Spoiler alert: This is not a children’s story!
Fortunately, Santa had seen “The Hunt for Red October.”
About five years ago, Ron Thompson, a costume-shop manager who portrays St. Nick on the Gateway Clipper Fleet’s Santa Fun Cruises, was tending to his queue of hopeful children when a couple brought forward a tight-lipped 3-year-old girl they had just adopted from Russia.
“They didn’t speak any Russian and she didn’t speak any English,” said Mr. Thompson, 44, who has been Santa on the cruises along Pittsburgh’s three rivers for 23 years.
As luck would have it, Mr. Thompson of South Side Flats had spent the previous evening watching the Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin action thriller about a Cold War-era Soviet submarine captain’s defection and was able to manage something along the lines of “Hello, comrade” in Russian.
“She started talking and I didn’t get a word in edgewise,” recalled Mr. Thompson, who works in the costume shop that his long-term girlfriend owns and has no children. “I enjoy the look on the children’s faces when they come talk to me ... and they truly believe. For that brief, shining moment, you are the center of their universe and it feels wonderful.”
Mr. Thompson is one of the legions of men nationwide who don the traditional red suit, shouldering the burden of being the physical embodiment of the Christmas spirit for millions of credulous — and incredulous — children and answering the dizzying range of questions that can come with it.
“You have absolutely no idea. Are they going to ask for an Easy Bake Oven, a boomerang or their [deceased] grandparents back?” said Mr. Thompson, who accepted the offer to be Santa on a whim and hasn’t looked back. “You kind of have to be prepared for anything.”
These Santa fill-ins are preserving a tradition that endures well into the digital age, even with the ubiquity of Internet devices that put answers to questions like “Is Santa real?” at children’s fingertips.
Similar to the response that little Virginia O’Hanlon received 116 years ago by way of an editorial in The New York Sun, children today can get questions about Santa’s existence answered online, said Ruth Rosenquist, spokeswoman and self-described “Santa wrangler” for The Noerr Programs Corp., a Colorado company that is managing Santa photo services for about 260 venues nationwide this year, including Ross Park Mall and South Hills Village.
“Santa gets those inquiries every day on Facebook,” she said of the company’s bemerrysanta.com site and Facebook page. “Those kids are still asking those questions, just in a different way now.”
A 'GENUINE EXPERIENCE’
The company is managing about 300 Santas from Hawaii to Puerto Rico this year, Ms. Rosenquist said, all of whom must pass a background check, undergo extensive training and grow a natural beard.
“That’s how we create the magic. We want it to be an authentic, genuine experience,” Ms. Rosenquist said. “Many of them have to bleach their beard during the season to obtain that snowy white look.”
And demand for in-person Santas shows no signs of flagging.
“We’re still seeing a very good attendance,” Ms. Rosenquist said. “Are children more sophisticated? Definitely.”
But, she added, “They are still children and they still believe.”
Gary and Colleen Odenthal of Elizabeth Township, who have been portraying Santa and Mrs. Claus for about 14 years, say they are as busy as ever.
As of Dec. 1, the couple — he’s 61 and she’s 60 — had nearly 60 events big and small booked between then and Dec. 25, with constant calls from people hoping for a cancellation or a gap in the schedule.
“We started calling weeks ago and it was hard to find someone,” said Mark Puma, who brought the Odenthals into his Sincerely Yogurt shop in Irwin on Dec. 1 to drum up a bit of cold-weather business and spread some Christmas cheer. “I found them on the Internet. ... They had a lot of good reviews.”
Add Rachael Rudge to the Odenthals’ list of fans. She brought her 11-month-old son, Zane, for a visit with Santa at the yogurt shop.
“I give them a 10,” the 32-year-old mom said of the Odenthals. “Those mall Santas … Most of them don’t look realistic.”
Mr. Odenthal, an equipment operator for Universal Electric, said attention to detail and his natural hair and beard — which once prompted a request for him to lecture on hair care at a Santa school — help him stand out from the pack.
“See a professional beautician. Do not do it yourself,” Mr. Odenthal advised for hair and beard care.
Another bit of advice: For breakfast-with-Santa events, wear one of your older suits.
“Dry-cleaning bills are not cheap,” he said.
With the spending on gas, costumes, candy canes and other expenses, Mr. Odenthal estimates he might clear about $30 for many of the visits, not to mention other events that he and other local Santas attend for free for special-needs children or charities.
“I do it for the children,” he said. “I have a ball with the kids.”
Holly Valent and her husband, Tom, run the Charles W. Howard Santa School, which was founded in 1937 and lays claim to being the world’s oldest finishing school for Santas. Now based in Midland, Mich., the school has produced a class every year since its founding, with 120 graduating this year.
Mrs. Valent said the school’s founder, Charles W. Howard, was an actor and former department store Santa who wanted to raise the standards for those entrusted with playing the role.
“He thought the Santas in department stores did not know how to communicate with children well and did not dress as believably as he thought they should,” Mrs. Valent, 61, said. “I remember when my kids were little, the Santas had alcohol on their breath ... . That’s just the way it was back in the day.”
Students come from all walks of life for the three-day class in which they learn Christmas traditions from around the world, costume and beard tips, how to say “Merry Christmas” and other sentences in sign language, how to relate to children and deal with their parents, simple dance steps and other Santa skills. The school also boasts two real reindeer — Comet and Blitzen — so graduates can talk to children about them with some savvy. Attorneys, ministers, truck drivers, doctors, school administrators and retirees were all represented in recent classes.
“I always say it’s like a calling,” Mrs. Valent said. “You can’t just put a suit on anyone and say, ‘You’ll be a good Santa.’ ... These are great people that do it. ... They love Christmas, they love people, they love kids.”
Rarely has she encountered a “Bad Santa,” as typified by Billy Bob Thornton in the 2003 movie by the same name, a film that does not bear mentioning at the school. Rather,surprisingly, the Top Gun of Santa schools occasionally grapples with its students’ self-regard.
“The only thing I have run into with Santas — we haven’t really mastered how to handle this — every once in a while, you have a problem with ego,” she said. As in, “ ‘I am the best. I am the best Santa.’ ”
‘ALWAYS THE HERO’
On board the Gateway Clipper’s Empress party barge Dec. 8, which was heading back to dock near the end of its two-hour cruise, Mr. Thompson, unrecognizable as Santa in his street clothes, was watching children and their parents dance around with actors dressed as Frosty the Snowman, Spider-Man, The Grinch and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, among other characters, as he sipped a soda.
He can make anywhere from $150 to $250 per cruise, which can accommodate as many as 300 people, but he characterized the money as a secondary consideration.
“I would never give it up,” he said. “It’s too much fun to see the looks on their faces. ... It’s like being an uncle. You charge them up on sugar and hand them back. You’re always the hero.”
The work can also be humbling, he said, describing a 6- or 7-year-old boy with cancer who came on the cruise about six years ago.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Santa, I’m not going to be here for Christmas ... I’m going to be in heaven with Jesus,’ ” Mr. Thompson said.
It was a jarring moment in the midst of the party atmosphere, with music blaring and children running around.
“He’s looking at me and I’m trying not to cry,” Mr. Thompson said. “I said, ‘They have Christmas in heaven. It’s so far north, it’s my first stop.’ ”
Robert Zullo: email@example.com or 412-263-3909.