A big suit to fill: Training helps Santas provide magic for children
By Molly M. Fleming
The Journal Record
Posted: 04:19 PM Monday, December 23, 2013
OKLAHOMA CITY – Richard Foster has been in the delivery business for 31 years. He has spent that time making sure people get the news on their front step every morning as a courier for the Edmond Sun, The Oklahoman and The Wall Street Journal.
Foster has a round belly and rosy cheeks, and he can grow a full beard, making him the perfect candidate to play everyone’s favorite deliveryman, Santa Claus. He started taking on the role 10 years ago at church.
“I was excited about it,” Foster said. “I had never done it before.”
About three years ago, he decided he wanted to become better at playing the popular character and looked into attending a Santa Claus school. This past summer, he made that dream a reality and attended school at the Professional Santa Claus School in Denver, part of the company American Events and Promotions.
The school is just one of many places in the country where men can go to learn about becoming Santa Claus, including tips on coaxing reluctant little ones to come meet them and how to safely handle children during the time-honored annual visits.
The school in Denver was started 31 years ago by Susen Mesco, who was asked by a couple of malls to start training Santas to be more appealing. She said she started asking around to see if there really was a need for properly trained Kringles.
“All I learned was that Santas really had no direction on what to do,” she said. “Santas were bored. Children were screaming.”
She spent the whole next year writing a book and has been updating that book ever since as she teaches the men how to be the popular folklore character.
“For most of the Santas, it’s not about the money,” she said. “It’s not about the big belt. It’s not about the fancy costuming. I think (the class) gives them the confidence they need to encounter the children on a level that children need to be encountered on.”
As Mesco pointed out, children have to deal with a lot today. Their parents are getting divorced. A parent may have been killed in war. They often take those problems to the one man they’ve been told could do anything they asked: Santa Claus.
“We give the Santas the tools to handle that,” she said.
For children who are hesitant to see Santa, Foster and the other guys are given 30 different ways to help the child become more comfortable.
Academy graduates have insurance; they’ve gone through national background checks, and some even have business cards.
“This is a serious industry,” she said. “The industry has changed enormously. Before, Santa was just a prop in a photo set. They weren’t having beard contests and giant belt contests. As the industry has evolved, they’ve had to become more sophisticated to play in the big leagues.”
But for Mesco’s Santas, that sophistication does not mean having to grow a real beard.
“I think Santa starts inside,” she said. “I think people recognize a good Santa from his ethics and from his social interaction. It’s not about the beard. I have some guys that don’t have a real beard, and they put on the embellished beard. They are just as good or not better as someone with a real beard.”
At North Pole City, manager and interior designer Rosanna Silvestri said she’s seen how the man under the suit can bring the character to life.
“He’s the real Santa,” she said. “Everybody believes it. That’s how real he seems. We have people that will wait in line for three hours.”
The store has a paging system to help people avoid standing in line. Nevertheless, they are still waiting when he arrives at 11 a.m., after the store opens at 10 a.m.
Santa hosts a story time at the store where he tells about the birth of Christ, and then takes pictures. Before he leaves, he tells the story again. The Santa at North Pole City has been there for 13 years, lives in Oklahoma City and works for a nonprofit organization for inner city-children.
“He’s a very wonderful man,” Silvestri said.
Loyalty to a store can be found throughout the Santa Claus industry, as Jean Plew with the Simon Property Group pointed out. Part of her duty as associate vice president of business development and deployment is to help get Santas in the Simon Malls, including Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City and the Woodland Hills Mall in Tulsa.
Simon has worked with the Noerr Programs Corp. since 1999 to help place quality Santas in its malls.
“Noerr has a premier experience,” she said. “They have some of the best Santas out there. They have super premium costuming compared to competitors.”
Plew said Simon has always worked with an outside company. Often, when Simon buys a mall, the Santa will change the company he works for in order to stay at the mall.
“The parents find it important to keep the same Santa year after year,” Plew said.
No matter what Santa is in a mall, Noerr’s Santa Wrangler Ruth Rosenquist works to make sure the guy in the suit makes the best experience possible for the customers.
“Generally, most of our Santas out in the field gravitate to us because of word-of-mouth,” she said. “It gets around that we are truly about representing the heart of Santa.”
At Noerr’s Santa Central, applicants are asked for a resume and a photograph before they are invited to attend Santa University.
One thing the photo will tell the company is if the man has a real beard, which for Noerr is a necessity.
“We really want the natural beard,” Rosenquist said. “That authenticates the experience. That creates a real magical look.”
If the candidate makes it through the face-to-face interview, then he is invited to the Noerr Pole to learn how to be a Noerr Santa.
Santa University alums range in age from 40 years old to 83 years old. The eldest has been a Santa for 57 years. The company hand-sews a suit for each, which helps create a better experience. Another part of that experience is the other cast members, including the photographer, the technology equipment, the stage area – all are provided by Noerr.
The set at Penn Square may look the same as last year, but this year, the Santa is new. He is an Oklahoma City resident who attended Santa University.
“I got to have a firsthand experience with him,” Rosenquist said. “He is delightful. I just stood and watched him on the set. He is a magnet. The kids love him, and it’s fabulous.”
Not only do the children love Santa, but Santas love working with the children. At Santa University, all of the students have stories about working with children during Christmas.
“Some of these stories break your heart about things they are approached with,” Rosenquist said. “They have to be sympathetic souls.”
It’s the children that keep Foster, who delivers holiday cheer every year, putting on the red suit.
“I enjoy the children,” he said. “I like seeing their faces light up when I come in the room. I just enjoy making children happy and then bringing them the season of Christmas and helping them to keep Santa in their hearts.”