Running Philly's iconic Santas event offers raucous, seasonal fun

11:16 PM, Dec 8, 2013   |    comments
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The next time you and a group of friends are sitting around, riffing on random ideas and spit-balling pipe dreams, make sure to write everything down.

Every. Single. Word.

Even the part when your friend starts to say something and stops midsentence -- "You know what? Never mind. It's stupid."

It's not stupid. Your friend is wrong. Make her record the idea in a little notebook.

Even the part when your buddy says something so outrageously misguided and impractical that you begin to wonder if the whole "company you keep" thing is true.

Even then, you should be writing that idea down.

Because as Matt McDermott and Ryan Van Laeys will attest, no brainstorm should go ignored.

McDermott and Van Laeys hail from South Jersey and were kicking around in the Sea Isle City bar scene 15 years ago when they struck on a signature concept while sharing brews with a group of close-knit friends.

Now they will have a group of about 10,000 close-knit friends chasing them through the streets of Philadelphia while adorned in Santa Claus costumes this Saturday.

The iconic Running of the Santas event started inauspiciously enough -- 40 good pals who wanted to connect post-shore season and get together for a holiday drink, all partaking in a pub crawl at some of the city's favorite spots. Now it's an all-day free-for-all of fun, seasonal cheer and weird costumes.

"Running of the Santas was all word-of-mouth for the first six or seven years," recounts Van Laeys, who founded the promotion organization One Big Party Events with McDermott to support the annual festival. "Once we started to develop some online presence and add more entertainment elements, things really started to explode. It's the type of event where you walk away and tell five of your friends about it and come back next year."

His calculations certainly skew on the conservative side. Huge groups of friends typically purchase the $15 general admission tickets and clear calendars months in advance to prepare.

"The Running is totally different," says Van Laeys. "It's not something people do every weekend. We're talking about the holy trinity of fun: drinking, dancing and costumes."

The madness begins this year at the self-proclaimed South Pole at 3rd and Spring Garden Streets and rages on at old standbys such as McFadden's Philadelphia, Johnny Utah's and Finnigan's Wake. Thousands of merry revelers in Santa suits and other assorted winter-themed costumes will flood the streets from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. while enjoying generous drink specials, music and entertainment -- including a hottest Santa contest, which seems like all the right types of wrong.

At 4 p.m. sharp, the bearded mass will dash the short distance from Finnigan's to the Electric Factory on North 7th Street, where everyone is expected to get way too intoxicated to thoroughly review a toy list once -- let alone twice -- to properly gauge little Johnny's level of naughtiness.

"We're going all out this year," says McDermott, who pursued accounting while at Rutgers University and had a bona fide career before he decided it would be more fun to plan Yuletide flash mobs for a living. "We really have the perfect package this year -- it's such a variety of entertainment. You're going to look around and see people ages 21 to 61 because there's truly something for everyone."

Once the sprinting Santas convene at the Electric Factory with the rest of the party-goers who plan to arrive at the music venue when the doors open at 11 a.m., all of the creatures will be stirring. Even that sneaky little mouse.

The festivities will flow back and forth between the Factory and surrounding outdoor heated tents, where discounted drinks will be aplenty. Beloved WMMR radio personalities Kathy Romano and Matt Cord will be on hand to emcee the activities and a killer lineup of cover bands will keep the energy level high well into the evening -- or at least until the beer runs out.

"We want everyone who comes out to have fun," says McDermott. "The Electric Factory is one of the best concert venues in the city. Every major act has played here at one point or another. It's hard to believe we're now selling it out and having such a blast."

Perhaps contributing to the record ticket sales is the headlining appearance from the hugely popular '90s alternative rock act Tonic. The boys behind the classic hit "If You Could Only See" will hit the main stage at 2 p.m. for a special performance available exclusively to V.I.P. ticket-holders ($30).

"When I heard that Tonic was performing this year, I knew I had to come," says Matt Illuzzi, a longtime friend of McDermott and Van Laeys, in addition to one of the Founding 40 that started the Running of the Santas movement back in 1998.

Illuzzi has participated in 12 runs, but took a brief respite after moving to North Carolina and starting a family. Now, after three years out of the game, he's coming back to Philadelphia this weekend to don an itchy red suit.

"You just show up and you know you're going to have a great time," says Illuzzi, who recalls a particular fondness for one fellow runner who used to arrive each year in a rented Rudolph the Reindeer suit, gradually drink away his common sense over the course of the day and end up losing pieces of the costume.

"This has turned into a really iconic Philadelphia event."

(Copyright 2013 Gannett Co. Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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By Matt Chimento | Courier-Post

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