After more than a decade as the voice of Northwest Railway Museum’s Santa Train, Richard Schall will still be making the children laugh and sing this season. Just in a different way.
As “Mr. Bells,” Schall’s stories and songs have delighted families aboard the museum’s holiday rides since he donned the jingling brakeman’s cap 10 years ago.
Yet, at age 84, Schall doesn’t get around like he used to. He has difficulty with physical mobility, doesn’t drive anymore and knows his limits—“Don’t court trouble” is his rule.
Schall still wants to be a part of the fun at the Northwest Railway Museum. With Santa Train getting underway this weekend, he probably won’t be riding with his hand-held public address system this time around.
But you’ll still find Mr. Bells somewhere in Santa’s proximity at the Snoqualmie Depot, likely serenading guests in the stationary refreshment car, singing and telling stories by the Christmas tree.
“That’s how I’m going to do it this year, and hopefully for a few more years,” he says.
Schall stands out from other volunteers at Santa Train. In part, it’s his colorful brakeman’s costume. It’s also his delivery. The former elementary school music teacher speaks in precise, complete sentences. He credits his upbringing: “Both my parents were fluent practitioners of the language.”
As ‘Bells,’ Schall has helped with the announcements during Day Out with Thomas visits as well as Santa Train. Bells off, he’s been a volunteer helper with some restoration projects, and once sorted a trash bin’s worth of papers salvaged from the Great Northern Railway, seeking lost historical facts.
“In a way, he’s like the perfect volunteer,” said Richard Anderson, Northwest Railway Museum’s executive director. “He loves being here and working with the public. He doesn’t mind working with things, either.”
Anderson appreciates Schall’s graceful perspective.
“He’s somebody who seems to have enjoyed every part of life, embraced it for what it is.”
Schall’s calling is education, and he was a jack of all trades in the primary grades. But his specialty is music for grades 1 to 3. He retired from teaching in 1993.
“I love ‘em,” he says of the younger set, “their frankness, their openness, their joy. They haven’t discovered, at least to a very sufficient extent, the fact that bad things go on, that there are things to be angry about.”
While there are some lucky folks who maintain something of the wonder of childhood their entire lives, for most folks who grow up, “We lose something along the way,” Schall says. Because we do that, we often end up creating more trouble than we need.
As a young man fresh out of high school, Schall worked at a Studebaker car factory in his hometown of South Bend, Ind. He got paid $2.10 an hour—good wages in 1951—as a general laborer and water sander. As sander, it was his job to sand the primer coat on the convertibles. It was tough, heavy work, but the wiry Schall took to it for a while.
Eventually, though, he had to follow his dream. For a while, he had been singing on the side as a member of a group called the Philharmonic Singers.
“I left because I finally figured, well, I’ve done singing and have enough experience, that I’m going to commit to majoring in it.”
A Hoosier, he graduated from Indiana University at Bloomington and took his first musical educator’s job at the Olympic Hills school in Seattle, bringing his family to Washington.
On the train
“It was all quite by accident” that Schall’s family discovered Santa Train, 30 years ago.
On a day trip from Seattle, he, wife Charlsia, and their young sons packed into the family Volkswagen Beetle and found themselves on Highway 202, about where Snoqualmie Parkway would be, if it had existed then. There was only a forested hillside—and a train.
“Here was this U.S. Plywood No. 11 steam engine pushing people around on the track. A big sign said ‘Santa Train.’”
Richard plunked down 25 cents per ticket and they boarded, the children excited for their visit to Santa.
“They liked it so much,” he said. “And they still do.” Only now, his sons bring their own little ones.
Right off the bat, he saw the Santa Train as a good thing. When it comes to family entertainment, “the train remains at the top of the list.”
Over the years, his volunteer experience has reinforced a lesson for Schall.
“What a great thing it is to deal with the developing generation,” he says. “I take a special joy in that.”
Schall became ‘Mr. Bells’ by accident, too, about 10 Christmases ago.
As a volunteer, he backed up the train’s main caroler, Anne McCarty, with singing duties that kept riders in the right spirit.
“One day I got the idea that if I wore a brakeman’s cap and could stitch bells on the rim, this might amuse the kids,” Schall said.
During ‘Jingle Bells,’ he’d shake the cap. A boy on the train, about 10 years old, said, “Oh, you’re Mr. Bells!” Schall recalled. “The name stuck.”
Mr. Bells became a one-man onboard show for Santa Train, and after a volunteer rigged up a microphone that connected to the train’s public address system, he negotiated the bouncing vestibules between cars, visiting every compartment. For years, he never missed a train.
Lately, performing as Mr Bells has become more demanding physically.
But “from the standpoint of feeling, it’s not difficult. I love it,” he says.
For the younger set—“anybody 69 or younger, they’re knocking on the door of old age and they’re wondering about it. Schall sees himself as showing an example, of how to stay active, connected and positive. He’s not sure how often he’ll be on Santa Train this holiday season. But he does plan to be there.
“I’m so glad I’m able to do that,” says Mr. Bells. As long as they want him, he’ll keep the smiles coming.
• Santa Train begins this Saturday, Nov. 24, and continues on Saturdays and Sundays through December 15. The trip includes a visit to the historic Snoqualmie Depot, where there's cookies, cocoa and coffee, and a meeting with Santa, who has a small gift for each young visitor. Families catch the train at the North Bend Depot, 205 McClellan Street. Seven hourly departures run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets are still available, and cost $20 per person. Learn more at www.trainmuseum.org.
"What a great thing it is to deal with the developing generation."
Richard Schall, a.k.a Mr. Bells, Santa Train volunteer