Grosse Pointe Shores woman keeps Christmas Carol tradition going

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published December 6, 2023

 Grosse Pointe Shores resident Toni Urso-Salvador — seen here portraying Christmas Carol for the Lighting of the Village in the Shores in November 2022 — continues to play the character each year during the holidays.

Grosse Pointe Shores resident Toni Urso-Salvador — seen here portraying Christmas Carol for the Lighting of the Village in the Shores in November 2022 — continues to play the character each year during the holidays.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes

GROSSE POINTE SHORES — An exhibition on display until the end of December at the Detroit Historical Museum has no doubt gotten Metro Detroiters of a certain age thinking back to their favorite holiday memories of the old Hudson’s department store downtown.

What they might not know is that a Grosse Pointe Shores woman might have played a part in some of those memories.

Toni Urso-Salvador, of the Shores, portrayed Christmas Carol — one of Santa’s helpers — at the downtown Detroit Hudson’s store for about three or four years in the 1970s. At 82, she’s one of the last Christmas Carols still around. And the petite Urso-Salvador can still fit into her costume all these decades later, which is important, as she continues the Christmas Carol tradition each year by taking part in Grosse Pointe Shores’ Lighting of the Village, the Grosse Pointe Santa Claus Parade and other holiday events.

Christmas Carol was originally created and portrayed in 1953 by Maureen Bailey, when Bailey was a 15-year-old student at Little Flower High School in Royal Oak. Bailey — who portrayed Wendy in NBC’s 1960 production of “Peter Pan” — came up with a character that became so memorable and popular, the Madame Alexander Doll Co. produced a Christmas Carol doll. Envisioned as a young person, Urso-Salvador said Christmas Carol was known for her famous wave, red outfit, and black patent leather shoes and hair. She was Santa’s top elf, the one who organized everything at the North Pole, Urso-Salvador said.

From the 1950s until around the early 1980s, Christmas Carol was an instrumental part of Santaland, the magical holiday shrine created on the 12th floor at Hudson’s. Its elaborate decorations included animatronic characters, which Urso-Salvador said weren’t common then the way they are now.

“It was fun,” Urso-Salvador said. “And it’s still vivid in my mind. I can still see the reindeer moving their heads. It was so magical.”

At the time, Urso-Salvador was involved with Grosse Pointe Theatre and a member of a dance team called The Stylettes. She said her mother was a tap dancer who taught her and her sister how to tap.

“She was on the Danny Thomas radio program,” Urso-Salvador said of her mother. “You could hear the tapping (over the radio).”

Local historian Michael Hauser, who has co-authored two books about Hudson’s, said Christmas Carol was an important part of the Hudson’s tradition starting in the 1950s.

“Christmas Carol usually accompanied Santa at the end of the (Detroit Thanksgiving Day) parade (when) he got the key to the city,” Hauser said.

Urso-Salvador is also an important part of a new Detroit Public Television documentary, “Holidays at Hudson’s.” The film is next slated to air on DPTV at 4 a.m. Dec. 13 and 9 p.m. Dec. 14. A copy of the DVD is available with a donation of $72 or more to DPTV.

At the urging of adults who had fond memories of Christmas Carol, Urso-Salvador revived the role in the 1980s.

Urso-Salvador is the mother of an adult daughter and son, and grandmother of four. Her beloved husband of 44 years, John Salvador, died in July at the age of 76.

While her husband’s recent death has kept Urso-Salvador from making as many appearances as Christmas Carol this year, she said she plans to keep donning her signature red outfit and shiny patent leather shoes for many years to come. She said she has visited hospitals and senior centers as Christmas Carol, bringing smiles and cheer to people of all ages — many of whom aren’t old enough to remember the downtown Hudson’s store. A race walker who prefers natural remedies to traditional medicine, the active, vibrant Urso-Salvador looks and acts like someone decades younger.

“As long as I’m still able to do it, I’m going to do it,” Urso-Salvador said. “I was told elves never grow old. I get so excited to see the excitement of the children. The looks on their faces — their eyes light up and their faces sparkle. It warms my heart to see that.”