Behind the beard

What goes on in that jolly old elf’s head? Santa Claus shares some tricks of the trade in an exclusive interview.

“And what do <i>you </i>want for Christmas?”

“And what do you want for Christmas?”

Photo By Lauren Randolph

One of Santa’s earliest appearances this year was at The Summit on a Saturday nearly two weeks before Thanksgiving. The Summit is a so-called “outdoor mall"—"outdoor mall” in this case being a euphemism for “parking lot.” The grand innovation of The Summit is an inversion of the traditional mall layout: Rather than put a mall in the center of a parking lot sea, The Summit is a parking lot surrounded by mall stores. The largest advantage of this layout is, as far as I can tell, the increased possibility that you’ll be run over by a teenager driving an SUV.

I’ve never before had much reason to visit The Summit because it has no bookstore or music store—the two things I genuinely enjoy shopping for—though not usually in a mall setting, anyway. However, there are a couple of clothing stores that my girlfriend, Sara, loves, and there is the Apple store, where I bought an iPod, and a video game store, where I once spent a gift certificate. And I’ve seen two movies at the multiplex there, both of them about superheroes.

Anyway, the point is it’s not a place I frequent. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been there and still have a thumb left over. So I don’t know how the crowd I saw compares to a normal Saturday night, but it was one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen at a Reno event in a long time. I’m no good at guesstimating numbers beyond 100, so I won’t wager, but there were a lot of people there—and it was a diverse bunch: restless children, bored parents and disdainful teenagers. A group of carolers were attempting to warm up the crowd, but you could hardly hear them from where I was standing. Everyone was anxiously awaiting Santa’s arrival.

My mission was to investigate the “Santa” phenomenon. Who is Santa Claus? What is Santa Claus? What is it about a bright red suit and a big white beard that makes strangers feel like they can say anything they want? Why all the horrible movies where cynical characters dress as Santa and then learn the “real meaning” of Christmas? What silly perversion of childhood belief motivates swarms of folks to dress as “naughty Santas” and embark on “Santa crawls” from bar to bar? And what about Santa’s “helpers,” those hapless whitebeard elves with the thankless task of embodying Santa for his myriad personal appearances? Who are these people who sit in a mall, at the end of a long line, and invite strangers to sit in their laps? Why would anyone want to do that?

I was by myself. Sara was visiting those clothing stores she likes. I was surrounded by families dressed in their winter best, earmuffs and all. I wanted to be at home. I felt like an interloper. I was just ready for the event to be over. I felt like a Grinch, a Scrooge or, at the very least, a culture snob: “Why do more people show up for the opening of a mall’s Christmas season than for an art opening or a decent rock show?” I asked myself. It was a dumb, rhetorical question, the answer obvious, even to me.

After nearly every carol, somebody would announce, “Santa is coming! He’ll be here soon!” The crowd still seemed restless/bored/disdainful, but nobody was leaving. I thought about Santa. I remembered myself and my cousin hiding at the top of the stairs at my grandmother’s house, trying to catch a peek of a magical creature: half ghost, half UFO, half Coca-Cola advertisement, and hopefully, hopefully carrying an assortment of G.I. Joes and Transformers. I remembered being 15 and standing outside a hardware store, talking to a guy ringing a bell and holding a bucket labeled Salvation Army. He was dressed like Santa. He asked me if I was into Metallica. Heck yeah, I was. We argued the relative merits of Kill ’Em All versus Master of Puppets.

And I remembered a time in late December about five years ago, when I walked off a plane and was immediately accosted by Santa Claus. I was with my brother and sister, and we had just spent a grueling day traveling the skyways cross country, from Reno to Atlanta with a couple layovers thrown in for good measure. We’d encountered all the usual troubles: delays, turbulence, inedible food, stampeding jerks … and worse yet, my college-aged brother, already prone to motion sickness, had spent the night before drinking up a storm, and therefore spent the day filling an endless series of paper bags.

So I was running a bit short on holiday spirit. Then, as the three of us were walking out of the gate, some jackass in a red jumpsuit and fake beard comes up to me and says, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas, young man!”

I was in a foul mood and was sure he was after money for one reason or another, so I just rolled my eyes, muttered something under my breath, and considered flipping the guy the bird. I kept walking for about 10 seconds before I realized that my brother and sister were no longer beside me. Then I heard a dreaded and embarrassing childhood nickname: “Oh, Googie …”

“Holy crap.” Santa Claus was my dad. More importantly, my dad was Santa Claus. “But … but how’d you get through security?”

Mateo Valazquez sits on Santa’s (Larry Elliott) lap at Dillards at The Summit.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

“Oh, Santa can go anywhere!” he said, eyes appropriately twinkling.

My father had donned a Santa suit as a ruse to befuddle airport security. Terrorists, take note. Nothing could’ve made me more excited for Christmas. Befuddling ruses, like grand and playful deceptions, are among the greatest of holiday traditions. Standing in the crowd at The Summit, it struck me that that was one of my favorite holiday moments: the sudden recognition of the man behind the beard.

Then, hark! The herald angels sang: a fire truck siren. The crowd that had only moments before seemed largely indifferent sprang into life with genuine excitement. The crowd rushed and crushed forward like it was there for The Beatles or Barack Obama. Half the people were agog with the amazement; the other half were swooning and standing on tiptoes, vying for a decent view. A man standing next to me exclaimed, “I’ve never seen so many kids on people’s shoulders!” The children were suddenly focused—and organized: They started chanting, “Santa! Santa!”

