BY JIM REDDEN
From our Dec. 22, 1987, issue:
To Bob Travis, playing Santa is serious business. Really.
This year, Travis, a U.S. Bank employee, is moonlighting as Santa Clans at department stores and shopping centers in the Portland area. He fills in when the real Kriss Kringle can't make it to town because of production problems at the North Pole. Now, the role of Santa may not require the steady hands of a surgeon, the analytical abilities of a trial lawyer or even the rhetorical skills of a politician, but, according to Travis, there is an awesome responsibility that goes with the territory of white beards, red suits and ho-ho-hoes. "This job takes nerves of steel," Travis says.
Travis says he has been charged with protecting a sacred trust: innocence. One mistake, one cross word, could forever destroy a young child's faith in the existence of Santa. Travis is not alone in his concern. Pat Lussier, the woman who got him the job. is also worried. "I would never want to be the person responsible for a lasting bad Santa experience." she says.
Adds Travis, "You look at the children's faces and you realize they believe they're talking to the real guy. They believe they're talking to the man and their message is going to get through."
The scene on the 10th floor of the downtown Meier & Frank store is magical this time of year. For the past month, a large meeting room next to the toy department has been transformed into a giant snow cave at the North Pole. Large icicles descend from the ceiling and merge with snowdrifts that cover the floor. A train circles above the room, suspended from the ceiling. Almost every hour the store is open, a man with a flowing white beard in a bright red costume sits atop an elevated stage along the south wall of the room.
This is Santa Land, an annual Meier & Frank tradition. Starting the day after Thanksgiving and running until Christmas Eve, the room is filled with children. Almost without exception, they come to tell Santa what they want for Christmas. "There are few things in life that match this kind of purity," says David Miller, an advertising vice president for the company.
Miller estimates that more than 50,000 people will visit Santa Land this year. And few, if any, will leave disappointed. That's primarily because of the man seated on the stage. He has appeared in the store for the past eight holiday seasons. Some people believe he is a local actor, but most employees know him only as Santa Claus. "He comes to work in costume and leaves the same way," says Miller. "I've never seen the man out of character. He has the reputation of being the real Santa in the Northwest."
This Santa does not grant interviews to the press.
Professional actors will tell you that maintaining the kind of consistency of performance that Santa Clauses demonstrate regularly is extraordinary. This is especially true when your audience is only a few inches in front of you.
But such performances are not unique. Two blocks from the downtown Meier & Frank, an equally impressive character enthralls crowds of children every Christmas season. In real life, he is Ron Hendricks, a professional photographer living in Holland. But for the past four years he has appeared at Nordstrom as Saint Nicholas, the living embodiment of Christmas in the European countries.
Saint Nick is not Santa, although the names are virtually interchangeable in this country. In fact, Saint Nicholas is a Spanish bishop who travels each year to Holland. According to legend, Saint Nicholas rides through towns and villages every December on a great white horse, throwing candy to the excited crowds of children who come to greet him Since 1984 Hendricks has marked the day after Thanksgiving by riding a white horse up Broadway to the store he calls home for the next four weeks. His greeting? "Vroligk Kerstfeest," the Dutch phrase for Merry Christmas.
Whether it is Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas, it takes a special type of person to fill in for such legendary figures. A good example is Sieve Spratt, a free-lance writer who has played Santa for the past two years. "It's the most fun I've ever had in my life. says Spratt. "I like kids a lot more than I like most grownups."
Spratt works as Santa for Western Temporary Services, an international employment agency with more than 300 offices around the world. To Western Temporary, Spratt is not a mere card in the Rolodex file. For the past 19 years, the company has had an official division that oversees the hiring of 5,000 fill-in Santas on an annual basis. The Santa Division is listed on the company's brochure, between Light Industrial and Photo.
In Portland, the Santa program is administered by Pat Lussier, the company's downtown office manager. This year. Lussier hired approximately 30 people to play Santa. They appeared at such diverse locations as the Johns Landing shopping center. Christmas tree farms and the Jingle Bell Run held in downtown Portland on Dec. 13 to benefit arthritis research. According to company officials,only one of every 10 people who apply to play Santa is ever accepted. That's a higher rejection rate than the U.S Marine Corps.
A petite woman with graying hair, Lussier physically resembles the Mrs Santa Claus pictured on numerous Christmas cards. But when it comes to hiring Santas, she is a thorough professional. Lussier puts all applicants through an extensive screening program developed by the corporation's headquarters in San Francisco.
