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Updated Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 11:36 AM

Searching for joy on dark days

By Nicole Brodeur
Seattle Times staff columnist

It was less than an hour before showtime Friday, and Santa Claus was on the verge of tears.

No one could blame him. Twenty children had died that morning in Connecticut, and Sean Griffin, who plays Santa in the 5th Avenue Theatre's current production of "Elf," was supposed to be jolly. Now.

"It's just hard," he said, wilted in his dressing-room chair. "I am at such a loss for words. Hopefully, what we can all do is bring a little lightness on this day for the parents and the kids who are out there tonight.

"Hopefully, we can just make them forget."

Griffin, an accomplished theater and television actor, approaches Santa as a regular fellow.

"He's just a man who does this for a living," he said. "He watches football on TV. He's just a normal guy, doing what he likes. He brings joy."

So how does Griffin do it on the night of the Newtown shootings?

By mustering up memories of his childhood in Ireland, when all they did was put a candle in the window and open what gifts they had. The smell of food cooking. The warmth of the fire.

And, as he puts on his makeup, he keeps an eye on the photos of his grandchildren, Ava and Jack, taped to his dressing-room mirror.

"They believe!" he said.

When so much is lost, and nothing makes sense, sometimes that is all one can do. Believe.

"We need you, Santa," I told Griffin on my way out.

"I'll be there."

An artful memorial

Seattle had its own gun-related awfulness in May, when four people were shot and killed at Café Racer by a one-time customer who later killed himself.

I walked into the Racer for the first time the other night, to see a band setting up. This was a happy gathering. A helpful one.

Brown Paper Tickets was launching its "Artist Ticket" program, which will give 25 cents from sale of each artist-designed ticket to a fund that will help the family members of victims Joe Albanese, 52; Drew Keriakedes, 45; Kimberly Layfield, 38; and Donald Largen, 57.

Brown Paper Tickets expects to sell 100,000 tickets worldwide over the next six months, which would put $25,000 into the Victims of the Café Racer Shooting Memorial Fund.

"Getting everyone taken care of is an interesting challenge," said manager Nancy Neyhart, who had worked at the Racer before the shootings, and came back to help manage the grief and reopen the place.

"People need help with day-to-day life. The hope to get out of bed. A sense of purpose."

The first batch of tickets features the work of artists Ellen Forney and Jim Woodring, who met at Café Racer and donated their work.

"They felt a connection to the community," said Barb Morgen of Brown Paper Tickets. "They just wanted to be supportive."

(Artists interested in having their work printed on the next batch can apply at artistticket@brownpapertickets.com.)

The artist-ticket project was helped along by Jimmy Berg, who works at Brown Paper Tickets and plays in a band called The Bad Things, which took the stage. He performed with Albanese and Keriakedes the Saturday before the shootings.

"We thought we'd throw a big party and sing songs and celebrate life and inject a little life into the Racer," he said, "even though it never left."

One wall of the place has been turned into a shrine to those lost. There are dried roses in jars, photos, a page of a heartfelt letter that someone left, and an authentic, old-timey circus mallet.

"It just showed up," Neyhart said.

The wall also features a plaque made up by Layfield's mother, which reads: "Their song has ended, but their melody lingers on."

Silver bells and city swells

Christmas came a little early the other night, when Leslie Chihuly handed me her wallet — and walked away.

The wife of Dale Chihuly and chair of the Seattle Symphony board had asked me to hold it while she said her goodbyes at JJ McKay's annual "Ho, Ho, Ho Holiday Party." But she sure was taking a while.

For just a moment, I thought about what I could do with this gorgeous Hermes clutch. Poke through it? Empty it and keep it? Or head into the crowd of Christmas shoppers just blocks away?

Of course not. I handed the wallet off to Chihuly's friend, and then went into the crowd at this elbow-to-elbow event.

McKay, a business consultant, fundraiser and gifted connector, didn't take the night off: "If you're sitting there talking to the person you came with? Sad," he said. "Why not start 2013 with a new friend?"

There were plenty of new people to choose from — and plenty of liquid courage being poured by a trio of bartenders.

There was Seattle City Councilmember Jan Drago, club owner and promoter David Meinert, social maven Dani Ackerley, social scribe Cathi Hatch, hospitality magnate John Oppenheimer, artist Paula Stokes and former UW football player Barret "B.J." Newberry.

And then there was the guy giving kisses under the mistletoe. He wrapped his arm around one woman, planted one on her, then walked away.

Once she recovered, she said she had just gotten separated after 25 years of marriage, hadn't kissed anyone but her husband since 1987.

"Wow," another partyer told her. "That's a good party."

Nicole Brodeur's Names in Bold column appears Tuesdays in the B section. Reach her at 206-464-2334; nbrodeur@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @nicolebrodeur. Subscribe on Facebook: facebook.com/STNicoleBrodeur


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