Rubin: A barkeep — and 500 kids — believe in Santa

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Vaughn Derderian is not big on religion, but he’s a firm believer in Santa Claus.

He even looks a bit like a Santa, if you can picture one with a shorter white beard who drinks Johnny Walker Black and has his bowlful of jelly encased in a black T-shirt instead of a furry red suit.

Vaughn Derderian of the Anchor Bar, left, and his son — also Vaughn and also of the Anchor Bar — are devoted to the Christmas party.

What gets Derderian’s reindeer roused is the annual children’s Christmas party thrown by Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Corktown. The party’s 54th incarnation starts at 11 a.m. Saturday at the festively decorated IBEW Local 58, where 500 giddy kids from ages 5 through 10 will laugh, eat, decorate cookies, get their faces painted, and take home the only presents many of them are likely to receive.

The joy will lift your heart, and the presents the kids ask for will break it.

Each of them poses with Santa and receives a Polaroid photo of the occasion with a crisp, fresh-from-the-Comerica-vault $1 bill taped to the frame. “I’d like shoes,” some of the kids will tell Mr. Claus. “A blanket.” “Something inexpensive.” “Something for my brother.” Or a true Christmas miracle, getting daddy out of prison.

“I believe in Trinity,” says Derderian, 69, “because what they do is real.”

A co-chair of the event, he’s the second-generation proprietor of the Anchor Bar downtown. His late father, Leo, was one of the founders of a party that’s been rolling since John F. Kennedy was president. His son, Vaughn, is not only involved, he’s become a Catholic.

“I converted,” says Vaughn the Younger, “because of the influence of growing up around Most Holy Trinity. You look at people like Father Russ and Monsignor Kern, and that’s what Catholicism has always represented to me.”

Father Russ was Russ Kohler, who had been promoted to monsignor by the time he succumbed to heart and stomach issues in March, on Good Friday no less. Clement Kern was one of his predecessors — and another of the party’s founders — and was so beloved there’s a statue of him at Trumbull and Bagley.

The new priest at Most Holy Trinity and Ste. Anne de Detroit, which come as a package deal, is Monsignor Charles Kosanke. His last posting was St. Regis Parish in Bloomfield Hills.

Welcome to the neighborhood, monsignor. Enjoy the party, and make sure to stand clear when the door opens.

Children carry their presents last year at the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church’s Christmas Party at the IBEW Local 58 Hall in Detroit.

Volunteers faithful to cause

The party guests, it should be noted, come from a variety of faiths. Some attend the parish school, while others simply live nearby.

Their parents stood in line for as long as two hours last week to get tickets, which are free. They had to provide proof of residency and birth certificates for the kids. They did not have to provide proof they are poor; that’s hard to do, and besides, who else would wait two hours for a children’s Christmas party?

Frequently, says the church’s programs and operational director, parents take the bags of presents home and wrap them for Christmas morning. Among this year’s gifts are stuffed animals, jackets, gloves, underwear, footballs and craft kits.

“A couple of our volunteers spend the summer scouring for deals,” Grace Caruana says. Packs of crayons for 45 cents? Praise the Lord.

All told, it takes about 250 volunteers to plan and carry out the event.

“I’ve been here 26 years,” she says, “and we have a lot of people who’ve been involved longer than I have.”

Everyone can lend a hand

The first party was held at the Detroit Press Club and involved 20 children, or maybe 60 depending on who’s telling the story.

Along with Kern and Leo Derderian, the organizers included a Jewish socialite, an atheist newspaper columnist and an Irish Catholic judge. Derderian called them the Ecumenical Shakedown Society.

Speaking of shakedowns, a party for 500 doesn’t come cheap, even if the hall, labor and clowns are gratis. To help defray the cost, typically $35,000 or so, feel free to send a donation to Most Holy Trinity Church, 1050 Porter St., Detroit, MI 48226, or the Anchor Bar, 450 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226.

You’re also welcome to hand-deliver your donation to Vaughn Derderian the Elder, whose role Saturday will involve walking around and playing with the kids.

The bar is easy to find. Once you get there, just look for the guy who’s still smiling.