Santas on Their Way
Santa Sid will admit to owning a “summer home” in Eden Prairie, but he doesn’t want his real name to appear in print. No, strike real name. Better to say that he doesn’t want the name of his Clark Kent–like alter ego to become known. Some parent at the Mall of America in Bloomington, where Sid has reigned as Santa Claus for 14 holiday seasons, might blurt out the Kent alias in front of a child.
And then where would the kid be? Confused, doubtful, maybe robbed of the full Santa experience. Not the experience of humoring Mom and Dad by sitting on the lap of some character with a fake beard, but the wide-eyed wonder of coming face to face with the real Kris Kringle in the flesh. Jolly Old St. Nick himself.
Sid is his actual first name, but it also stands for “Santa in disguise.”
“In this guy’s mind, he’s really Santa,” says Brent Uzzo, owner of Professor Bellows Photography of Des Moines, Iowa, which operates an Old Time Photo studio at the Mall of America. Uzzo is Sid’s employer (“Let’s just say we work together”) and the person who runs the annual Santa operation under a contract with Mall of America. Families from around the country have adopted Sid as their personal Santa Claus. People from Texas and Georgia make annual pilgrimages to visit him at the mall. Some who met Sid when they were seven years old now bring their own children to see him.
“To them, he is Santa,” Uzzo says. “My own daughter is 23, and she still sits on Santa’s lap every year.”
So popular did Sid become that waits of more than four hours were not uncommon. Two years ago, he was made an appointment-only Santa, moving from his long-time quarters in the Park at MOA (formerly Camp Snoopy) to a workshop set in a storefront on the mall’s third floor. Another Santa, managed by a different photography company, now handles walk-in traffic.
“I’ll get together with Sid in the middle of August and kids wave at him,” Uzzo says. He is not referring only to children who know Sid from the mall. And Sid himself is not referring just to MOA visitors when he says: “I get recognized around town all year. Kids are smart. They know who I am.”
Santa’s Wish: “We Want Them to Tug the Beard”
The attitude that being St. Nick involves being St. Nick and not just play-acting is not uncommon among professional, real-bearded Clauses. Neither is reticence about having one’s given name bandied about.
Santa Carlucci, who appears around the Twin Cities at private and corporate parties, daycare centers, and hospitals, concedes that he is sometimes known as Carl Immediato, 62, of Bloomington. He reveals that identity, however, only because this article is for a business magazine that children are unlikely to read, and only after we promise to mention the name no more than once.
Santa Frank is a principal with Naturally Santa, Inc., of Colorado Springs, a national management and placement agency for real-bearded shopping-mall Santas. For 10 years, he has been the official NORAD Santa—as in the Santa whose sleigh is tracked by radar on the North American Aerospace Defense Command Web site on Christmas Eve. He initially gives his age as 1,761, St. Nicholas having been born in the third century. Only with the same reasoning and the same stipulation as Carlucci—it’s a business magazine; one mention only—does Santa Frank acknowledge an alias as Frank Martinez, 61.
Naturally Santa, Inc., trains and represents 75 real-bearded Clauses around the country, all of them drug-tested, background-checked, and guaranteed to be “nonsmokers, nondrinkers, and nonwomanizers.” (In other words, no Bad Santa need apply.)
Most of them “live the role all year around,” Santa Frank says. “They always pay attention to children. They have as much fun in July as in December. We teach them the complete story of Santa Claus, all of the incarnations [St. Nicholas, Father Christmas], and how they came about. If a kid asks them a question about Santa, they know. Nobody can disprove them.”
Naturally Santa’s motto is “Believe in the magic.” Santa Sid is a graduate of its training program.
After Santa Frank has explained the training, he considers a direct question: “What you guys want is the whole Miracle on 34th Street deal, isn’t it? You want little Natalie Wood’s jaw to drop because she realizes that she’s dealing with the actual, one and only, magic-reindeer-owning Santa Claus. Right?”
“Exactly,” Santa Frank says. “We want them to tug the beard.”
It’s the Experience, Not the Photo
Not all popular Santas are that deeply into the character.
Joe Macko, 51, of Minneapolis, was the full-time Santa in the Nicollet Mall Holidazzle parade from the mid-’90s until last year, when organizers began allowing corporate sponsors to pick their own Santas nightly. Macko, a self-described “ham” with a background in community theater and (briefly) professional wrestling, used an artificial beard and did not want kids to tug it. He says the elastic sometimes froze to his face.
Macko might be categorized as more of an adult-oriented Santa. He recalls that one year, after the parade, he was interviewed on air by TV weatherman Paul Douglas while wearing his electric-light-festooned Father Christmas costume. “[Douglas] said, ‘Do you mind if I plug you in?’ I said, ‘Go ahead, Santa loves to get lit up!’”
