SOUTH GATE — In and around this city, Bill Smith is known as more than Bill Smith.
He cannot walk on the streets very long without someone recognizing him and calling him by a more familiar name.
In South Gate and several neighboring Southeast cities, Bill Smith is Santa Claus.
The 60-year-old former truck driver and retired short-order cook with a myriad of medical problems has been bringing joy to people for 13 years. Though he is in constant pain, he has played the jolly man in the red suit and black boots for the sheer fun of it in parades in South Gate, Lynwood, Downey and Santa Ana, and in the Christmas Tweedy Mile business district candy cane giveaway.
On a recent afternoon, Smith stopped in the South Gate Jewelers to rest during the eight-day candy cane celebration.
'A Real Sweetie'
"He'll come in here sweating and shaking. He'll sit down and rest. Then he'll get a Coke and continue," said owner said Debby Gotts, chairwoman of this year's South Gate Christmas Parade. "He isn't well but he manages to keep going. He hides his pain well. He is a real sweetie. He is great with the kids."
He keeps others laughing. He keeps laughing. And, while the Tweedy Mile Assn.'s interest is at least partly promotional, Smith does it for love.
Smith is not paid for any of his appearances, though he gets bookings through Pageantry Productions of Lynwood.
With $650 a month in disability pay, Smith says: "If I was paid anything, I would have to deduct it from my disability payment. Sometimes they will put Laura (his wife) and me in a hotel room like Paramount Studios did when we went to Las Vegas this year to do a party."
The 5-feet, 3-inch, 160-pound, foam-rubber-stuffed Smith has cheered people from Tweedy Boulevard to Las Vegas, and in an airplane flying at 30,000 feet.
The in-flight appearance came in 1976 as Mr. and Mrs. Claus rushed to Los Angeles International Airport to fly to Waterloo, Iowa, to visit relatives after performing at several parties and parades in the Southeast area. The Smiths did not have time to change into street clothing.
Smith called ahead to Western Airlines. "I didn't want them to think I was some kind of nut," said Smith, his twinkling eyes behind rectangular prescription glasses. "When we got to the airport, this guy from Western met us at the curb and rushed us right through. We greeted passengers boarding the plane. We handed out candy canes. Everyone treated us really well. A couple gave up their seats in first class for us."
The only snag came at the security checkpoint, where metal detectors went off when he passed. The buzzers kept ringing even as Smith went through repeatedly, finally shedding all of his foam rubber from under his suspenders.
"These (security) guys were giving me a hard time. They couldn't find anything. Then I told them it was the wires in my heart from the operation and they let me through," he said.
Smith, who was forced to retire in 1974, has had 13 surgeries, including heart, back, stomach and a spinal operation for a pinched disc that keeps him in constant pain. He has also had two strokes, the latest in 1985.
Suited Up in 1973
Smith first tried on the Santa suit in 1973 when some of his lodge mates at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in South Gate needed a Santa for an adult Christmas party.
"I was gullible enough to do it. I enjoyed it," he said.
Laura made him a "suit out of flannel. I got a cheap beard from a gag shop and I've been Santa since then. I thought it would be a one-shot deal. It's turned into a 13-year hobby," said Smith, who no longer wears cheap Santa suits.
Laura, 66, an expert seamstress, makes all of his suits out of velvet. He has five at the ready, hanging in the closet of their modest six-room home. The white beard and wig, which hides his own salt-and-pepper hair, are also more expensive, costing about $190 from a shop in Beverly Hills .
The mustache is bleached but is his own. So are the bleached white eyebrows.
Laura, who is retired from an electrical switching and relay company and travels with her husband, said she enjoys the role of Mrs. Claus even when she has had to pinch-hit for him.
Like the time the little 5-year-old girl was grilling her on how old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer really is, she said.
"You mean you don't know how old Rudolph is?" the little girl asked her
"How many reindeers do you have?" the little girl continued.
Laura squirmed out of it. She told the little girl, "That's Santa's department."
Bill Smith points out that "kids, the small ones, are very serious. They want answers. We try to provide them. One thing we never do is lie to them and say we will make sure they get the presents they are asking for," he said.
In all of his years as Santa, Smith said, he has had few problems.
"The big kids and the adults give you a little trouble sometimes. They'll come up and pull my beard. Or request more than one candy cane. Or some smart aleck will ask for a Porsche. Or a pretty girl," said Smith.
But nothing discourages him, Smith said.
"I just keep going. I psych myself up to get out there. I look forward to it. It keeps me going."
That's how the Tweedy Mile Assn. sees it too. "We (had) hired a professional and all he wanted was money. All Bill wants is to talk with people. He loves people," said Jack Holland, public relations director for the group.
And despite the great satisfaction with his hobby, Smith still has one remaining ambition.
"I want to work the Hollywood parade. Each time I write them, they tell me they have already picked their Santa. 'Try again next year,' the letters say," Smith said.
"I don't know what to do. I guess I'll keep trying."