During their car trip north in 1947, Julian Reiss (1899-1959) told his daughter Patti (now Patti Brooks) a story about a baby bear who visited the North Pole. “Why can’t we fly to go see Santa at the North Pole?” Patti asked.

That innocent request ultimately led to creation of Santa’s Workshop in Wilmington, New York, the first theme park in America. The story of how that happened gets told appealingly in Bob Welch’s book, “The Man Who Dared to Dream: The Story of Julian Reiss, Who Had the Faith to Make Things Happen” (Husky Trail Press, 2018).

Although perhaps a somewhat hagiographic picture of its subject, the story details a man who grew up comfortably but with a huge social conscience. Reiss was diagnosed with tuberculosis just before beginning law school at age 24. He relocated to Colorado, then a year later to the Adirondacks, where he slept on an unheated porch as part of his treatment.

Once in the North Country, he remained and became a pillar of the Lake Placid community. His efforts helped bring the Olympic Games to Lake Placid in 1932. He had been active in early Civil Rights campaigns as an appointee to the New York State Commission on Antidiscrimination. Another initiative was his institution of profit-sharing into the business plan for his Lake Placid automobile dealership.

Santa’s Workshop required significant collaboration, leading Reiss to integrate the inexhaustible imagination of Arto Monaco, and the hard-headed business philosophies of Harold Fortune.

“It isn’t enough for the North Pole to look real, it has to be real,” Monaco insisted, knowing it was the kids you had to convince. Much of the process–and many of the most interesting components of the book — saw Reiss as mediator between the others.

(Arto Monaco qualifies as a genuine Adirondack icon in his own right. A skilled artist and designer, he combined those skills with an intuitive grasp of what appealed to children. He died in 2003 at age 90. But that’s fuel for another book.)

The park opened on Fortune’s 25-acre parcel by the Whiteface Mountain Highway on July 1, 1949. It became a prototype for the newly conceived “theme park,” ideal for an era of growing family travel by automobile. Charles Wood drew on it in developing what today is the Great Escape, near Lake George. Walt Disney sent representatives there when beginning to ponder Disneyland. Seventy years later, Santa’s Workshop continues in operation.

Reiss’ clear empathy for children also led him to begin Operation Toylift. Originally funded by the Wishing Well at Santa’s Workshop, this effort delivered toys to orphanages and other similar organizations. He founded Lake Placid’s Camp Monserrate for underprivileged boys, an entity that still operates; there’s also now a girls’ component.

There were personal crises along the way, including a plane crash while he was flying Patti home from college one weekend in 1958. The pair were unhurt but had to walk 10 miles out of the woods. Then, a year later, Reiss died at age 60 of cancer, ending a life of commitment— to family, to community, to the broader public.

The book itself is a curious mix of fact, much of it driven by Reiss’ relentless optimism, and a fictional narrative about a kindly grandmother-type hero and a cynical and dissatisfied college girl who lives in the neighborhood. Their discussions ultimately break down the latter’s adolescent angst.

What the story lacks in dramatic tension is compensated for by the rich moral lessons centered around determination to help one’s fellow man. Reiss is described as “investing his resources for the benefit of others,” useful words to live by in a cynical world. It’s perhaps a good tale to read in a time troubled with international conflict, increasing economic inequality and battles over impeachment.

RICHARD FROST, ADIRONDACK DAILY ENTERPRISE

Reviews

"I bought this book thinking it was a nice story about the Santa's Village I visited when I was young. After my read, I think the real book story is not of how he started the North Pole, NY. Instead, it is of a man whose North Star led him to a cheerful commitment to unending innovation at the forefront of improvements for betterment and enjoyment of his community, his country and his family. I like the two story lines that used a winter's storm and a nearby scrap book to shuttle the reader to Mr. Reis's recovery from TB in Lake Placid, and how that led to his- Christmas- is-- every-day approach to episodes that leave you with "I didn’t know he did that."
CAROLE T. SCANLON, BUCKS COUNTY, PA
"This book is both captivating and inspiring. Based on the events in Julian's life that brought Santa's Workshop, North Pole, New York to life at a time when amusement themed parks did not exist. Each chapter sends the reader on a journey that includes a touch of history, the importance of family ties, and the hardships that could have ended Julian's dreams. He was a man ahead of the times!"
TERRI SHENK, CT
"The book revealed a spiritual and evangelistic touch that I found heartwarming. I think everyone should read this book and come away with lessons about how people should be treated, no matter what. I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed the book but enough said. I loved it and was much inspired by it."
PAULINE CRAHAN
"A captivating true story that I thoroughly enjoyed! Mr. Reiss truly set an example for the following generations! Highly recommend."
JESSICA KETCHUM, MD
"Enjoyed reading the story about a man not afraid to push himself to accomplish projects that he had a passion for. We were able to read the story at this time of year when we are starting to think about the North Pole, Santa and all the good things that we are about to plan. It helped put us in the spirit of the season and what we could do for others. It is also the about those who are discriminated against and the laws we need to pass to help right the wrongs and how we should be more generous with the wealth that some have and how to share it."
CHARLES PARKE
"This past July my wife and I, along with one of our daughters and our two grandchildren, as well as family friends made the trip to Santa’s Workshop. This was the first visit there for most of them except for one of our friends who was there over 50 years ago. I was last there in 1962 when I was 9 years old. I was thrilled to see that Santa’s Workshop has remained unchanged over the years. I was in as much wonderment at 65 as I was at 9 years old. When we were about to leave, I bought a copy of “The Man Who Dared to Dream” in the gift shop. On one of the first evenings after we returned home from our vacation in the Adirondacks, I settled in with my book. I stayed up that evening until I finished reading it. The story transported me back to a time in life that was much simpler, and kinder. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, so much so that I wished it would not end. Julian Reiss was a wonderful, and humble, man. His efforts to spread happiness and joy continue to have a widespread impact on people today, not only through the Julian Reiss Foundation as well as Santa’s Workshop, but through lasting memories created by him that so many children and adults possess for life. We recently bought another copy of the book through Patti’s website as a gift for our other daughter. I am sure we will be back for more because the book makes such a great, enjoyable gift. Thank you, Patti, for being the inspiration for Santa’s Workshop and for sharing this heartwarming story."
KEN AND DENISE POST