From the Archives: Times reporter Bob Pool becomes Secret Santa

Dec. 20, 1990: Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Pool as the Kosher Santa on duty at Farmers Market.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

During the 1990 holidays, Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Pool went undercover and reported on the activities of Santa Claus. His "Secret Santa" series included this Dec. 9, 1990, report on the Santa photographer at Rolling Hills Plaza in Torrance:

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 Batman-type sunglasses and a miniature Batman cape around her tiny shoulders for her visit with St. Nick.

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.

Dec. 8, 1990: Santa wears sunglasses to match Olivia Senecal, 11 months, at the Rolling Hills Plaza. Santa is Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Pool.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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.

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 showy white in the mail office.

"You won't have time to learn them when you are out there. There will a line waiting for you. You'll see," she said.

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. …

"You can feel the love and the spirit here," Wuethrich said."Taking these pictures each year is my Christmas gift to myself."

Dec. 8, 1990: Photographer Muriel Wuethrich positions 2-month-old Sergio Maya on Santa's lap before taking his picture at the Rolling Hills Plaza.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

After 31 years at the Los Angeles Times, Bob Pool retired in 2014.

This post was originally published on Dec. 4, 2014.

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