santa Claus is probably pulled, you know, if the reindeer have antlers, by a bunch of knocked-up females and some young studs that haven’t lost their antlers yet.
JS: But not by older bulls.
TS: But not by older bulls. Generally not by older bulls. Geldings will keep their antlers on. And that’s the way it is in the reindeer world.