In 1989, the AIDS crisis was reaching a fever pitch. At the time, Mark Woodley was caring for his dying best friend, while coping with his own HIV status. Although he was an architect by training, he saw an ad in the Village Voice looking for Macy’s Santas. He applied and got the job. He loved the experience of bringing joy to children, and Macy’s invited him back the following holiday season. 

By 1990, he had started taking the drug AZT, which was the primary treatment for AIDS. When he went in for his physical, he was honest about his medication regimen — AZT in combination with Prozac — and he knew he made a mistake.

Mark waited for Macy’s to respond, but instead he was called into an HR meeting and told that they wouldn’t be rehiring him back as Santa. He decided to file a lawsuit against the department store.

Around the same, Jon Winkleman, a young gay man, was working with the activist group ACT UP — along with their subsidiary group Action Tours, which carried out covert direct actions. ACT UP is the ​​AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. A political group working to end the AIDS pandemic and improve the lives of people with AIDS through action, medical research, treatment and advocacy. John read a blurb in the back of the New York Times about Mark’s lawsuit against Macy’s, and he and the group decided to do something about it.

Photo: The Action Tours protest at the Macy’s 34th St Store in NYC on Nov 29, 1991. Photos by Meryl Levin.

After the protest, Mark never returned to Macy’s as Santa, but in the following years, he played Santa at different pediatric AIDS clinics and organizations. 

Mark and John connected virtually for StoryCorps almost 30 years to the day of the protest to remember the monumental moment.

Photo: Mark Woodley in Amsterdam, and Jon Winkleman in Rhode Island, after their StoryCorps recording on November 22nd, 2021. For StoryCorps.
Top photo: Artwork by Lyne Lucien.

Released on December 21, 2021