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Santa Clauses Come to Town

At a workshop in San Dimas, dozens of St. Nicks make lists of tips, brush up on their ho-hos and learn how to be nice, not naughty.

September 17, 2006|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

The sun was beating down and a hot Santa Ana wind on the verge of kicking up Saturday but, as the organizer of a workshop titled "The Business of Santa" pointed out to his largely red-garbed, bearded audience, Christmas was a mere 100 days away.

So, inside a small conference room at a freeway-close San Dimas motel, nearly 40 Santa Clauses, and a fair number of Mrs. Clauses, spent the day honing their child-pleasing skills and brushing up on tips about marketing themselves and coaxing real beards into a snowy white hue.

They eyeballed racks of red suits and ample black belts, swapped stories and business cards and even picked up some considerable history of the legendary, gift-bearing jolly man. At day's end, they were awarded diplomas from the "International University of Santa Claus."

"Today is just the tip of the iceberg," workshop organizer Tim Connaghan told audience members, who had paid $89 for the one-day conference and his 124-page book, "Behind the Red Suit."

"You can't become a Santa just because you're a big guy with a beard," said Connaghan, who has 38 years in the professional Santa business. "It takes a lot more."

Websites, how-to books, conventions and seminars abound, Connaghan noted, all signs of just how big -- and complicated, if not competitive -- being a Santa has become.

Connaghan, who is the reigning Santa in the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade and whose appearances run the gamut from the "Dr. Phil" TV show to a roller-coaster opening at Knott's Berry Farm, said he conducted eight of his own workshops around the country last year.

He recently participated in a Santa Claus convention in Branson, Mo., that drew 300 of the red-suited St. Nicks.

Connaghan's audience Saturday included some seasoned Santas (several with 20 to 30 years or more of experience in bellowing ho-ho-ho's and hearing children's wish lists) as well as some just starting out.

Fred Osther, wearing the tall, red pointed cap and blue coat favored by Santas in his native Norway, topped the experience list with 52 years.

Gordon Bailey of Ontario works as an entertainer year-round by swapping the Santa persona, post-Christmas, for other characters -- a pirate, Merlin the magician, Cupid and a children's storyteller named Father Grump. Santa is his favorite, though, and he has been filling the role for the same family every Christmas Eve for the last 22 years.

Bailey has seen a lot of changes in the Santa business, not all them to his liking. He especially regrets the requirement that prospective Santas submit to criminal background checks, though he said he understands why they are necessary. Still, the joys of playing Santa far outweigh any downsides for Bailey.

"The look of wonder in a child's face" makes the Santa experience special, he said. "It makes the magic real and keeps the tradition alive," he said.

Jim Steinmetz, a retired business representative of a Pipefitters Union local, first donned the red suit five years ago for a Christmas party and soon decided to help Breast Cancer Angels, a charity that provides financial aid to women undergoing treatment for the illness.

His wife, Ann, got him interested in the group, and the two of them formed Claus for a Cause ( Dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, the Huntington Beach couple work at corporate and other Christmas parties and donate their earnings to the charity.

Ron Breach of Anaheim started out nearly 30 years ago as a Santa in an Orange County mall. He stopped when the mall converted to a discount center, sans Claus, and concentrated on his promotional-products business.

About five years ago, he said, he got bitten by the Santa bug again and works mainly private parties and corporate events.

"It's a labor of love," Breach said.

His biggest challenge now, he says, is keeping his naturally dark hair and beard bleached a Santa-like white.



Santa's list

Tim Connaghan, a professional Santa for 38 years, has hundreds of tips for aspiring St. Nicks. Here are a few:

Never let out a very loud ho-ho-ho when small children are near.

* If it's necessary to pick up or lower small children, place your hands under their armpits only, never anywhere else.

* If a child makes a heart-rending request -- for parents to get back together or for a grandfather to get well, for example -- gently tell the child that you are good at bringing presents but you have no special powers in those areas.

* Have some well practiced answers to such questions as, "How will you deliver my presents when we don't have a chimney?"

* Watch your image whenever you are in public as Santa -- no smoking, gum-chewing, eating (breath mints and Christmas cookies excepted), drinking (except water), sleeping or scratching.

* If you bleach your beard and/or hair white, keep those roots touched up.

* If you don't love children, don't even try to be a Santa.

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