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Claus and effect: The ultimate Santa school

For 75 years, they've come to learn perfection: Fresh breath, clean whiskers. Know the latest toys. Negotiate bathroom breaks. And always keep your hands visible.

October 30, 2011|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • Santas are put through their paces in a class on how to sing Christmas songs at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Mich. This is the 75th annual class.
Santas are put through their paces in a class on how to sing Christmas songs… (Tina Susman, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Midland, Mich. — The license plate on Lowell Hendrickson's pickup reads "I'MCLAUS," and a look at the man behind the wheel explains it.

His snowy hair falls to his shoulders, his white beard to his chest. Spectacles perch on his upturned nose, and his waistline — well, you get the idea.

Hendrickson is indeed Claus — Santa Claus. But even Santa needs an occasional refresher course to keep up with the newest toys and the latest in beard-grooming and resume-writing, which is why Hendrickson drove from his North Hills home in the San Fernando Valley to eastern Michigan this month to attend the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, reputedly the world's oldest institution dedicated to the art of being Santa.

One thing became clear as the once-a-year, three-day course unfolded: It's not easy being Santa in these days of economic distress, families splintered by war, liability issues (Santa never flirts, and his hands must always be visible) and children asking for things that parents and grandparents can't afford or don't understand.

IPads, iPods and smartphones, for instance.

That's why people like Hendrickson, 71, make the pilgrimage to Midland to attend what graduates have called the "Harvard of Santa schools" and fire up the spirit that will carry them through the next two months.

"It's not a job; it's a calling," said Hendrickson, who has been Santa since the 1970s and who mainly does private holiday parties. He has attended the school six times. "When I come back here, it's like coming home. … And there's always something new to learn," he said.

Six visits is not unusually high for many of the Santas — a few with Mrs. Claus in tow — who gathered for the opening day of class. Roland Davenport, a red-haired Michigan lawyer also known as "attorney Santa," was on his eighth. Tom Valent, the school's owner, went through the course 10 times before he and his wife, Holly (her real name), eventually took over the school.

This year marked a milestone: It was the 75th class and the biggest, with nearly 120 students who each paid about $400 for lectures, field trips, hands-on training and two banquets.

Howard, the school founder, was a Santa with an impressive resume that included being St. Nick for Macy's. He opened the school in 1937 after coming across too many other Santas with frayed beards, shoddy suits and limited knowledge of reindeer. Valent took over the school in 1986 and retains most of Howard's original curriculum, along with modern additions such as contract issues and how to endure the rigors of being a mall Santa (get a flu shot and negotiate regular bathroom breaks).

Tinsel Santa hats dangled from the ceiling of a hotel conference room where the pupils gathered for introductions. There were Santas with tattoos and Santas in sunglasses. Santas in reindeer sweaters. Santas in Hawaiian shirts and in T-shirts and jeans. Some wore boots, some wore red high-tops. There were Santas as young as 28 and Santas as old as 80. Santas texted and emailed, and Santa cellphones rang — one with a ringtone that trilled the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."

There were a few slender Santas, and some with bald heads, shaved faces or dark hair. Some leaned on canes. Mike Durkin, who referred to himself as "pirate Santa," wore an eye patch that he swaps for a realistic prosthetic eyeball when he "gets in the big chair," Santa-speak for playing the role.

But most looked as if they had stepped out of a Christmas card, from their blue eyes and white beards to their ballooning midsections. Several had traveled thousands of miles, including a veteran Santa from Norway, and about half were here for the first time.

Like Hendrickson years earlier, they would learn that there is far more to being a good Santa than balancing children on your knee and saying, "Ho ho ho!"

"When I first came here, I never thought of where my hands were, or background checks, or insurance. I never thought of anything like that," Hendrickson said. "I figured Santa Claus is Santa Claus. He loves little children."

Which brings up a point made by Valent as he lectured new students in his gingerbread-style Santa House. Best to avoid saying things like "I love little children," a phrase now associated with accused pedophiles, Valent said, standing in front of a fireplace adorned with stockings.

Valent, who owns a construction business, built the Santa House at a busy downtown corner to ensure Santa had a place to host children during the holiday season. Oversized toys, sparkling ornaments, tinsel, giant nutcrackers, electric trains and motorized reindeer fill the cavernous main room. The centerpiece is a huge Santa chair.

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