City Lights: The secrets of being Santa

I asked my mother once if I ever believed in Santa Claus as a child. She shook her head and replied, "You were always suspicious." It was probably the sign of a budding journalist.

Growing up, though, I knew quite a few people who did believe in the jolly red man — and I later came to wonder what it was like to play Santa, especially for a credulous audience. How did one respond to irrational gift requests? Were there any crisis situations that came up?

So when I heard that Huntington Beach resident Tim Robbins was returning for his second straight year playing Santa in the city's annual downtown Tree Lighting Ceremony, I arranged an interview. Robbins, who works as a gate guard in Laguna Beach, runs a seasonal business every December and sports his costume to private parties, charity promotions and other events.

When I called Robbins' son and assistant, Joshua, to set up the meeting by the pier, he warned me that we might draw a lot of attention, as Santa invariably does. That turned out to be true. Almost from the moment the elder Robbins showed up in costume on Pacific Coast Highway, he found himself besieged by kids with gift requests and adults wanting their pictures taken with him.

With all those distractions, I had to slip in my questions during the calm moments — but I managed to get in a few. So here's a short Q&A guide to the life of a professional Santa:

Q: Does it get hot in that suit?

A: Um, yes. Robbins told me he tries to avoid wearing his costume outside during the day for very long. That rule especially applies in Southern California, where, as Joni Mitchell sang, it stays pretty green during the holidays. Robbins suited up for the Independent's photographer, though, so that was our gift from Santa this year.

Q: What do you say if a kid asks for something that Santa — which is to say, their parents — probably can't provide?

A: Robbins told me he tries to avoid saying "yes" to gift requests of any kind. Rather, he'll say something like "Oh, that's a really good choice." And it helps to add that they've been a good boy or girl this year.

Q: Do kids ever have accidents on Santa's lap?

A: Yes, which is why whenever Robbins makes an appearance, he brings an extra pair of pants.

Q: If you portray Santa for a living, how does that affect your own kids' willingness to believe in him?

A: According to Robbins, his kids believed until they caught him putting on the suit one day. Joshua, at least, believed for a little while longer; according to Robbins, he went to school the next day and told his classmates, "Hey, my dad's Santa Claus!"

Q: What's the most heart-tugging gift request ever?

A: For Robbins, that would be from the little girl last year who told him, "I don't need any toys. I just want my dad back from Iraq." How did he respond? "I know Santa isn't supposed to cry, but I did," he told me. "I said, 'I'll do my best.' What else can you say?"

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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To book Tim Robbins this holiday season, call (714) 504-8251 or email

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