Then I saw him, standing on a vintage fire truck, accompanied by a police escort, waving and glad-handing the crowd, a Christmas wreath around his head, wrapped in a velvety cowl, and sporting a beard as white as a rich man’s teeth.

After all that build-up, I expected a rousing speech or a batch of classic songs. But Santa doesn’t need to do that, all he has to do is show up and be merry. Then they started shooting off fireworks. Halfway between Halloween and Thanksgiving, Santa Claus showed up to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Larry Elliott is a veteran actor. He has performed as a variety of characters in a variety of settings. He’s clean-shaven and looks a lot like a character he often performs: John Denver. He’s been appearing decked out like Kris Kringle at events large and small since 1981. He’s had his photo taken with literally tens of thousands of children.

“Some kids are just a little slow to warm up,” says Elliot. “It’s like faucets in the bathroom, everybody runs hot and cold. … Sometimes it tears your heart out. If there’s an illness in the family … and they ask for their aunt or their dad to survive a cancer treatment … and it’s like, ‘this is real.’ All of it is real—the fear, the trepidation.”

Though this year’s season is still young, Elliott has already encountered one 11-year-old girl who said, with precocious precision, “I wish things were better with my family, economically.”

Santa has his finger on the pulse of the nation.

The hardest part, according to Elliott, is, “The mall. It’s like boot camp.” The hours are grueling, and Santa has to light his face up fresh for every new kid that comes along. And the management tends to think of Santa as a prop rather than a person.

“I call it getting your Santa bones,” says Elliott.

A timeless celebrity, Santa waves to the crowd during a parade at Shoppers Square.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

But the “Bad Santa,” hard-drinking mall Santa who hates his job is, according to Elliott, a cinematic conceit.

“You’ve got to really want to do it,” he says, “Otherwise you wouldn’t even do the gig for 20 minutes. It’s really is a lot of work.”

And what about those bar crawls where everybody dresses like Santa and drinks themselves into a stupor?

“That’s fine for those people,” he says. “Did you ever see that movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space? Well, it’s a funny movie …but you can’t mention that movie to clowns. Clowns are clowns, you know, and sometimes they take things real seriously.”

From 1997 to 2005, Elliott appeared in the red and white in the Hollywood Christmas Parade, the annual event that, in 1946, inspired Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman to write “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

The competition was steep, but Elliott was able to land the part because he could say “merry Christmas” in half a dozen different languages, and he was able to demonstrate his mastery of the two voices of Santa: the big, booming voice for parades and driving reindeer, and the conversational voice with which to ask the perennial question, “And what would you like for Christmas?”

But the strangest moment of the audition came when they asked him to eat a cookie and drink a glass of milk. Elliot, mindful to keep crumbs out of his beard, said, “Oh, that looks delicious! I’ll save that for later,” and put the cookie in his pocket.

During his tenure at the Hollywood Christmas Parade, Elliott met a number of stars, including Donny ("easy-going") and Marie ("wound to the nines") Osmond. When they posed for a photo, Elliott put his arm around Donny, prompting Marie to exclaim, “Santa likes Donny better than me!”

At his last Hollywood Christmas Parade, Elliot’s float was trailed by angry protesters, carrying signs that read “Santa’s got nothing to do with Jesus.”

“You can’t make this stuff up,” says Elliot.

RN&R photographer Lauren Randolph’s grandfather, George Randolph, is very close personal friends with Mr. Claus, and he was able to arrange an interview with me and Santa at a local coffee shop. As I was walking over to the coffee shop, I was a little nervous that I would arrive and find Santa dressed in all the glory of his magical winter finery. But he was dressed so casually, wearing a “Santa Claus College” sweatshirt, that if I hadn’t been looking for him, I probably wouldn’t have recognized him.

Larry Elliott has the voice every good Santa impersonator needs: the booming one meant for parades and reindeer, and the kindly one that requests the wish lists of children.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

He wears his beard a bit shorter than you might expect, and is generally soft-spoken—but for the occasional outburst of his trademark laugh.

He told me that he’s been doing his Christmas runs since A.D. 1100, at first traveling through Northern Europe on a big white horse, but then, as word started getting around, adopting the flying sleigh and reindeer in order to cover more territory.

And of course he still makes his personal appearances.

“Sometimes the children are nervous … their parents tell them, ‘Climb in his lap and give him a hug,’ something they’re normally told not to do with strange, hairy old men.”

And though brand names have changed, children still want the same kinds of thing year after year. “The little girls like anything involved with princesses … and the little boys were just as happy with the old toys I used to make years ago with a coping saw. As long’s as the wheels turn, the boys are happy.”

People have often remarked on the seemingly impossible task of visiting the whole world in a single night. But, he doesn’t stay in one time zone, and, by traveling west, he gets the longest night possible. And he has other tricks to manipulate time. “We go outside of time,” he says, with his famous conspiratorial grin and wink and finger to the nose.

“I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t been able to see some of the humor in it,” says Santa of his Christmas traditions. “I’ve had middle-aged men walk by and say ‘Bah humbug,’ but even they laugh.”

And he still keeps track of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. “We have a great big book—well, we now have a computer,” to keep track of all the children of the world. “But if children are good and nice and smile a lot, they’ll be rewarded. … If they play by the rules, they’ll be rewarded.”

Does Santa always play by the rules? What about that bending time stuff?

“Do we know all the rules of time? It’s like physics. Before we knew all the laws of physics, it was like magic. Just because we haven’t picked up on it yet, doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

Questions of reality hit close to home with Santa, who often has his own reality challenged.

“I always carry carrots with me, in my bag, for the reindeer. So I point out the carrots and then I ask, ‘Am I the real Santa? What do you think?'”