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Claus Celebres : It Takes More Than a Potbelly and a Beard to Make a Good Santa

Times Staff Writer

Santa Zack wore a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt under his red jacket as he explained to Santa Larry, Santa John and Santa Rick that it was important to have the padding just right, lest gravity take its toll on Santa’s trousers.

“When I stood up to leave my station last year, my pants hit my ankles,” he explained.

Oh, Santa, say it ain’t so.

Santa Zack, a Fullerton resident known more formally as Zachary J. Hahn, was a featured instructor at Santa Claus University, a training program for men ages 21 to 51--thin, regular- and Santa-shaped--who are preparing to hit the malls and office parties as the season of reindeer, eggnog and giving-ugly-ties-to-fathers arrives.

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Gathered in the cramped, basement conference room of a downtown Los Angeles hotel were holistic Santa and cash-strapped Santa, Santa with his own red suit and white beard and Santa who forgot his black shoes and wore white sneakers. Ho-ho-hos resounded around the room.

Sure, the sun shone brightly outside and palm trees fluttered in the wind. Sure, a few of the Santas belonged to the Screen Actors Guild--one had to leave early to audition for the television show “Married With Children.” In fact, most were there because of the ad in Variety. But, hey, in Southern California you take your Santas where you can get them.

And then you send them to school.

Employment agencies say they are deluged at Christmas with requests for Santa. Some just provide the jolly old gent. Others toss in a helper as well--an elf, say, to take pictures of the children climbing on Santa’s lap.

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But before Santa goes public, almost all the agencies provide some training.

Hahn, a 28-year-old June graduate of Cal State Fullerton, is in his third year in the role of Santa Claus. He has the routine down pat enough that Western Temporary Services enlisted his services at the hotel training session to show first-time Santas how to put on their red-and-white suits, wigs, beards, black spats and tasseled caps.

Hahn said he performed as Santa Claus 2 years ago to pick up some extra money. “Originally, I needed the dollars,” Hahn said. “I took it as a job to make extra money. But once I did it, I got a big thrill out of it. One advantage is, I love people.”

Now he’s had two suits made for himself and hires out on his own, making $50 or $75 an hour at private parties, instead of the $12 an hour or so when he worked for Western Temporary Services. Hahn’s major client is South Coast Plaza Village in Costa Mesa. Starting today, he works there Thursday through Sunday, 3 to 7 p.m., until the week before Christmas, when he works daily.

Hahn said that although some Santas face long lines of children who may have to wait an hour to climb onto his lap, at South Coast Plaza Village there are “not many children. . . . I very seldom have a line.”

That gives him a chance to roam the mall, chatting up store owners and their customers, exchanging season’s greetings and spreading cheer--except to the Grinches, of course.

“There are Scrooges out there.” He said that when Scrooges see him approaching, “They ignore you for a long time. I don’t know if it’s fear or shyness. I don’t think so, though. It’s just sort of an arrogance. . . . Eventually they’ll say, ‘OK, you’ve made your point, now get out of here.’ I’ve never been hit. I have been growled at. There’s no smile at all from those kind of people, but I’m working on it.

“Others see Santa and they’re just happy,” Hahn said. “A lot of middle-aged women are like that. They’ll come over and say, ‘I’ve never sat in Santa’s lap,’ and they’ll run up and talk and talk and talk. And then they’ll say, ‘Oh, I hope I didn’t overdo it.’ And I say, ‘No, not at all. I wish every adult could be this much fun.’ ”

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After his first year as Santa, Hahn said, he began reading the history of Santa Claus and decided that he preferred the European Kris Kringle version.

“The American Santa is kind of like, if you’ve been good, you get something. If you’ve been bad, there really are no repercussions. The European version is if you’ve been good, you get something, but if you’ve been bad, he’s got a bag of ghosts and goblins he can leave.

“It sort of goes with the concept of karma,” Hahn said. “Or, ‘what goes around comes around.’ ”

South Coast Plaza Village uses the European concept, he said, which involves a Santa suit tending more toward maroon than fire engine red and whiskers that are a bit on the gray side, rather than snow white.

“At South Coast Plaza Village, we try to get away from sweets and we’re more holistic,” Hahn said. “We hand out bells on a string that the kids can go home and tie on a Christmas tree. We’re not rotting their teeth” by giving them candy.

