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The Working Life: Job as shopping-mall Santa is cyclical, but recession-proof

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

By Jim McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A twinkle in your eye, a jolly laugh and physical stamina are a must for this part-time job. It helps but is not necessary to have a bushy white beard and a round belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly.

Santa Claus reminds a young visitor to Ross Park Mall Wednesday that Santa likes chocolate chip cookies as a Christmas Eve snack. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

In a scene that is repeated countless times in nearly every suburban shopping mall across the country during the Christmas shopping season, children climb onto Santa's ample red lap, whisper in his ear and smile for a camera.

"Oh, I've got a great job," said the truly jolly man in red who is greeting children this year at Ross Park Mall in the North Hills. "What better job to smile and wave and have people greet you. Even those people who are having a bad day wave back or give you a smile."

Most enclosed shopping malls -- and there are about 1,200 of them in the United States -- engage Santa or one of his look-alike helpers for the shopping season. Last year, each shopping-mall Santa saw on average 10,119 children, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. A good number of their parents bought photographs of the occasion.

Cindy McIlnay, marketing director at Ross Park, estimates that its Santa will see 20,000 children there in a seven-week season that ends on Christmas eve, based on the number of promotional items it distributes. That's a lot of wiggling kids -- and sometimes their moms -- for one guy's lap.

"When I started, my boss told me if you do it for the money you won't last one season," Ross Park's Santa said as he sat in oversized green chair surrounded by gifts. A train ride tooted in the background.

"The best part of the job is the kids," he said. "For most kids, you'd do it for almost nothing."

Most malls hire someone else to provide, train and equip look-alike Santas.

Of course, the real Santa would need no such help. And just to make sure there's no confusion, this story is mainly about Santa's helpers, the look-alike Santas who fill in for the big guy when he's too busy getting ready for the big night.

There are a few big national photo companies that dominate the look-alike Santa business, including SantaPlus, a wholly owned subsidiary of Eastman Kodak Co. in St. Louis, and Cherry Hill Photo Enterprises Inc., a privately held company based in Cherry Hill, N.J. Ross Park's Santa works for IPI, or Insta-Plak Inc., of Toledo, Ohio.

For look-alike Santas, the professionals say they look most of all for people with a gentle demeanor, a love of children of all ages, enough physical stamina to deal with hundreds of children a day, and, of course, a twinkle in the eye. Big bellies are not mandatory.

"Most of our Santas have natural beards. However, for those who don't, we have beautiful authentic wigs and beards," said chief executive Robert C. Wolfe of Cherry Hill, which supplied Santas to about 350 malls this year. "If Santa does not have a belly like a bowl full of jelly, we provide padding."

Most of the companies teach look-alike Santas how to put nervous children at ease, and give tips on appropriate behavior and conversations. Employers also have to make sure that a perfect Santa look-alike with a wonderful beard and blue eyes doesn't have a felony conviction in his past. So background checks are usually part of the process.

"It's hard to find the right people," said Steve Hardin, IPI's president. "We do extensive background checks. We look for someone who is joyful and cheery and is in it for the kids, not for the money."

Cherry Hill runs its own "Santa University" and provides training both in group and individual settings.

"Santa must remain in character, treat every child with respect, never rush, always refers to himself as Santa -- not I," said Wolfe, of Cherry Hill. "Santa says he will do his best and be on time. We never want to keep a child waiting."

And just as the real Santa knows the names of all his reindeer and can answer all the important questions he gets, so must his temporary stand-ins. How do you manage to get around to all the good boys and girls in one night? Do you always come down the chimney? And what kind of snacks do you like? Keeping up on the latest toys helps, too.

Susen Mesco, of American Events and Promotions in Denver, runs weekend courses during the fall for would-be Santas. She covers makeup, some child psychology, sign language, acting and how to breathe deeply and stretch. Her students typically spend three hours in a toy store.

"It helps them identify with the child. It gives them confidence, the tools that they need to nurture children," said Mesco, who has been teaching prospective Santas for 20 years. The goal is to be magical but believable.

She said: "Most men think, 'I just put on a suit and a beard and I'll go, 'Hey kid what's your name?' And the child says, 'But you're Santa, you already know my name.' They ask what do you want for Christmas? And the child says I sent you a letter. Didn't you read it? This Santa just keeps digging a bigger hole."

Men take up the job for different reasons, Mesco said. Some are divorced and miss their own children. Others are retired, in need of some pin money or their grandchildren are in far-flung locations. Some have lost full-time jobs and are desperate to pay the rent.

There are lots of rules for store Santas, some dating back to a 1932 memo from Hampton S. Sisler, general manager of a Chicago department store, Donovan and Shields, who wrote them up when he discovered one store Santa inebriated while working and another complaining to children and parents about the long hours with no break.

They include: Be scrupulous about bodily and oral hygiene. Use a good deodorant and don't eat garlic or other strong-smelling foods. Keep your tunic, boots, beards and wigs clean. No smoking. No drinking. No flirting. No tips. And most of all, never promise anything, no matter how sweet the plea.

"You promise them something and they don't get it, you're mud," said the Ross Park Santa.

Typically, store Santas don't like to say what their street names are or where they live when they're not needed at the mall or the North Pole. Our button-nosed man in Ross Park blanched when he discovered a reporter knew his civilian name .

This is his first season working in Pittsburgh and he lives in a motel near Ross Park Mall until Christmas E ve, when he'll pack up and go home. Last year, he worked in Raleigh, N.C., and has a friend in the business who has traveled to Hong Kong. Most Santas employed by large companies travel to their jobs.

"I live in the North, truly. I'm not fibbing when I say I live up North," he said, noting that he has grandchildren of his own in Washington, D.C.; Idaho; and Minnesota. "I called Mrs. Claus the other night and she said it snowed."

If someone should ask how much a Santa makes, the diplomatic answer would be more than minimum wage. Our Ross Park Santa says he gets paid by the season no matter how many kids sit on his lap.

"Per child, it's probably minimum wage," he said with a laugh.

Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said Santa pay was "all over the place," but good ones with natural beards can pull in $5,000 or $6,000 for a five- or six-week season.

Mesco, the party planner in Denver, works each season with 75 to 100 Santas, who do corporate events and parties.

She said the best can make "incredible amounts of money. But it's because they really portray it and do it for the right reasons. It's just like anything else in life; it will come back to you."

The Ross Park Santa uses a suit owned by his employer but has another of his own for small jobs such as visiting hospitals or nursing homes. He has the perfect shape for the job and a winning laugh. He bleaches his natural beard to make it white.

The downside of the job are achy knees and the long time he must spend living in a motel away from his own family. His past has included delivering mail and running some businesses that he won't talk about.

He returns to other undisclosed endeavors once the holiday season ends.

Money, though, is not his biggest reward. He tells stories of a little boy who wanted to know if the elves made presents for poor children and of another young boy who wanted a doll for his sister but nothing for himself. Sometimes, he said, children talk about donating their older toys to others who are less fortunate.

"There are some heartwarming things, yes. Kids that really have a loving heart" he said. "I'm sure it's nurtured by their parents. It's great, probably the best rewards of this job."

Jim McKay can be reached at jmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1322.

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