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Santa’s Hip, Sleepy . . . Whatever Works

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s an art to being Santa Claus.

I discovered that in the blink of an eye Saturday afternoon at the Rolling Hills Plaza when Muriel Wuethrich snatched my gold-rimmed Santa spectacles off my nose.

Wuethrich is the Santa photographer for the Torrance shopping center. And she was determined to make me picture-perfect as 11-month-old Olivia Senecal of San Pedro perched on my red-flanneled knee.

Olivia was wearing a pair of snappy Batman-type sunglasses and a miniature Batman cape around her tiny shoulders for her visit with St. Nick.

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In a flash, Wuethrich sprang into action. She dashed into the line of families waiting to have their children’s picture taken and ran up to a father standing near the end of the line. She commandeered an adult-sized pair of sunglasses from him for me to wear.

Wuethrich positioned the sunglasses over my eyes and whispered for me to give a jaunty thumb’s up signal with my left hand. As the final touch, she gave my white glove a yank to tighten it around my thumb.

When everything was perfect, her camera whirred. Other parents watching in amazement from the line cheered. A delighted little Olivia squealed.

Among the professional North Pole crowd, those working like me as department store and mall Santas and elves for Western Temporary Services, Wuethrich’s artistic Santa pictures are legendary.

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When a child is shown crying in one of her photographs, she depicts Santa Claus reacting with a look of surprise, not discomfort. When an infant is asleep, she poses Santa with his eyes closed, pretending to have fallen asleep with the child.

If a child is engrossed in a conversation with Santa, she snaps an unposed picture that captures the candid twinkle in the youngster’s eye. If a child is too shy to look at St. Nick, she photographs Santa whispering a secret into the youngster’s ear.

Wuethrich, 38, of Torrance, usually gives her instructions to Santa with hand signals. She tried to teach them to me Saturday morning while I adjusted my Santa padding and white wig and painted my eyebrows snowy white in the mall office.

“You won’t have time to learn them when you go out there. There will be a line waiting for you. You’ll see,” she said.

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She was right. Hundreds of children, adults and a cocker spaniel named Sasha passed across my knee during my four-hour shift. Whole families, like Mark and Tracy Buehler and their daughter, Kaitlin, 8, of Wilmington, patiently waited to have $2 photographs taken for use as this year’s family Christmas card.

Despite a grumble from one mother who complained that her young son had become grouchy after a 45-minute wait in line, Wuethrich insisted that each child have time to chat privately about Christmas gift requests with Santa.

Travis Murray, 2 1/2, of Gardena asked for baseballs. Ryan Klecka, 3 1/2, of Lawndale wanted a hamster. Shawna Stewart, 6, of Lomita was hoping for a doll and a little car. Katrina Myles, 9, of Los Angeles was seeking mystery books. Her brother, Brandon, 5, asked for a car racetrack.

Crystal Anderson and Erica Washington, both 6-year-old pupils at 75th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, came with letters to Santa. Erica asked for a bike, a doll and a scooter. Crystal asked for “something like Little Miss Magic for Christmas.”

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Both girls were accompanied by their teacher, Barbara Otten, who was rewarding their superior classroom work. Wuethrich spent a little extra time posing them to make sure their photographs were just right.

“You can feel the love and the spirit here,” Wuethrich said.

“Taking these pictures each year is my Christmas gift to myself.”


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