Two out of three ain't bad.

Back in 1974, the famous Utah Osmond family announced big plans to build a local theater for the "Donny and Marie Show." John Robert Howe, then a local broadcaster with a booming voice who moonlighted as Santa Claus, remembers Alan Osmond telling him, "We want you, Robert Redford and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir."They got only the choir and Howe - but he has enjoyed his own equivalent of a "Miracle on 34th Street" ever since - spending two months almost every year playing a singing and dancing Santa, announcer and master of ceremonies for the Osmonds' Christmas shows.

It all started when Alan, the oldest of the performing Osmonds, called Howe, wanting to borrow his Santa suit. The family was celebrating Donny's 16th birthday party at home in Provo.

Alan thought he understood the Santa persona. He was so popular then that he could barely go anywhere without being mobbed by young girls. So to escape, he had once dressed as Santa and gone to the old Ice House, a dance hall in Provo, and danced with all the girls, none of whom recognized him.

Howe responded to Alan's request this way: "Why don't I show up in the suit and play Santa for you?" Alan's retort was a shocker: "I'm sorry, John, but we can't afford to pay you."

According to Howe, George, the senior Osmond, had put each of the boys on an allowance of about $600 a month.

"I was making $550 a month," says Howe. "Even though they had a huge trust fund, they were making the same money I was. Paying me an extra nickel would have broken their budget. I thought it was charming."

Now, he feels "almost adopted," after doing a number of Donny and Marie shows, several national Christmas tours with Marie and the Osmond Brothers - and the last three seasons at the Osmond Family Theater in Branson, Missouri.

Howe says after 30 years of performing, the so-called "squeaky-clean" Osmonds have finally found their true niche in Branson, the "buckle of the Bible Belt."

Having performed with the Osmonds as an actor and comic, Howe believes he has found his own true calling in life.

"Down deep inside I'm a comic. A comic says things funny, and a comedian says funny things. A comedian will entertain you with a set joke at dinner. A comic will bounce off a situation and adapt it. I've tried to use Santa to lighten people's loads."

In Howe's opinion, "the secret to being a good Santa is to let someone else be the star of the show. That's how Johnny Carson lasted so many years. I try to introduce people, then get out of the way. I'm the M.C. who warms up the audience. I tell some stories, then I say `Here are the Osmonds.' "

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During the 1992 and 1993 seasons, Howe worked the entire Christmas season in Branson. This year, the Osmonds gave him an unusual Christmas present.

"They invited me to Branson in late October. We rehearsed and opened our third Christmas show, and then they surprised me with a plane ticket home to Utah, so that for the first time in many years, I could enjoy Christmas with my own family."

Now the Osmonds' jolly old elf is celebrating with his wife, Rosie, and their children Jeff, 18, and Sally, 16. In the meantime, in Branson, the role of Santa is temporarily being played by 6'2" Doug Osmond, one of Alan's sons.

But for anyone who has seen or heard the real Santa in action, it will not be the same.

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