"What do you want for Christmas?" Santa asks. He and Mrs. Claus are sitting on their throne with two antsy, blond, kindergarten-aged boys.
"A Nintendo DS," the bespectacled kid balanced on Kris Kringle's left knee answers. The parents and grandparents of the brothers look on while one of Santa's elves—festive in red, white and green—takes pictures from the corner, coaxing everybody to shift so she can get a better shot.
"What games would you like for it? I know what kind of games you would like," Santa says. "You probably would like a Barbie game, right?"
"NOOO!!!" the boys shriek in unison.
The adults in the room grin while the kids have minor panic attacks. The boys say they want Mario games and a toy train set—and a sleigh like Santa's with flying reindeer.
"Oh, that's a lot of presents," Santa says. ("Yep," Mom mutters from her perch on the staircase facing the Clauses.) "But do you boys know what else Christmas is about?"
"Jesus!" one says, clearly not remembering the song about the meaning of Christmas that Santa sang just 90 minutes earlier, on this, the inaugural tour of "Time with Santa's Enchanted Castle" at the Jantzen Beach Supercenter.
"It's about giving and being creative," Santa says. Then he makes one request of the kids. He asks something of every child who comes through, like some festive priest demanding penance after confession: "Make Christmas decorations and give them to somebody, OK?"
It's characteristic of Phillip Verry, 39, to ask creativity of his guests. Even out of his Santa suit, the 6-foot, brown-haired Vancouverite radiates a gentle enthusiasm. Much of that creative energy has clearly been put into his castle, which in the past two months has risen from of the scrap-heap cemetery of Verry's friend Henry Miller's Halloween "Scream at the Beach" haunted house.
Instead of having cranky kids and their stressed-out parents wait in line for two hours to get five minutes in Santa's lap, Verry's visitors purchase tickets to a whole holiday show. As families work their way through the 4,500-square-foot castle, Santa and his volunteers—ahem, elves—treat them to songs (written by Verry), animatronics, art projects, games and hot chocolate. You can even eat meatloaf and bread pudding with Santa if you pay extra. Verry sees it as the antidote to the "kiddie cattle call," as he terms the typical mall visit with Santa.
Though this is his first year doing Santa's Castle, Verry has been playing the jolly old elf for nearly 20 years. Two decades ago he was in charge of puppets on the local cable television show Kids' Junction. When the producers decided they needed somebody to play St. Nick, Verry went to Goodwill and found a brand new Santa costume for $100. The suit fit like a glove, and so, it turns out, did the role.
Soon Verry was entertaining corporate clients as Santa by day. By night, he drove around Portland and Vancouver with his mother, Linda Fletcher (who also makes the costumes for Santa's Castle), scouting out poverty-stricken homes. Santa would show up unannounced with an armful of gifts for a family and an evening's worth of entertainment. It's a testament to his genuine yuletide spirit that he was never pepper-sprayed.
This time of year, playing Santa is nearly a full-time vocation for a man who already juggles several jobs. "I don't ever want to settle down in one career," Verry says. "I would get bored." So he does special-effects for TV. And puppetry. And Web design. And he makes fliers and posters. Also, he's a pretty slick body-painter: If you attended last summer's Naked Bike Ride, you probably saw his work. "I get some of the strangest gigs you've ever seen in your life," he says.
So why add another, especially when it hardly pays anything? He says it's an opportunity to continue doing charity work. By partnering with the U.S. Marines, Toys for Tots, Fred Meyer and Shrinky Dinks, among others, Time with Santa—which Verry has registered as a nonprofit—will invite 600 people from struggling families to dine with Santa and give out more than 1,600 gifts this year.
But this jack-of-all-trades says what's most important is nurturing creativity. "If you don't teach kids to be creative," he says, "they're just working. They're not solving problems." Or, as he tells one shy Hannah Montana fan last Sunday after sending her off with a request that she give a coloring book and crayons to somebody this Christmas: "It's important that you get somebody something they can be creative with, because artists are good people, too."
Time with Santa's Enchanted Castle is located at 1210 Jantzen Beach Center. Show packages range from $10-$25. Shows run through Wednesday, Dec. 24. Ages 4 and up. See a full schedule and package list at timewithsanta.com or call the 24-hour hotline at 222-1268.