DEER BOBBY: Reindeer Inc. Still Breathing Life Into Christmas Dreams
By Darryal Ray
The day Bobby Baldwin told his wife Merlene he wanted to buy some reindeer she thought he had lost his mind.
|Larry Holder, supervisor of Reindeer, Inc., prepares Blitzen for another Christmas season.|
"I told him he'd been watching too much Fantasy Island," she recalled with a laugh. "But I usually backed him up on whatever he wanted. He said, 'I always heard of Santa Claus and his reindeer, but I've never seen any. I just want to make that dream come true.'"
But it wasn't a dream that Bobby kept to himself.
He took his dream on the road, sharing his reindeer and sleigh with wide-eyed children all across the eastern half of the United States. You could find Bobby and his reindeer at Christmas tree farms, shopping malls, Christmas parades, store promotions, etc. -- wherever he could breathe life into children's dreams of Santa's reindeer.
When he passed away March 9 at age 66 after a series of health setbacks, the Huntsville Times wrote, "Huntsville lost a dear man last week ... A deer man, that is."
Bobby would've liked that.
It was almost 30 Christmases ago that his fledgling reindeer-leasing business took flight. As one of only two reindeer companies in the Lower 48, Reindeer Inc., found business brisk and quickly built a resume that included a Wal-Mart commercial with country music star Garth Brooks, a music video with Mariah Carey and even a title role in the 1989 movie Prancer, starring Sam Elliott.
It was pretty heady stuff for Baldwin, a simple, down-to-earth man who had launched the reindeer business in hopes of finding more rewarding work than his job as a second-shift electrician at TVA's Bellefonte Nuclear Plant. "His idea was that it would be a job where he only had to work one month out of the year," says Larry Holder, who grew up with the Baldwins' son and manages the 20-head herd today. "He soon realized that it was never going to be like that."
After all, it's not easy to raise an animal more accustomed to the Alaskan tundra than Alabama summers.
"We got the first deer we ever purchased in 1980 from Nome, Alaska," recalls Merlene. "He picked them up in Minnesota around the Fourth of July. I think it was about 106 or 107 degrees. He kept stopping at service stations along the way, and hosing them down with water to keep them cool."
All but one of the reindeer survived the trip -- the remaining five became the nucleus of Reindeer Inc., but getting them sleigh-ready was a challenge.
"When we first got them, you could open a door and they'd go into the barn or stall and climb halfway up the wall!" said Merlene. "But Bobby kept working with them. He'd go in, turn a bucket upside down and sit down to watch them until he got them used to him."
"They're not an easy animal to raise," said Holder. "You can buy 50 head of reindeer and you may get 10 that's going to do what you want. The other 40 are going to be fed everyday and that's it. They'll be used for breeding stock basically because they're never going to do what you want them to do. You can't just go buy a reindeer, snap a lead on it and start walking it like a dog. It's not that simple. It can take anywhere from a week to three years to get a deer to walk on a lead."
At the start, everything was a "guessing game," adds Holder. "Nobody really knew what to tell us. We learned everything the hard way."
Figuring the reindeer needed a cold environment, Bobby put air-conditioning units in their stalls. Bad move -- they developed pneumonia. The air-conditioners were replaced with fans and they did fine.
Another misstep was Bobby's decision to enter a paddock with a bull reindeer during rut. The 45-minute tussle that ensued left Bobby battered, bruised and a lot wiser about handling male reindeer.
Two years ago, a tick-borne disease killed 26 head in 30 days. "We have laughed with those deer and we have cried with those deer," says Merlene, remembering times when the family took turns sitting with sick deer throughout the night.
Time after time, Bobby poured money into the business when the going got slow, but the tick problem was such a financial blow that he was almost ready to call it quits.
"That's the only time that we ever had to convince him to stay in it," says Holder. "It had caused such a financial strain at that point, losing all those deer, that it was just devastating. But he toughed it out, and we made it through that season."
"People thought he was crazy for sinking money into it, but he just felt like it was his calling, his way of giving back," Holder continued. "That's what kept Bobby going through all the years, the faces of the kids, because when you see a kid walk up and think that he's seen the real Santa and the real reindeer and he's got a smile from ear to ear -- whether he's getting what he wants for Christmas or not, to know that he's seen Santa Claus -- there's not a price tag you can put on it."
That's why, Holder says, Bobby instituted a policy all those years ago that children with special needs or disabilities always move to the front of the line. "If there's a disabled child in line to see Santa, they're coming to the front," said Holder. "They aren't going to wait in line. That's something that Reindeer Inc. has always done. If a mother is going to take the time to dress a disabled child, put them in a wheelchair, get put them in a van, get them out of the van, put them back in their wheelchair, wheel them up there ... is it right that she stands in line for two hours? She's done her job. If that offends anybody that's standing in line, then I'm sorry."
That's also why, in the three days before Christmas when reindeer bookings are hard to come by, Bobby always brought his antlered friends home to Huntsville's Merrimack Mill neighborhood. Visitors poured in by the hundreds each yuletide season to see the Christmas lights and displays and to ride on the homemade train. But mostly they came to see the deer.
"It was so successful that we had to have the police over here to direct traffic," Merlene said. "It was a neat little idea and a very great success. The city council, the mayor, a lot of business people come out. The public and our neighbors can't wait until it's time to put up the lights and bring out the deer."
In 2001, Bobby underwent bypass surgery, and turned the reindeer touring duties over to Holder. Bobby's health, meanwhile, continued to decline.
"I'm not going to tell you that we didn't make money, but I'm not going to tell you that we got rich either because we're a far cry from it," said Holder. "It's not about money. It's about the kids. Bobby would dip into his pocket a lot of times and put money back into it just to keep it going, and people wondered, 'Why? Why? Why?' But after he saw what it did for the kids, he said, 'If I can just feed the deer and pay the vet bills and make a little bit to get us by, then that's what we'll do.' And he kept it going all these years."
Last March, before yet another surgery, an uneasy Bobby left his wife of almost 48 years with this message: Keep the reindeer business going as long as you can.
"He asked me to take care of the deer and keep them as long as I could. He said, 'Don't get rid of them until you have to,'" said Merlene. "As long as we can take care of them and keep his dream alive, that's what we're going to do."
Holder, who considered Bobby "a second Dad," is honoring his last wish by staging a "Bobby Baldwin Tribute Tour" with the reindeer this year.
"Bobby always said..." Holder said, pausing as his eyes began welling with tears. "He used to say, 'One man doesn't stop the show. When I'm dead and gone, it won't stop the show neither. The show goes on.' Well, I guess, in a way he was right because we're going to continue. ... It's still going on. Is it easy? No, no. Are we all dealing with it every day? Yes. Is it going to be easy come Christmas? Probably not."
Merlene, meanwhile, wonders what this Christmas will bring.
"It's not going to be an easy one, I'm sure," she said. "He and I both loved Christmas. We'll still have the reindeer, but it won't be like Christmas without Bobby."
For more information, visit www.ReindeerInc.com or call (256) 536-4661 or (256) 536-0110.