Students use Zoom for ‘Miracle’ courtroom

This year’s court proceedings in the excerpted performance of “Miracle on 34th Street” took place over Zoom. Hundreds of students and educators throughout Delaware are joining in from classrooms or at home to watch Kris Kringle plead his case. (Submitted photo)

The courtroom was packed Wednesday as the defense mounted its evidence that Kris Kringle was who he said he was: Santa Claus.

This year, though, the proceedings were on Zoom.

In its 17th year, Delaware Courts’ production of “Miracle on 34th Street” looked a little different, but at its heart, it remained the same. Instead of a mountain of letters delivered by the postmaster and dumped over the presiding judge’s shoulders, this time, notes addressed to Santa Claus filled the screen.

Students, who usually pile into the courtroom, tuned in from their classrooms or their homes. And as Mr. Kringle — played by Family Court Judge James McGiffin — led them through a rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” they joined in, unmuting to sing along.

“Well, I was concerned that Zoom was not going to work, but I think it’s worked really well,” said Richard Herrmann, an intellectual properties lawyer who started the tradition 17 years ago when he received permission from 20th Century Fox to stage an excerpt of the 1947 film’s script.

Mr. Herrmann joined the cast as Dr. Westover, Delaware’s chief psychiatrist. Dr. Westover was a key witness for the prosecution in building a case that Mr. Kringle suffers from delusions.

“In the past, we do about 1,500 children a year,” Mr. Herrmann said. “This year, we’ve cut down on the performances, but we’re having sizable sign-ups. I saw 120 participants (Wednesday). So I think that that’s great, and it gives the kids a diversion and shows them what’s going on in real life, in a fun way.”

The “Miracle” shows began Monday and are ongoing.

The production — even on Zoom — goes like so: Before the judge, played by Family Court Chief Judge Michael K. Newell on Wednesday, prosecutor Kevin Carroll asserts that Mr. Kringle is delusional and a danger to himself. Meanwhile, retired Judge M. Jane Brady, who has been a part of every production dating back to 2004, is Mr. Kringle’s defense attorney, making the case that he is, in fact, Santa Claus.

After the postmaster delivers evidence of Mr. Kringle’s identity and the prosecutor’s daughter testifies in Mr. Kringle’s favor, the matter is decided: He is Santa Claus.

More than 500 students from across the state, in grades three to five, were anticipated to join one of four planned performances.

Participating schools this week include East Dover Elementary, St. Anthony of Padua Grade School, St. Mary Magdalen School, Pleasantville Elementary, H.O. Brittingham Elementary, MOT Charter K-8 Academy, Epworth Christian School, Caravel Academy and Marshall Elementary.

In his day job, Judge McGiffin has probably sat on the bench for 500 virtual court proceedings, either conducted by telephone or Zoom. It’s been an adjustment, he said, but one that was made quickly.

There are some “real dynamics” that take place in Family Court, mostly because they’re highly charged, emotional cases, he said.

“Those of us who sit and observe can generally pick up a lot about the case just from the things that are not said,” he said. “We don’t get any of that when we just have faces on screens in different locations, so we miss that. But it is way more convenient for litigants to participate, so long as they have the appropriate equipment and connection, and for the most part, they do.”

Since the beginning of the production in 2004, the idea had been to introduce students to the court system through a fun activity.

“It just occurred to us, we do Zoom hearings all the time, why don’t we just do that?” Judge McGiffin said. “It’s the most realistic experience of a trial that anybody could have at the moment because it’s exactly what we do in trials, all day, every day.”

And, of course, it’s a way to spread holiday cheer, even in the strangest of years.

“It’s nice to have a little holiday spirit for everybody involved,” said Sean O’Sullivan, who plays the role of the postmaster. “I think it gives the kids a break from perhaps their lessons; it’s something that maybe they can just kick back and enjoy.”