All Santas need to fit within a certain stereotype, “but there is a lot of room within the stereotype,” Uzzo says. An excellent Santa can be bald, for instance, and while he shouldn’t be rail thin, he needn’t be especially fat. Santa also can appear in different costumes and guises. Even mall Santas do not all wear red suits and sit on chairs while one child after another is placed in their laps.
Santa Sid, for instance, wears his red coat and hat only when he arrives at MOA each morning and proceeds to a salon to have his beard styled and his hair done up in curlers before an admiring crowd. For the rest of the day, he sees individual children in his “house,” where he adopts what’s known in the industry as the “workshop look”—knickers, long socks, Birkenstocks.
And he doesn’t stay in a chair. “All day long he’s up and down from the floor with the kids,” says Uzzo, who hires St. Nicks (in addition to Sid) for various events where he takes photographs. “He gets down there and plays with them. He’ll roll a ball, show them a book with moving pictures—anything to win over a kid.”
Sid’s 37-year resumÃ© includes Santa gigs at malls and events from Minnesota to Michigan. He says it was Billy Gooch, the founder of Naturally Santa, Inc., who first told him to “get off your butt and down on the floor with the kids.” The economics of mall-Santa operations are all about photos (see sidebar on next page), but Uzzo says the special appeal of Santas like Sid and Frank is in interactions that go far beyond urging a child to recite a wish list for a photo op.
“We call this the ‘Santa experience,’” Uzzo says. “I realized early on that people aren’t there for a photo of the child with Santa. I could Photoshop that. They’re really there to remember the time they had with Santa. I don’t keep a photo of my daughter and me on the beach because I want to see the beach. I want to remember the experience.”
Santas in Training
To create that experience, there is a great deal to learn about being Santa Claus—a committed Claus, that is, as opposed to what Santa Carlucci calls “Uncle Joey with a fake beard, and everybody knows it’s Uncle Joey.”
An aspiring St. Nick can get an extensive education from organizations such as Naturally Santa, or from one of the national photography outfits that hire many mall Santas, or from the Minnesota Santas—a loose-knit group of about 90 real-bearded Clauses for which Santa Sid was a founder and Santa Carlucci is now a leader.
Training and informal tips cover a wide range of topics. Where to touch a child (nowhere that a bathing suit would cover). The best ways to deal with children who are frightened by a large, magic stranger in a red suit (a soft voice and no sudden movements). Where to find good Santa boots. How to draw up a contract for an event appearance. Why litigation insurance is necessary and where to get it. What expenses are tax-deductible. How to work as a team with photographers. How to deal with children whose wish lists include animals or expensive toys. How to stay in character when a kid with cancer shreds your soul by telling you that what she wants for Christmas is for the pain to stop.
Many come to the job with some experience already. Santa Carlucci says he got his start as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army in 1993. “That’s how I developed my character,” he says. “I got started because I had a Scrooge kind of nightmare. My life was great, but I felt I hadn’t given back enough.” Santa Sid bought his first red suit for $25 at Frank’s Nursery and Crafts in his early 20s to appear at a friend’s kid’s party.
No one seems to actively recruit trainees. “Most of our Santas find us,” says Ruth Rosenquist of the Noerr Programs Corporation, an event and photography business in Arvada, Colorado, that supplies Santas for malls and holds an annual Santa University. She calls herself Noerr’s “Santa wrangler.” Business “comes from word of mouth, or someone sees the person on the street,” notes the St. Nick resemblance, “and says ‘Hey, have you ever tried this?’”
Not every candidate is accepted, and the qualifications are steep: “We look first for an individual who has the heart of Santa,” Rosenquist says.
Naturally Santa, Inc., promises Santas who “maintain a pleasant disposition under the highest stress levels.”
“I see 17,000-plus children in six weeks at the Mall of America,” Santa Sid estimates. “For the last week or so, it’s an assembly line. Kids who come earlier in the season might get more time with you.” At the end of the season, each child “might be on your lap for only two minutes,” he says, “but during that time, they’re the only person in the world.”
He’s Got Reindeer to Feed
Santas and the people who hire them agree that nobody can play the role especially well unless they see it as a calling, not just a job. But it is a job.
Professional Santa Clauses—people who make part of their living at it—come in two basic varieties. Some are mall or department store Santas. Others are event Santas who appear at private, public, and corporate functions. There is some overlap, but Santas tend to specialize.
A mall gig can run from four to seven weeks—some malls now introduce Santa two or more weeks before Thanksgiving—and St. Nick often works 10- or 12-hour days, seven days a week, for the entire period. One basic qualification for a mall Santa is simply that he must be able to devote that kind of time to the enterprise. Santa Sid says he uses accrued vacation time from a regular job to pull his six-week shift at Mall of America each year.
An unusually popular Santa can boost traffic for the mall and the photographer. So a Santa’s track record—for attracting crowds, generating goodwill, and driving up photo revenue—plays a big role in determining the salary he can command. Even when a photography company manages the logistics for a mall, the mall’s own marketing people typically reserve the right to request a particular Claus, Santa Frank says. When that happens, Kris Kringle gains economic leverage.