Jenny Zink of Western Temporary Services presided over the class. On a cardboard placard propped on an easel was a list of “Santa Dos.” The first “do” read: “Bathe daily and use good deodorant.”

Not that anyone would skip a bath, of course, but the morning once-over-lightly simply won’t do for a man sitting inside a heavy, hot suit for 7 or 8 hours, with children climbing on and off his lap, Zink said.

The Santas also were told to encourage good habits among the children. Urging that teeth be brushed, vegetables eaten and rooms cleaned scores major points with the parents and grandparents who bring the children to Santa.

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“Use Santa leg lifts” was another piece of advice. Picking up 40- or 50-pound children can injure Santa’s lower back. Extending the leg, levering the child onto it and then hoisting the leg upward to lap level spares Santa a trip to the chiropractor.

Another word of caution: Santa should not speak of “your mother” or “your father” to a child unless the small one points to a nearby adult and clearly says something like, “That’s my mommy.” In a time of one-parent families, or stepfathers and stepmothers, speaking of a “mother” or “father” who turns out to be absent from home can reduce a child to tears. The term “folks” is much safer.

But, above all, stay in character. Don’t run wind sprints from your Santa chair to the bathroom. Don’t yell at the children. Santa is an old gent. He walks slowly. He speaks softly. He always keeps his humor.

That’s not the easiest thing, Hahn said. “I’ve had kids who are actually repulsive. I had one kid come up last year and say, ‘I’m gonna rip your beard off. I know it’s fake.’ All I could do was laugh. Fortunately, his parents took care of him, but I couldn’t slip out of character.”

Larry Bischof of Mountain Center, near Idyllwild, has been a Santa for 9 years and told the first-time Santas that “if anyone ever grabs your beard, just yell ‘ouch’ as loud as you can and they’ll let go.”

Another Bischof tip: Glue that beard on tightly with tape having stickum on both sides. One side adheres to the beard, the other to Santa’s face. “I’ve lost the hat,” Bischof said, “but I’ve never lost the beard.”

Nearly all the class was devoted to the donning of the uniform and how to keep it clean. Western provides two sets of white gloves. Santa washes one pair each night and wears the other one the next day. The synthetic beard can be washed with Woolite, but use only tepid water. Hot water will straighten the curl.

A North Hollywood man who declined to give his name for fear the Screen Actors Guild might learn about this other job, said he performed as Santa 25 years ago at the Santa Monica Pier, then picked the job up again last year at age 50, again for the money. And his motivation this year? The same: “The writers strike knocked a lot of work out of professional actors. We’ve got to make a living.”

Also in it for the money was Lester Lindvig, 21, of La Habra, who just finished school at Fullerton College and hopes to enroll soon at USC to study film.

Lindvig said he was “just in between jobs and needed some temporary work. And I love Christmas and children and have a lot of fun with entertainment-type stuff.” Lindvig said that when the agency heard he had worked at Disneyland in starring roles as Goofy and the wolf that pursued the three little pigs, they were happy to have him.

Although he said he enjoyed “working mime and characterization-type things” at Disneyland, playing Santa “will be a lot more difficult because with the Disney characters you have to act larger than life with those costumes.”

“And with the Santa character, he’s already larger than life to begin with, so it’s a matter of trying to calm myself down a little bit to play an older, jolly-type character rather than this energetic Goofy or . . . chasing after little pigs or whatnot.

“I’m looking forward to getting out the first day and experiencing it because I haven’t done it before,” said Lindvig, who added that he doesn’t know where the agency will send him to recite his ho-ho-hos.

If Lindvig is lucky, he will be spared the problems of the Santa whose dog sled ran off without him.

As Nancy Clayton of Western Temporary Services told it, a few years ago an Alhambra shopping mall decided to promote the Christmas season with six Alaskan huskies pulling a sled with Santa seated inside. Santa “didn’t really want to get on” because, for one thing, the woman working with the dogs was not very experienced.

To show Santa how easy it would be, the trainer decided on a practice run while Santa watched. But instead of heading down the driveway, she went through the parking lot, Clayton said. The parking lot had speed bumps.

“The dogs are 6 miles down the street and she’s sitting on the ground with a wrist broken in three places and a broken leg, and Santa’s wife--who is 8 1/2 months pregnant--is going, ‘Thank God, he wasn’t on the sled.’

“That was the last time (the shopping center) decided to do anything stranger than having Santa walk into the center.”


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