John Fonda, artist and Santa, dies

October 17, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Baltimore's Santa Claus -- a gentle man named John Fonda whose gifts to local artists are too long for any list -- died of heart failure Thursday as his friends prepared to honor his life's work.

A master of ceramics who co-founded the annual SoWeBo arts festival near the Hollins Street market, Mr. Fonda died at St. Agnes Hospital. He was 63.

A memorial service for Mr. Fonda, a vehement opponent of censorship, will be held at 1:35 p.m. Monday in the square at the foot of Broadway in Fells Point.

"John made most of his money playing Santa Claus and spent most of his money supporting the arts in Baltimore," said Teddy Getzel, owner of the Cultured Pearl cafe. "He always had an encouraging word for young artists unsure of themselves."

A resident of Fells Point since the late 1970s, Mr. Fonda worked for the past 11 years as "the real Santa" at White Marsh Mall. His likeness to the true Saint Nicholas was so uncanny that he needed nary a prop to conjure the good man of Christmas.

Crinkling his eyes and holding a finger aside of his nose was enough.

Although he embraced the likeness -- his phone number was 685-HoHo -- Mr. Fonda saw the blessing as mixed.

"Santa Claus kept him alive for most of the year," said Marc Fonda of Ontario, one of his two sons. "He would get requests for photo shoots from the Eastern Shore to New York. But when he wasn't doing the gig, he'd sometimes be chagrined to be recognized as Santa Claus across the country."

What he loved most was making art: ceramics and in later years "paintings of fantastic studies in color," according to Mr. Getzel.

A collector of erotic art and works by women, Mr. Fonda was renowned for rousing others -- young, old, poor, handicapped and those disenfranchised from tradition and the establishment -- to find the art inside themselves.

"John was hope," said Ellen Dontigney, longtime impresario of outlandish art events. "As an artist on the outside you often feel like you're nobody, but he made you feel like you were somebody. He created opportunity for many, many people."

She added: "I can't believe John's gone. He was ho-ho-ho-ing just last Christmas."

On Sunday, Oct. 25, the "Fonda-Rama" art and music extravaganza will be held at the Lithuanian Hall, 851 Hollins St., to raise money in Mr. Fonda's name. The event was planned to endow him with a retirement fund. The money raised will now be used to benefit local artists.

Born in Gloversville, N.Y., in 1929, Mr. Fonda graduated from high school in Seattle. He served in the Navy during the Korean War and after his 1952 discharge earned a degree in cartography from the University of Washington.

After working as a map maker for Rand McNally in Chicago, he taught at Syracuse University, where he earned a master's degree in ceramics. He began taking odd jobs in the 1970s after committing his life to art and moved from Washington to Fells Point in 1979.

"He was so good to so many younger artists that some of us lost track of how brilliant an artist he was himself," said Megan Hamilton, associate editor of Art in Progress.

Mr. Fonda is survived by a second son, Gerd Fonda of Brunswick, Maine; two sisters, Gary Ridley of Seattle and Joyce Harshbager of Henderson, Nev.; and his former wife, Margot Finke of Brandon, Manitoba.

Contributions to the John Fonda Memorial Fund can be sent in care of the Theater Project, 43 W. Preston St., Baltimore, Md. 21201.

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