The phone clicks on and the accent in the voice is more East L.A. than North Pole.
“Santa’s workshop,” he says cheerily.
He says his alter ego is Lou Martinez and not the other way around. See, Lou Martinez is a former data and information systems worker at the Walt Disney Co. who was inspired to grow out his beard and don a red suit after seeing a mall Santa in Florida doing a lackluster job.
Lou is a shy, conservative fellow, but when kids recognize him in restaurants and their parents apologize for pointing out the resemblance, he merely hands them Santa’s business card. Then the surprise hits the parents’ faces.
“You should listen to your kids more often,” Santa tells them.
I caught up with Santa a few days before his big appearance downtown. On Thursday, he will join “Days of Our Lives” star Galen Gering for Burbank’s Tree Lighting Ceremony at 6 p.m. in front of City Hall.
This will be Martinez’ first time seeing how downtown Burbank ushers in the holidays, and it’s a great year for it. In honor of Burbank’s centennial, organizers are bringing out some special surprises this year. There may even be some unusual precipitation in the forecast.
Spreading the joy of the Christmas season is an all-year thing when you’ve got the beard, the glasses, the white hair, and the outfit to match. Even when he’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt performing comedy at a VFW or comedy club, it’s hard not to see Mr. Claus right there in front of you.
He tells me there’s a lot to learn about the world when you’re looking at it through Santa’s trademark wire-rimmed specs. If he is anything, he is hope personified — a reminder that there are things to be happy about, things worth loving, even when you are dealt tragedies that change you.
Once while at a hospital, a quiet boy perched on his lap and shared a secret: “My dad’s dead. Somebody shot him in the head.”
“Like it was no big deal,” Martinez recalled.
Later that same day, a grown man came to see Santa, the type of “biker-looking dude” you might cross the street to avoid.
“Hey Santa, say hello to my girls for me,” the man said.
Santa, not picking up on the man’s meaning, asked him what happened.
“My two girls passed away this year,” the man replied. “Say hi to them for me.”
That was a rare day. Days like that remind Santa’s helpers — Lou Martinez included — of the weight of Santa’s mantle, and the responsibility they have to carrying out the season’s message of goodwill and charity toward all.
“The way the world is today, I think grown-ups need Santa a lot more than kids do,” he said.
It’s a different kind of conversation when Santa talks to the grown-ups. He attends a lot of holiday office parties and has spent the last two months performing stand-up, but in every conversation he is real.
“If I don’t believe it, how can I be Santa to them when they need it? I don’t want to fake that I care. When I’m in the suit, I am Santa,” he said.
Santa, in deed and dress, is someone people can relate to. He’s the reminder that at least once a year we all have the power to make someone else smile, even if they’re total strangers, because everyone needs a friend once in a while.
“I’d rather be a friend than an icon,” he said.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he’s not trying to secure a spot on the Nice list, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.