Reporting, writing and photos by Abbey Marshall
In true 2020 fashion, I scheduled a Zoom call with Archie, the 22-foot-snowman, as I worked from home.
I hadn’t heard of Archie until a few weeks ago. I stumbled upon him on a chilly early-December afternoon walk through Lock 3 with my corgi, where I came face-to-face with a massive snowman lurking in the shadows of the alleyway next to the children’s museum. My coworkers excitedly informed me that that was no ordinary 20-foot-snowman (as if any 20-foot-snowman was ordinary), but it was Archie, who spoke to children for decades of Christmases at Chapel Hill Mall.
“When you think of legends of Akron, you think Devo, LeBron, The Pretenders and Archie,” says Doug Green, who was one of the hundreds of voices of Archie over the years.
When Summit County began foreclosure proceedings against the mall earlier this year, Archie’s fans worried about his fate. He had been taken from the mall before in the early 2000s with a decade-long break, until a community effort to bring him back in 2012 resurrected the beloved character. Fortunately for those who love and grew up with him, Archie’s decades-long reign as Akron’s Christmas celebrity will continue.
This year, he relocated Downtown to Lock 3. Not only does Archie look a bit different — with an updated look and two more feet of height — but so do visits with him.
But no need to fret. Though in-person events are limited, the city is offering drive-thru visits and limited days of in-person visits with Akron’s beloved snowman.
“Archie is a big part of this community for a lot of people,” says Lock 3 Coordinator Chris Griffith. “We were looking at a feel good thing for people to do that’s safe [during the pandemic.] We’re going to get him to try to talk to as many children as he can.”
To learn more about what makes this massive talking snowman such a lovable Akron icon, I spent this Christmas season delving into Archie’s history, talking to Akronites who recall fond memories at Chapel Hill Mall, and looking ahead to his future.
Archie first made his debut at the Chapel Hill Mall in 1968.
The novelty of talking statues and interactive animatronics at the time of Archie’s debut was at an all-time high, says Joanna Wilson, author of The Story of Archie the Talking Snowman.
In the preceding decades, Akron department stores and malls featured a talking horse, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, a talking Christmas tree and more. Every mall that opened felt an obligation to compete, Joanna says, so Chapel Hill’s then-rookie Archie joined the slew of already-popular interactive Christmas characters that talked to children as they shopped in the late ’60s.
Archie was initially intended to be a temporary display. His structure wasn’t built to endure decades of use and was rapidly deteriorating by the early 1970s from seasons of disassembly and reassembly.
But the people still wanted Archie, so Chapel Hill Mall commissioned Ra’ul Umaña, who worked as an employee at the mall, to create a more permanent version of Archie.
Ra’ul’s Archie was the version Akronites knew and came to love — or fear, as some members of the community recall of his glowing, blood-red eyes that served as nightmare fuel for small children.
“Not only did his eyes illuminate, but they were really red,” Wilson says. “That was at the insistence of the original mall owner. Ra’ul tried to talk him out of those red eyes saying it was creepy and spooky, but the owner insisted.”
“You either loved him like me or you were terrified of him,” recalls Jeanne Tassiello, an Akron native who now works as the Department of Integrated Development’s communications and media supervisor.
“I remember my sister always walked up hiding behind our mom’s coat. His eyes would flash red and she would be scared when he talked to us, but you always got a piece of free candy. I’m not sure if she thought it was worth it,” she laughs.
Yet love him or hate him, Wilson says, all those children grew up to become nostalgic for Archie and wanted to bring their kids for visits.
But in the early 2000s, Archie vanished from Chapel Hill Mall. Many wondered what happened to the 20-foot-tall snowman who seemed to vanish from a yearly Christmas tradition to just lore of Akron’s past.
“They found out he was gone,” Joanna says. “Out of that came this entire movement. They wanted to rebuild Archie and to reclaim this experience for their children and grandchildren.”
- Neighborhood tavern quietly celebrates 30 years
- Furniture designer Jessica Skinner creates functional art inspired by her family roots
A Facebook group pleading the mall to bring him back amassed thousands of members who shared their memories of Archie and hosted a rally, eventually getting the attention of the city. Griffith says the city paid about $5,000 to bring Ra’ul back and create a new Archie, which resided at Lock 3 for two Christmases in 2012 and 2013 before returning to Chapel Hill Mall.
Ra’ul, who died in only a few years after seeing his new creation brought back to life, did a favor to the young children of Akron by making his glowing eyes a friendly blue instead of red.
