Even in street clothes, Jim Lewis says, he looks and sounds so much like the legendary St. Nicholas that wherever he goes, people of all ages run up to him, hug him and exclaim: "Santa!"
The Lake Forest resident is the co-founder of Amalgamated Santas With Real Beards, an informal network of a dozen men who hire on for the holidays with private companies and also donate their services to nonprofit groups.
"We don't do malls," said the 63-year-old Lewis, a former waste water equipment salesman who has been playing Santa professionally for nine years and also is a popular storyteller.
"In a mall they charge customers to take their own pictures. It's a commercial venture. It has nothing to do with the real meaning of Santa."
The Santas are quite serious about their seasonal jobs, which pay as much as $250 an hour. Most have agents to help them land national and even global gigs.
Co-founding member Ed Murphy of Fullerton, for example, portrayed St. Nick in a Coca-Cola commercial a few years ago. And the whole Amalgamated group was featured in a photo layout in a German gift catalog last year.
The group was formed two years ago as a Santa referral network. Most of the members' clients, Lewis said, learn of them by word-of-mouth. When one Santa gets an offer but is too busy to accept, he passes the word to others in the group.
"It's not a cutthroat business," Lewis said.
For Lewis, his first priority each holiday season is to be the Santa in the window at Nordstrom in South Coast Plaza. For that service, Lewis said, Nordstrom pays him his "weight in cookies," and customers can take all the pictures they want of him for free.
Starr Allumbaugh, the Nordstrom special events director who hired Lewis eight years ago, said this week: "He looks like . . . well, he is Santa. Even in khakis and a denim shirt, people would walk up to him and say, 'Hi, Santa!' "
Another client is Kathy Greco, who hired Lewis for the Portola Hills Homeowners Assn.'s St. Nick breakfast last week.
"He re-creates that magic," Greco said, even for youngsters who might have secret doubts about the Santa story. "Even at 4 they start to question," she said, "but Jim is so real."
Lewis defends Santas who play the role even though they are not endowed with naturally white whiskers and generous girths.
"It's all in the heart . . . and in the attitude," he said.
Still, he said, there is a difference. "The real beard, that's the test most kids use," he said. "They know if you're authentic. They notice."