In the mid-1990s, Gooch (Santa Billy), the founder of Naturally Santa, became a legend in the business and an inspiration to Clauses everywhere when Edina’s Southdale Mall lured him away from Minnetonka’s Ridgedale in what Santa Frank describes as a bidding war. (“They would deny it, but it was on the local TV news,” he says.)
There are, of course, “guys working in malls for minimum wage, where they change Santas every few hours,” Santa Frank says with palpable grief for the children subjected to such travesties. But given a host of variables, he says that the pay range for a “decent” mall Santa—who will work long hours seven days a week—starts at $8,000 to $10,000 for the entire stint and goes up to perhaps $30,000.
“I’ve met guys who will tell you they’re making $50,000 to be a mall Santa,” Frank says. “Ask to see their pay stubs. I’ve never known one who was really making more than $30,000.”
Your Own Private Santa
Santa Carlucci is an independent event Santa and has been since 1993. He will come to family or corporate gatherings dressed as a traditional red-suited Kris Kringle, as Father Christmas with robe and staff, or as St. Nicholas with bishop’s vestments.
Through his network of contacts, Santa Carlucci also can supply elves, musicians, carolers, caterers, photographers, real reindeer (from a farm near St. Cloud), and a sleigh. The full package obviously can run into thousands of dollars. But he says he has to “walk a fine line” when deciding which customers can be offered the whole shindig. He doesn’t want to compete with the event planners who are some of his best clients.
The charge for a visit by Santa alone—which can last up to an hour and might include prep work such as learning the names and preferences of some children—varies, Santa Carlucci says, depending on the distance he must travel and other factors. An event on a Tuesday afternoon might be cheaper than one on a Saturday night. A repeat customer might get a price break. He prefers not to specify his own rates, but says that a visit by an experienced, real-bearded Santa generally will cost $125 to $250.
Santa Carlucci makes himself easy to find. A marketing professional in everyday life, he has optimized his Web site, yoursantatoo.com, so that it appears very high on the list of Google hits for searches such as “Santa Claus + Minneapolis.”
Joe Macko, the former Father Christmas from the Holidazzle parade, was more casual about the event work that he did on the side in his own red suit. “I put an ad in the Star Tribune that said, ‘Want Santa to come to your house?’ and listed my phone number,” he says. “Other than that, it was just word of mouth.”
When he was interviewed, Macko hadn’t decided whether to run his newspaper ad for event work during the 2009 season. He says he was creating some hard feelings in the Claus community by working too cheaply.
“For company Christmas parties, I usually could get a couple of hundred bucks,” he says. “But [for non-corporate events], I did it for not much more than gas money: within five miles of my house, $25 for half an hour—that kind of thing. Other Santas hated me for that.”
Paul Bachman believes in Santa.
Or at least the importance of Santa to his business during the Christmas season.
Bachman is president of Bachman’s, Inc., his family’s floral and garden store chain, where for 20 years, Dick Holmberg played Santa at the flagship Lyndale Avenue store in Richfield. “He was my children’s Santa and my grandchildren’s Santa,” Bachman says, adding that the same was true for many Twin Cities families.
When Holmberg retired before last year’s Christmas season, the search for a new Santa was considered serious enough that Bachman himself sat in on candidate interviews. In professional storyteller Mike Mann (pictured here), he found what he was looking for— a “special spark.”
What Santa Brings
Foot traffic and photo sales.
Few major shopping malls hire and manage their own Santas anymore. For the most part, the Santa operation has been contracted out to photography companies.
Some are small, independent operators like Professor Bellows Photography of Iowa, which has a year-round business and the Santa-photo contract at the Mall of America. The biggest national outfits include Cherry Hill Photo Enterprises, Inc., of New Jersey; SantaPlus, a Kodak division based in Missouri; and Noerr Programs Corporation of Colorado. Cherry Hill supplies Santas and photographers for about 360 malls in the United States and Canada. Noerr has contracts this year with 170 malls.
Photo sales drive the economics of the mall-Santa business, according to Santa Frank of Naturally Santa, Inc., a Colorado placement agency for Santas. He says the photography company usually pays the mall an up-front fee plus a percentage of photo sales in exchange for a location. The photo company also pays Santa a negotiated fee or salary that covers the entire engagement, and might pay lodging and other expenses for Santas who come from out of town, as many popular ones do.
Santa’s salary is determined mainly by expected photo sales. As Santa Frank lays it out, an average mall might generate $35,000 to $100,000 in sales of photos and paraphernalia (picture frames, snow globes). “Decent size” malls generate $100,000 to $150,000. At the biggest malls, like Mall of America and one in Lynnwood, Washington, where Frank has worked for the past eight years, sales could be well over $200,000 in a Christmas season. Santa’s share of that generally falls between $8,000 and $30,000.