Remembering Long Beach’s Santa Claus: Thomas “Ski” Demski
A character in his own right, Thomas “Ski” Demski was a world record-setter, a local Long Beach icon, ran for mayor, and was known as Santa Claus to a generation of kids who grew up in Long Beach.
December 24, 2019
Thomas Demski, or “Ski” as he was most well known, once held the Guinness World Record for the largest flag. His “Superflag,” as it was know, was commissioned by Ski on June 14, 1992 and measured 225 feet by 505 feet and weighed 3,000 pounds. Each star measures 16 feet point-to-point, takes 500 people to unfurl it and is nearly three football fields in size.
While he was internationally known for his massive flags, which have been notably been unfurled at Super Bowls, the Hoover Dam, Charlotte Speedway and even a presidential inauguration, he was locally known to many in Long Beach as Santa Claus.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Ski moved to Long Beach in 1958.
For years on Christmas, Ski, with his perfectly fitting snow-white beard and big belly, would put on his red suit and give out candy canes and flags at local elementary schools, hospitals and his neighborhood church, St. Anthony’s, located at 540 Olive Ave. Ski would go as far as showing up in a sleigh perfectly fitting for his grand personality–– the sleigh being a big, red fire engine.
“He had music installed on it and he would drive it all around when he was being Santa Claus because that was his sleigh,” Patricia Hay-Alexander, current owner of Ski’s flag-manufacturing company, said.
Alexander took over the Superflag business after her husband Jim passed away in 2016. Jim Alexander, a retired commander in the U.S. Coast Guard and Ski’s best friend and business associate, was appointed as the trustee for all of Ski’s belongings and businesses after he passed in 2002.
“They [Jim and Ski] both have a huge adoration for the American flag,” Alexander continued, “My husband was retired from the military, as far as he was concerned, what Ski was doing was absolutely wonderful; and so I support it,” she said.
The Alexander’s had known Ski since the 1980’s when Jim offered Ski his sidewalk cleaning services for the gatherings he would have by the giant 132-foot pole outside his house on Lime Avenue.
Alexander recalled, “He had this big podium that he would put out there, chairs–– the cops were very reasonable. They would block off the street in front of his house, so that all the neighbors and anybody else who wanted to come could come and sit down.”
This would be a constant affair throughout the year for days such as Flag Day and Veteran’s Day or whenever Ski simply wanted to.
He was particularly fond of World War I veteran Fred Hummer, who after his passing was buried at the pole in front of Ski’s house in 1997. Previously he had also buried his friend, veteran Colonel Clem Maloney during a public ceremony on St. Patrick’s Day in 1990 underneath where the pole stands today.
A fan of St. Patrick’s Day, another annual holiday ritual of Ski’s was commissioning 2,000 corned beef sandwiches from Joe Jost’s in Long Beach and handing them out to the homeless, complete with green Kool-Aid drinks.
Ski was keen on giving back to his community, making major donations to St. Anthony’s Church and the Long Beach Symphony, which he was even given the opportunity to conduct.
He also quietly helped a mother with financial struggles, pay for her son’s funeral after he was hit by a car.
Not everyone was fond of him however, his neighbor sued him over his flag being too “noisy”.
“It was the case of the flapping flag,” Alexander said.
Ski eventually had to resize the flag.
Although beloved by many in the city, Ski, a reformed alcoholic, was estranged from his family.
“The immediate family wanted nothing to do with him because apparently he was not a nice drunk,” Alexander said.
Ski also ran for Long Beach mayor multiple times.
“[He ran] over and over and over again every year, every time that Ernie Kell was mayor [1984-1994],” Alexander recalled.
Apart from making flags, Ski also ran a bumper-sticker business, where he printed many patriotic and positive phrases since he himself was a reformed alcoholic at the time. Aside from his big red firetruck, Ski was also notable for his large van with every inch covered with the same bumper stickers that he made in his garage and sold.
Interestingly, two years prior to his death, Ski had held his own mock funeral in his garage. Laying shirtless in a plexiglass coffin, Ski was able to show off the array of American flags, eagles and Santa Claus themed tattoos he had all over his chest and back. With the help of a hypnotist, he laid still as his friends came and ate corned beef sandwiches while watching over him.
“Hey, he was an old guy, and he was a real character,” said Alexander.
Ski was found dead on Jan. 19, 2002 at the age of 72.
He was laid to rest in an in-state manor at his own garage in the same plexiglass coffin from his mock funeral, shirtless and all. Over 2,000 people, including a cardinal priest from Los Angeles, came to his funeral and signed his book.
“He [the cardinal] had told Jim that Ski has done lots of things for the church, he was a good Catholic boy,” Alexander noted.
No one from his family attended.
“I called the number I had for the sister. It was a working number but nobody ever answered,” Alexander said. “I left a message and nobody ever called me back.”
“Toxicological tests found a level of Tramadol [Ultran], a painkiller, in his system beyond therapeutic levels,” the LBReport article stated.
“Jim told me he was in an amount of pain, he was ill,” Alexander said. “I think he just didn’t want to carry on anymore, life was getting too hard.”
His ashes were interred in the metallic eagle that sits atop of the 132-foot pole, which is still in front of his former home at 402 Lime Ave. There is no flag flying on it anymore.
The Superflag business is still around. Many of the flags, including the Superflag, are currently in storage but continue to be rented out.
The bumper-sticker business was given to William “Wild Bill” Landham, a business associate and friend of Ski.
“I thought they’d be interested in keeping that going but they just let it go,” Alexander said.
Ski and Alexander had acquired the friendship of a much younger Landham who would travel around the country with them, helping to transport the flags.
Landham also continues to assist Alexander in transporting flags throughout the country.
“I don’t think I can do this without him,” Alexander noted.
Visitors today can also still see a statue of Ski with his beloved pet parrot, Peppy, in front of his former home next to the pole. On the other side of the house, is his original “The Pole” sign with a painting of a bald eagle with its wings spread, both reminders of Ski’s patriotism and love of Christmas.
“I’ll keep it going as long as I’m alive,” Alexander said regarding the legacy and business of Superflag. “I have it set up that if anything happens to me that Bill will take it, but now Bill is 60 years old, I mean, he may not make it, which is another reason why I would like to get maybe one of the Ski’s nephews involved.”
Alexander hopes that the City of Long Beach will preserve some of Ski’s memorabilia “for anybody who wants to find out about Ski,” she says. What’s not saved in the garage is currently put away in storage for the time being.
“He was Long Beach’s most unforgettable character,” Alexander said as she looked back at dozens of laid out photos of Ski. “Anyone who lived in Long Beach knew who Ski Demski was.”
Originally published Dec. 5.