Under the corporate policy, the company places help-wanted ads for Santas in the classified sections of major metropolitan newspapers every October. Everyone who responds to the ad is interviewed at length over the phone by a company employee. The applicants' work histories are then checked, after which they may be invited to come in for personal interviews. At that time, the potential Santas are required to turn over the names of at least four personal references, no more than one of whom can be a family member. Each reference is subsequently called by a Western Temporary employee to determine the character of the applicant. "Parents will check out a dentist, but they'll never think of checking out a Santa." says Lussier of the process. She also says that she has never hired a woman to be Santa.
Lussier says the goal of the screening process is to eliminate those applicants who want the job only for the money, which ranges nationally from $5 to $6 an hour. "If he's only in it for himself, he won't spend the time he needs to with each child," says Lussier. "Or he won't really listen to the old woman who wants to tell him about her first experience with Santa. We're looking for someone who cares about Christmas. who cares about other people and will care enough about the role he's playing that he'll go that extra mile."
The testing doesn't stop once the interview and reference checks are complete According to Western Temporary policies, every potential Santa must attend a daylong training conference before being sent on assignments. The conference includes role-playing sessions and extensive discussions of the problems that each Santa can expect to encounter on the job.
Some of the problems, such as wet babies, are easily anticipated. But others would not normally occur to most people. For example, Lussier tells her Santas not to speak or laugh loudly in front of young children. This may seem odd for a character who is universally known for his hearty ho-ho-ho. But Lussier knows that many children are actually frightened the first time they meet Santa. The red suit and the white beard make him seem larger than life. A loud laugh, on top of that, can be terrifying under such circumstances.
Other don'ts include the use of the word "parents" when talking about the adults who accompany children. They might not be, and Santa is supposed to know such things. And Lussier teaches her Santas not lo make promises. especially if they concern such family matters as bringing a divorced parent home for the holidays. Nor are the men Lussier trains allowed to flirt with young women while in costume. "Santa is married," she states bluntly.
Travis says the training helps him and other Western Temporary Santas cope with unexpected situations. "I was at a large private party once where a child didn't like the gift I gave him," Travis says. "He hit me in the head with it and then went crying to his parents that I was mean to him. I wanted to kill him. If I hadn't been prepared for it, I might have done something rash in front of 100 children, and that would have been bad."
But the biggest problems most Santas encounter during the holidays are parents who fail to remember what it is like to believe—truly believe—in Santa. Like every other aspect of the job, Spratt has thought about this at length. Earlier this year, he composed a short paper titled "How to Get the Most out of Your Visit With Santa." In the paper, Spratt cautioned parents against threatening to tell Santa when their children are misbehaving. "Let's look at the whole thing from the point of view of a two year old," Spratt wrote. "The worst part is that [Santa is] judge, jury and executioner. This man has the awesome power of being able to actually turn off your Christmas. One wrong move on your part, one little accident or lie… and he can say no. That's all it takes, mommy and daddy said so. He can take away your Christmas and never give it back if he wants to."
The power to turn oft your Christmas. That 's truly a scary thought. But, if you believe in Santa, you must believe it can happen. So those who fill in for Santa must be careful not lo play into such fears More than that, they must not do anything lo shatter such an all-consuming faith in Christmas.
"One off-the-wall Santa can ruin his reputation, which is really magic," says Travis.
Still, like a euphoric drug, living with the job has its side effects. Even on their days off, those who play Santa find it hard lo shake the influence of the character they portray.
"Remembering not to wave to everyone when you're out of costume is hard," says Lussier. "My Santas tell me they stay in character off the job and people think they're crazy."
In the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street, Edmund Gwenn created the classic Santa Claus. By virtue of his appearance and mannerisms, Gwenn breathed life into the red-suited, white-bearded Santa of the classic Coca-Cola advertisements. Glenn won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his portrayal. But, as good as the characterization was, Gwenn did not have lo be the perfect Santa. It was only a movie, after all. Each scene did not last long, and the bad ones could be re-shot. Imagine what it would take to re-create Gwenn's performance without interruption for hours on end.
That would be difficult enough. Now imagine what it would be like to carry out such a feat in front of the most difficult audience in the world—young children who actually believe you are Santa Claus. One mistake and their vision of Christmas would be forever shattered. You say such a flawless performance is impossible? Think again.