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COLUMN: A few things you didn't know about Santa

Thursday, December 24, 2009 | 4:57 p.m. CST

Spoiler alert: If you're younger than 13, stop reading right now. Correction: It's 2009; if you're younger than 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. 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.

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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 at the Los Angeles Times. And that, as you will read, is how his journey into his secret Santa superhero identity began.

Question: What was your Santa conversion moment?

Answer: 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.

Q: And then what happened?

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

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

A: 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 Los Angeles 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.

Q: How well-behaved are the parents?

A: Mostly pretty good. There are some parents who want to take lots and lots of pictures, to get the perfect expression.

Q: You do Santa at Christmas parties too. Do you wear your costume en route?

A: I have my suit on. I just don't put the jacket or the hat on. I wear black leather gloves because Santa would not drive a sleigh in white cotton gloves.

Q: You must have to put gas into your non-sleighmobile. Do people say anything to you at the gas station?

A: People always say hello. Sometimes they'll yell out their doors. During the rest of the year, once in awhile a kid will turn around and look (at the beard), and I'll just make that finger-in-front-of-the-lips "shush" thing, like it's our secret.

Q: Do kids ever ask for impossible stuff?

A: I get a lot of pony requests this year. I've never had pony requests before. Most want Transformers and Xboxes and Barbies this year. And three kids asked me for garbage trucks. The biggest one I got is a kid who came in with a catalog and he had things picked out. He was 8 years old, and he wanted this two-thirds-size Corvette that was capable of going 35 miles an hour. It was $32,000.

I looked at him and said, "This is $32,000. You can't even drive this! It says here you have to be 15." He said, "I know, but I want it." Then he turned to the next page, and it was a motor scooter, it was $496, and then he had another thing picked out, some kind of robot, it was almost $300. His mother did not look fazed.

Q: What was Santa like when you were growing up?

A: We lived in a tiny little town in Ohio with a town square, and we'd have Santa Claus there. We would stand in line in the cold (outside) the courthouse. It was a big Gothic building four stories tall, tallest building in town. That's the Santa Claus I remember. My parents didn't make a lot of money. This was the '50s, and if my father was making $5,000 a year, he was doing good, but we still got toys.

Q: When did you find out there was no Santa?

A: I remember sitting in the kitchen on one of those little step stools that folds up. I remember sitting there and my father giving me The Talk -- on sex, on there not being an Easter Bunny or a Santa Claus.

Q: All at once?

A: Yes. I was probably 10. That's basically the age at which you start questioning things.

Q: Is anyone too old for Santa?

A: There was a guy who was 84. He had his picture made in my lap every Saturday for four weeks. There's a movie theater where I am now, and one of the guys who works at the theater is developmentally disabled. He comes in every two or three days and has his picture made with me, and he gives me a list and asks for certain things. He'll come back the next day and want to know whether a certain toy is out, and he wants me to say hi to my "brother" ("Santa Clause" actor) Tim Allen. We talk, and then he goes to his job.

Q: What's the worst Santa you've ever seen?

A: I've seen some scraggly-looking Santa Clauses, let me tell you. Probably the worst was not in a Santa suit. We went to a lunch with some other Santas and this guy was telling me I should get into porn. He was the porn Santa Claus. And then he hit up my wife. I've been told he's no longer a Santa Claus.

Q: Will you ever hang up the "ho ho ho"?

A: I've been thinking about it. My wife's starting to get tired of the beard thing.

Patt Morrison is a Los Angeles Times columnist and host of a daily public-affairs show on Los Angeles public radio. Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.


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