Akronites reflect on memories and traditions with Archie
What was it about Archie that made him so special that an entire community would rally around his resurrection?
Even among the line-up of talking mid-century Christmas attractions, Archie’s legacy is by far the longest. His isn’t a novelty that wore off after a Christmas or two — he remains famous in Akron today.
“I think Archie had more personality,” Joanna says of Archie’s longevity. “Also, the talking Christmas attractions downtown only lasted as long as the shop lasted downtown. As the department stores downtown closed [in the 70s and 80s], Archie kept going. There were temporary talking creatures at other malls, but I don’t think they were as popular or had as much personality. He continues to make a huge impression on people.”
Another facet of Archie’s appeal is that he’s a secular figure, Joanna says. Unlike Rudolph or other Christmas-centric characters, Archie can simply be a wintertime character, making him more attractive to a wider swath of people who don’t necessarily celebrate Christmas.
Because of Chapel Hill Mall’s location on the border of Cuyahoga Falls and Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, which includes a robust immigrant and refugee population, that was of great appeal.
“People in that area come from a variety of backgrounds and speak a variety of languages,” Joanna says. “These cultures don’t always feel like Christmas is theirs. But Archie wasn’t necessarily religious, and that made him more inclusive.
“Ra’ul would pay attention to a child and their interaction with family to see if they were from another country,” she recalls. “He spent time learning other languages to greet children with simple phrases. When they would hear their language from this giant snowman showing them this season in Ohio was theirs too, it was a sight to behold.”
When Andy Phillips brought his kids to see Archie at Lock 3 this year, he couldn’t help but feel emotional.
It was the first time seeing the snowman since his father, who voiced Archie for much of his adolescence, died in 2012 before he could meet his grandchildren.
Andy has fond memories of Christmases as a teenager, bringing friends, including his now-wife, to the mall and impressing them when Archie knew their names unprompted.
“My wife still talks about that,” he said. “She thought it was the coolest thing. I always thought one day he could do the same with my kids, but none of my kids ever got to meet my dad.”
But now, Archie is in a spot that is even more special than before: Christmastime at Lock 3 is where Andy proposed to his wife. He realized Archie’s relocation was a sign to revisit a memory that was very special to him.
“We’ve always talked about taking the kids to see Archie, but I’ve never done it because I knew what it would do emotionally,” he says. “But this year, we took the boys over to see him. It was kind of a cool moment. They don’t understand why Archie is special to us. That’s for later. Right now, let them believe in talking snowmen.”
Hundreds of Akronites have stories of why Archie is special to them, whether they were children with gazes tilted toward the sky or behind the microphone themselves.
“I had the honor of meeting a woman who was much older than my normal visitors,” recalls Doug Green, who voiced Archie in 2017. “One of her caregivers explained to me that she saw Archie and associated him with the ZZ Top song ‘Sharp Dressed Man.’ When it was her turn to talk to Archie, I had my phone ready to play ‘Sharp Dressed Man.’
“When she heard Archie singing the song, it was like a tidal wave of emotion just poured out of her, and in turn me. She sat in her wheelchair dancing and singing, and the entire food court was just inspired to clap along… I spoke to hundreds of kids that year, but the memory of being able to make one woman smile will forever be my legacy, even if it was behind the facade of a 20-foot snowman.”
My inbox is flooded with dozens of similar anecdotes and photos of adults who remember how special Archie made Christmas for them and now, for their children.
How to visit with Archie during the pandemic
In lieu of Lock 3’s annual ice skating rink, which was not put up because of COVID-19, Archie joins the winter wonderland of twinkling lights, ornament-bedazzled garland and classic Christmas tree adorning Lock 3.
Seated among a display of candy cane posts and snowflake lights in the alleyway next to the Akron Children’s Museum, Lock 3’s coordinator says he is eager to meet as many children as possible this year.
To encourage social distancing, the city is setting up a drive-thru for visitors to meet with Archie. On Dec. 16, 17, 21 and 22 from 5-9 p.m., Akron families can pay $10 per car to drive through Lock 3 to see the lights, greet Santa and chat with Archie from their own vehicles. All participants must pre-register at lock3live.com, as only 40 appointments a night will be available.
Archie will be available for live, in-person greetings on Dec. 18, 19, 20 and 23. Chris says that is as far out as the city can plan for now based on health recommendations, but they plan to have him available even after Christmas for some greetings in January.
The city has also discussed Zoom appointments, like the one I test-drove with them, but as long as social distancing is in place for scheduled events, Archie won’t have to work from home like the rest of us.
Historical photos provided by Jeanne Tassiello.
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.