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SANTY CLAUS : From the North Pole to Torrance by Way of Abilene

October 06, 1985|JOHN RILEY

Every year he came down your chimney, leaving presents. Then you stopped believing in him. This particular version of the legend, whose name used to be Gene Holley, says he is "The Real Honest-to-Goodness Santa Claus."

He grew up wild in Texas. If any of Gene's friends got drunk on moonshine, the sheriff knew to show up at Gene's house. His father, a college professor, wielded a mean razor strop. Within hours of his high school graduation, Gene ran off. First to Oklahoma to work as a plumber. Then to New Orleans, where partying got him kicked out of Tulane.

Days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Gene rejected the Army and the Marine Corps as too gritty and enlisted in the Navy. He was assigned as a chief on a former San Diego tuna boat that he was told would carry apples and pineapples between Honolulu and Panama. The boat was blown up at Guadalcanal while landing Marines. Gene received shrapnel wounds in his backside that got him discharged.

Working at an atomic plant in Washington state, he met Ruth, who became his wife and the mother of their three children. Gene settled down in California as a contractor, but wanderlust overtook him and he spent much of seven years in Vietnam. Ruth flew to visit him. During the Tet offensive in 1968, after his ice plant at Saigon airport was shelled, he commandeered a 10-ton truck and rescued his son from a sector in which the VC were slitting the throats of American soldiers.

He took Ruth to a house he bought in Andorra, between France and Spain in the Pyrenees. For four unhappy months they tried retirement. One morning Ruth stared at him.

"Let's get a divorce," she said.

"That would break the monotony," he agreed.

He took her to the bridal suite of the best hotel in Barcelona to drink Champagne and celebrate the end of their 28-year marriage.

Ruth eventually remarried. Gene stayed in Andorra for eight more months, then drifted through Egypt, Kenya, Somalia, Iran, Sweden, Norway and England. Back in North America he bought a van.

One day, camping on Vancouver Island, Gene lost his razor. He let his beard grow for six weeks. It came in snowy white. He stopped using Grecian Formula 16 and his hair began to match it. Everywhere he went, people called him Santa Claus. At first he resented it. He kept his beard trimmed close to his jawline. But the friends persisted.

Finally, after several years of being addressed as Santa Claus, he gave in. Friends whom he'd first met while riding the Orient Express suggested that he could become Santa Claus if he wanted to. All it required was the feeling inside that he was Santa Claus.

"Santa Claus shouldn't smoke," he told them.

That night he returned to his motel room and studied himself in the mirror. Instead of seeing Gene Holley the smoker, he saw Santa Claus the nonsmoker. He tore apart a full carton of cigarettes and flushed away the fragments. For weeks, the urge to smoke raked at him, but he suppressed it. He thought about being a good example to all the children who would call him Santa.

That year at Christmastime in Las Vegas, where he'd settled briefly, the producer of a holiday fashion show at a shopping mall offered him a paid assignment dressed as Santa: to arrive on an elephant and depart in a Rolls-Royce with two models wearing wedding dresses. He refused.

His personal sense of Santahood had become so authentic that he felt it wrong to hire out as Santa in a commercial display. He began studying the Santa Claus legend in children's books. He moved to the Los Angeles area and, although he'd never lived at the North Pole, he remembered how at home he'd felt beneath the northern lights, driving the Alcan Highway.

Six months later, he changed his name legally to Santa Claus.

And a few days after that, he obtained his first fur-trimmed Santa suit. It felt strange for him at first to dress only in red and white. But as he assumed the identity of Santa Claus, more of the Gene Holley left in him gradually faded away.

Except for the way he pronounced his new name.

"Santy Claus," he calls himself--from the North Pole by way of Abilene.

His passport and driver's license are in the name of Santa Claus. He drives his "sleigh," a restored red 1960 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, too fast to avoid causing accidents to other motorists who gawk at him. Often stopped by curious police officers for speeding, he reports mixed success at settling the tickets on the spot with reindeer jokes and bribes of See's candy canes.

He has established a nonprofit corporation, Santa Clausness Way, to support his Santa activities. He has answered more than a million pieces of mail addressed to him at Box 1616, North Pole 90505. He answers telephone calls to (213) 539-9999 either in person or on tape.

Every day, Santa divides his mail into five categories: the good, the bad, the so-so, the needy and the greedy. The good receive personal responses. There are never any bad. The so-so and the greedy get printed cards. And the requests of the needy, when possible, are forwarded to social-service organizations.

Gene Holley used to hear a lot of dirty talk. Nobody uses obscenity or profanity around Santa. Gene Holley hated to speak in public. Santa is never at a loss for words. Gene Holley disliked people who saw his snow-white beard and shouted, "ho-ho-ho!" Santa has learned to tolerate them.

Everywhere he goes, children and grown-ups too are always glad to see him. Around the poolside complex on the Pacific Coast Highway in Torrance where Santa rents a motel-room-like apartment, the dwellers have grown used to their red-suited neighbor who is on duty all year.

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