James Zyla, 68, stands in the late afternoon light wrapped in a red blanket across from where he is staying at the Ramada Hotel in Kingman, Ariz., on March 2, 2019. Known as Santa James he plays a keyboard at house parties and retirement homes. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

On April 16, Kingman’s famous homeless, blind, piano-playing resident Santa James Zyla died in California.

“Judy and I met James about six years ago. We were doing a book signing at Hastings for a book that we had written. James wandered in and started talking to us,” said Pat Barry of his friend, James, adding the three became “instant friends.”

James was born in Jarrow, England, on Jan. 26, 1951. He was raised Catholic and served as an altar boy until age 15. He worked several jobs in England, including for a Shell Oil distributor, before coming to California, where he sold real estate and was expert with early computers. But his passion was music and entertainment.

He worked in Hollywood as an extra in over 30 movies. He played in several bands, both in England and America, and the piano and keyboard were his favorites. He fell off stage a decade ago and the fall impacted his eyesight.

Soon he was unable to drive, so he started walking. His journey led him to Laughlin, Bullhead City, Golden Valley and eventually Kingman.

“James had a photographic memory. If he met you once and talked with you for a while, he remembered you forever,” Pat said. “He knew every business in Bullhead City and Kingman, whether on Highway 95 or Route 66 or Stockton Hill Road. Even as a sightless man, he always knew exactly where he was.

“My wife, Judy, and I were always amazed when we were with him in town, how many people would call out ‘Hello James’ or come up with a sandwich or a small donation. One day when I was walking with him through a Walmart parking lot, a woman drove up with two or three kids who jumped out and handed him a gift bag that included a MacDonald’s gift card, some candy, and that sparkly Santa hat residents remember well.”

He later met Cathi, who took him into her house in Ontario, California, where he was off the street and had regular meals. Cathi was instrumental in getting a priest to Zyla in his final hours for Communion and last rites.

“The Kingman residents really rose up to take care of their beloved ‘Santa,’” wrote Pat and Judy. “Instead of getting things from Santa, they were giving things to him.”

In 2019, the City of Kingman awarded Zyla with a Key to the City and Kingman’s first Unity Award.

Information provided by Pat and Judy Barry.


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