In 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis, Mark Woodley was caring for his dying best friend, while coping with his own HIV status. Although 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 no news came about the job. He was called into an HR meeting and told that they wouldn’t be rehiring him back as Santa. He filed a lawsuit against the department store.
Around the same, Jon Winkleman, a young gay man, was taking his first steps into activism with the coalition group ACT UP — along with their subsidiary group Action Tours, which carried out covert direct actions. He read a blurb in the back of the New York Times about Mark’s lawsuit, and he and the group decided to do something about it.
The Action Tours protest at the Macy’s 34th St Store in NYC on Nov 29, 1991. Photo by Meryl Levin.
After the protest, Mark never returned to Macy’s as Santa, but in the following years, he donned the red suit again at different pediatric AIDS clinics and organizations.
After losing his job as Macy’s Santa, Mark Woodley welcomed the chance to play the part for children with H.I.V. at the State University Health Science Center in Brooklyn. Dec. 16th 1994, by Michelle V. Agins, for the NY Times.
Mark eventually moved to Amsterdam, where he opened a small import business. Jon stayed in New York until 2015, when moved back home to Rhode Island. He is still an activist. They connected virtually for StoryCorps almost 30 years to the day of the protest.
Mark Woodley in Amsterdam, and Jon Winkleman in Rhode Island, after their StoryCorps recording on November 22nd, 2021. For StoryCorps.
Top Photo: The Action Tours action at the Macy’s 34th St Store in NYC on Nov 29, 1991. Photo by Meryl Levin.
Originally aired December 10, 2021 on NPR’s Morning Edition.