November 17, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Tom Plith—the jolly old man with the snowy white beard—can often be seen breathing fire for a mesmerized audience outside the Imaginarium downtown. During the holiday season, he can be found laughing with a herd of small children and their parents in his elaborately decorated and bubble-filled Santa’s Workshop.

Plith’s unorthodox retirement has been nothing short of magical. Along with his fire- breathing Santa skills, he also works as head clown at one of Omaha’s most successful clown companies. (Yes, Omaha has multiple clown companies—at least four.)

Born in Amarillo, Texas, the story of Plith’s career begins in Saigon, South Vietnam.

Though he can’t say much about his military service, Plith will admit that he only carried a weapon twice: “Both times they told me if I had any trouble, they’d bring me some bullets.” After Saigon, he moved to Fort Ritchie, Maryland, where he held a Cosmic security clearance level with the Army Signal Corps. He insists that all he heard were voice levels during the Paris Peace Accords (they were too busy monitoring signal quality and volume to make sense of actual discussions).

After four years in military telecommunications, Plith got his master’s degree in social work from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and opened Blue Valley, a private treatment center for troubled youth in Valley, Nebraska. He and his wife, Rose, ran the facility for 12 years before moving to Omaha after their two daughters graduated high school.

With his naturally white beard, Plith was enjoying dinner at a local restaurant when someone approached him to ask if he was Mr. Claus himself. Twenty years later, Plith and his family have made Santa’s Workshop in Countryside Village one of Omaha’s most popular Santa experiences.

This Santa’s background in psychiatric social work sets him apart—Plith is an expert in soothing children and working with families to create not just a photo, but a joyous holiday memory for parents and children alike. Plith works with more than 300 families each season, including several days committed for work with The Autism Society and for military families.

Plith’s social work experience also helps him to continue staying active in the clown business. Educated at Omaha’s Wild Clowndom, he adopted the clown name RoliPoli. As RoliPoli, he organizes about 15 face painters, stilt walkers, and balloon twisters to run A Company of Fantastic Clowns. The company works with many local charity organizations and youth events to provide safe and hilarious entertainment at Werner Park, Boys Town, and elsewhere throughout the metro.

Omahans not familiar with Plith as Santa, or RoliPoli, may know him as the fire eater in the Old Market. A typical show consists of jokes and magic tricks he performs alongside “Phillip the Tip Bucket” in between mouthfuls of flames.

The show ends with the old man taking a swig out of a soda bottle and using a burning wand to exhale a dazzling cloud of fire into the night sky. The actual contents of the bottle are a mystery, though many suspect it is not actually full of Mountain Dew.

Depending on the weather, Plith often finds himself entertaining a crowd of 20 or more people, but he is happy to perform for any passersby. Plith has been performing fire- eating shows, sometimes alongside one of his four grandchildren, for two years. One might think he learned the skill from a professional.

“Oh, [it was] just a fella in the neighborhood,” Plith says. He had been interested in fire eating for years, but “didn’t have the nerve” until he was in his 60s.

When asked the burning question of whether he eats fire in his Santa suit, Plith chuckles and shakes his head. “I have to stop eating fire in early November, because when you eat fire you do singe your mustache. I have to have my full mustache for the Santa season.”

Santa’s Workshop opens in November and is available by appointment, which can be made by phone at 402-201-5804. A Company of Fantastic Clowns can be reached at 402-216-6568.

 

This article was printed in the November/December issue of Omaha Magazine.