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Bearded Santas let their hair down at lunch

More than 150 bearded Santas -- looking relaxed, some clad in Hawaiian shirts, others in red suits -- gathered at a Buena Park hotel Sunday to reminisce about the busy holiday season and network over their next merry career move.

The annual founders luncheon of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas drew an assortment of oversized gents, an equal number of Mrs. Clauses and a few real-life little people working as elves. They met to promote pride and improve performance.

"It's a great networking group," said Santa Joe Leavitt, 55, of Glendale. "Frankly I've gotten more work out of this group than I ever did from the Screen Actors Guild."

Like the other Santas in attendance, Leavitt has worked professionally as the jolly man and sports a natural beard.

In fact, those are the only prerequisites for membership in the organization he helped found.

That was back in 1995, when Leavitt and nine other Southern California Kris Kringles participated in a photo shoot at Universal Studios for a German catalog company.

They were angry at all the Santa Clauses who came wearing fake beards, recalled Frank Turner, 65, another founding member.

The 10 got together for a gripe session over lunch and the order grew out of that meeting.

The Santas have been meeting for lunch ever since.

"This event is about getting together and having fun," said Nicholas Trolli, the Philadelphia-based president of the order, which now has 887 members worldwide.

The annual founder's luncheon -- held this year at Knott's Berry Farm Resort Hotel -- is always in Southern California, where the group was formed.

Aside from the camaraderie, members are intent on polishing St. Nick's act, whether in the movies or at malls.

This year's gathering featured a demonstration of magic, Santa fashion show, business meeting and group photo shoot.

It also included several vendor exhibits at which year-round Santas equipped with personal digital assistants and cellphones could sort through new Santa suits, belt buckles, jewelry and walking sticks.

For those in search of their next gig, materials were available on a placement service called SantaForHire.com and how to get a job playing Santa in China.

But not everyone was there seeking jobs.

Patrick Cunningham, 53, a United Methodist minister from Tucson, said he played Santa at churches to help spread the spirit of God.

"I actually see being Santa as a ministry," he said. "It's a way of touching people with love."

Red Williams, 69, a retired Anaheim police officer and member of a biker's club, said he does it mainly for the fun. "This beats riding motorcycles," he said. "When a little kid puts his arms around your legs and says, 'Santa!' it brings tears to your eyes."

And Art Brown, 70, a Buena Park city councilman who plays Santa at civic charity events, said he has gradually grown into the role.

"I got a bad synthetic beard once and decided to grow one of my own. We call those guys with fake beards 'synthetics.' "

Two years ago a survey was taken of the order's membership. Among its findings: the average Santa is 59 years old, weighs nearly 260 pounds, has been married for 24 years and dresses in a red suit nearly 28 days of the year.

What it couldn't document, however, is why they do it.

"No words can explain it," said Al Johnson, 61, who lives in New Hampshire but plays Santa at a Rancho Cucamonga mall.

"It's just great; something magical happens when you put that suit on."

david.haldane@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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