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Santas gathering for farewell to derailed Polar Express

The Blackberry Farm Polar Express trais making rounds during first three weekends December has been expanded this year with variety

The Blackberry Farm Polar Express train is making the rounds during the first three weekends of December and has been expanded this year with a variety of new holiday activities. | Submitted

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Updated: February 11, 2014 6:37AM

It will surely be a sight to behold — especially weeks after Christmas — when about two dozen Santas and their better halves gather Saturday at Blackberry Farm in Aurora.

The merry band of white hairs — the beards, I hear, are the real deal — will gather at 10 a.m. at the Fox Valley facility on the city’s far-west side to say farewell to the local Polar Express — although I suspect these Jolly Old St. Nicks will do a bit of uncharacteristic whining about the corporate Grinch that stole it away.

Last year, without prior warning, Warner Bros. began sending cease-and-desist letters to Blackberry Farm and dozens of other Chicago-area organizations using the term “Polar Express” for holiday train events.

That list of copyright offenders was found on a website, that was created by longtime Streamwood Santa John Sullivan, who was certainly one disappointed Claus when I spoke with him earlier this week about the whole brouhaha.

Unfortunately, finding his website, Sullivan lamented, made it a lot easier for the studio to track down groups — more than 70 in all — using the Polar Express name in this area. Warner Bros. demanded that after the 2013 holiday season, these organizations would have to fork over 30 percent of the profit as a licensing fee if they wanted to continue. And that has quickly derailed many not-for-profits.

“Park districts don’t have big budgets,” he said, “so most of them are dropping the name.”

Which is a real shame, since Polar Express trips have been a Chicago-area institution since soon after the 2004 motion picture, based on the Chris Van Allsburg 1985 classic about a boy’s train odyssey to the North Pole.

The Polar Express at Blackberry Farm has been one of the most popular holiday offerings in northern Illinois, according to Sullivan, who began his long career as a Santa at Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles more than two decades ago. This past season, Fox Valley Park District’s Polar Express offered multiple trips over three weekends, with about 4,000 children from the Chicago area and across the Midwest this season alone enjoying the rail excursions and growing number of related activities.

Rather than bemoan the end, the park district will view this name change as a way to redefine the popular activity, said Public Relations Manager Jeff Long. And that includes a request to the community to help come up with an alternative name.

While it’s the studio’s legal right to demand payment for the use of the name, Long still can’t help but wonder if Warner Bros. isn’t shooting itself in the foot by taking away “all this free marketing for the movie and book.”

Sullivan, who refers to Warner Bros. as “Scrooge” on his website, also wonders how different things would be if “A Visit from St. Nicholas” that begins “ ’Twas the night before Christmas” had been written today. “Santa,” he wrote, “would be owned by a corporate media giant forcing everyone to pay big bucks to use his name.”

While the controversy first made headlines back in November when the legal notices began arriving in mail boxes, these Santas decided to gather in Aurora on Saturday for a final photo op and to share so many years of fond Polar Express memories.

Sorry, the gathering is not open to the public. But there will be plenty of ho-ho-hos — as well as the less-jovial sounds of a room full of Santas as they begin making next year’s list and checking it twice.

Want to bet who lands under not-so-nice?

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