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Ted Roberts: Yes, he's Santa Claus

A former Times photographer puts on that red suit, and the rest is magic.

December 19, 2009|Patt Morrison

Spoiler alert!

If you're under 13, stop reading right now. Correction: It's 2009 in Los Angeles; if you're under 10, stop reading right now.

The rest of you, I'd like you to meet Santa. For 11 months of the year, his nom de beard is Ted Roberts. Then, before Thanksgiving, he grooms his long, white whiskers and puts on that red suit and presto chango. He sits on a Santa throne and listens to kids -- and some grown-ups. He visits parties on Christmas Eve and reads "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and "The Polar Express" to children. He keeps up with the latest toys and gizmos. His favorite Santa movie is the Will Ferrell film "Elf," chiefly because he likes Santa's boots. And the Macy's parade's Kris Kringle, he says, is a spot-on Santa.

Decades ago, he was in Air Force intelligence operations in Southeast Asia. He spent 14 years as a Boy Scout leader. And for nearly 30 years, he was a photographer here at The Times. And that, as you will read, is how his journey into his secret Santa superhero identity began. . . .

What was your Santa conversion moment?

I'd always had the beard, and it started to go white. I had to go photograph a Santa. He asked if I was ever Santa Claus. I told him yes, I was Santa Claus for my neighbors across the street and at their church. He said, "Your beard's too short." It was September, and I said, "It'll grow." He told me about the Santa guild, the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, AORBS. They met once a year for lunch. They split up, so now there's another group called FORBS, Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas. I don't belong to any groups now. I'm just a guy who does Santa Claus.

And then what happened?

I went home and talked to Kathy [his wife], and she was OK with that. I got hold of the president of AORBS. I managed to go to Adele's [costume shop] in Hollywood to get a Santa suit made -- very expensive too, like $900. And I went to the University of Santa Claus for a day. That's all it is -- a day with a whole bunch of other guys who looked like Santa.

Did you all wear name tags that read "Hi, my name is Santa"?

That would have been confusing, wouldn't it? We saw a Santa chair, and learned where to get suits made -- basically the dos and don'ts, like making sure your hands are always visible, a little bit of the history of Santa Claus, things like that. I guess they liked my look, because I was at Nordstrom the first year -- that was 2004.

Did you think it was just going to be for one year?

I didn't think it was going to be a long-term thing, but I've been in it for five years now. I enjoy the children. A 3-year-old, an 8-year-old -- when they come to see Santa, everything in their minds is gone. They just stare at you, and they talk really quietly, especially the young ones. I wear a hearing aid now because I was in the service in Vietnam, and my hearing's sort of shot on my left side. And invariably, they stick them on my left knee. And they don't look at you -- they're staring off into space because they're afraid. Then you get kids who just babble; they'll tell you everything. It's a big range, but for the most part they're very quiet, and some of them totally forget what they want.

I talk to children. I do not remain in ho-ho-ho mode -- I talk. And I think everybody goes out of there happy.

Usually they want to know where the reindeer are. I tell them they're in the sky, parked. Boy, once they hit fourth grade, fifth grade, they don't really believe in Santa Claus, but at the same time, they don't want to let go, just in case.

Do they test your beard to find out whether it's real?

I've had it pulled before. A couple of times, kids will ask me if I'm the real Santa Claus, and I just pull on my beard and say, "Yes, what do you think?" They go with that -- the fact that it's real and it's white.

Have kids ever said things like, "My mommy's sick and I want her to get better"?

The first year, I had a little girl sit on my lap and tell me she wanted help for her mommy. It terrified me. I thought she was being abused or something. She just wanted someone to help her mother do the dishes and the housework. I had a lady in her 60s come and sit on my lap and tell me she's in love with this guy and wanted to get married and asked if I could help her. I told her I'd see what I could do. She came back the next week and said, "I don't know what you did, but it worked." He proposed to her.

[A Times employee] named Giselle was in my studio on a Wednesday to have her picture made. On Saturday, she's walking through Nordstrom. I have a long line of little kids, and I said, "Hi, Giselle." She stopped dead in her tracks. She said, "How do you know me?" I said, "Santa Claus knows everybody."

The kids' eyes got really big, and I got her to come over and talk to me. We took a picture and I said, "You were in my studio three days ago, remember?"

How did I change? I put on a red suit -- that was the only difference.

How well-behaved are the parents?

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