Becoming Santa: More Than a Red Suit and 'Ho, Ho, Ho!'

PHOTO: Jack Sanderson will make $16,000 playing Santa Claus for three weeks.
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At 5-feet 10-inches and 280 pounds with snowy white whiskers, Jack Sanderson is the embodiment of the classic Coca-Cola Santa Claus.

He reluctantly took on the role after his father died one Christmas, and he couldn't bear the thought of facing another holiday without him.

The real estate agent and actor from Los Angeles enrolled at the Victor Nevada Santa School. He spent $600 on a red suit, learned how to die his real beard white and to artfully avoid promising what Santa cannot deliver.

"It's hard work and each January when I shave off my beard and cut off my bleached hair, I feel a relief to return to myself again," said Sanderson, now 46.

Sanderson chronicles his training and the historical origins of Santa in a new documentary, "Becoming Santa," which premiers Dec. 7 on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

The germ of an idea for the film began when Sanderson went to ad auditions and noticed the men trying out for holiday commercials always had real beards and owned their own suits. Their wives all drove them to the try-outs.

"It seemed there was some kind of sub-culture going on," he said.

So after his father's death, he agreed to try becoming Santa for just one year and make a documentary with his friend Jeff Myers.

Now, and for the last three years, Sanderson works at shopping malls during the holiday season. But next week he leaves on the most coveted Santa gig of all -- an expense-paid trip to Hong Kong as Cartier's corporate Santa.

The job pays well -- $850 a day for three weeks, plus roundtrip airfare on business class and his own Cantonese translator. In total, Sanderson will make about $16,000.

But Santa Jack, as he calls himself, said he won't get any "bling," only the joy of hearing the wishes of children who believe.

"If I didn't enjoy children, I wouldn't be doing it," said Sanderson. "One of the things that continuously surprises me is that children are generally not listened to and when they encounter an adult who listens, they have a lot to say."

Santa schools say that men like Sanderson can make between $20,000 and $60,000 over the four-week Christmas season through mall and corporate party appearances. Mall work brings in $20 and hour but playing a party can earn Santa $100 an hour.

"It can pay the bills, but our focus is on having good Santas and that starts with the ability to have a twinkle in the eye and the desire to good," said Jennifer Andrews who runs the Calgary-based Victor Nevada School. "I don't think profit is a dirty word, but it shouldn't be the primary focus."

"Can they make money? Absolutely," she said. "But they have to spend time honing their craft. You can't do it well by getting a beard, shoving on a red jacket and saying, 'Ho, ho ho!'"

A good suit costs about $800, boots more than $300 and beard bleaching can run $700 a season. "Like anything, the list can go on: traditional bells, bags, canes and glasses," she said. "He also needs to invest in regularly dry cleaning his suits. His boots need to be polished and cared for."

Children are the best judge of the authentic Santas, according to Andrews.

"They need to have a twinkle in their eye," she said. "It's about what's in their heart."

At the end of training children give out "candy cane" ratings. "The first thing they comment on is how they smell," said Andrews. "Then, how soft his beard is. They don't like Santas with a lot of make-up."

Many are former military or men from law enforcement. And Santa doesn't have to be white -- black and Spanish speakers are welcome, as well as those who use sign language. Women are mostly recruited for elves and Mrs. Claus.

One female candidate began training as a male Santa at Victor Nevada, but she dropped out.

Sanderson said historically Santa was a "solo act" and Mrs. Claus only entered the scene a century ago.

Robert Mindte, founder of talent agency Santa For Hire, said the business market for Santas is best in Georgia, Los Angeles, New England, Texas and Florida, but it's hard to find recruits.

"We have more jobs that we have Santas," he said. "I have a request for one in Fargo, N.D., and I don't have one."

Susen Mesco, president of American Events, Mesco, books 1,300 Santas each Christmas in Denver alone and another 1,200 throughout the country.

"I have been training Santas for 29 years," she said. "The real key is that it's not about the money."

"Most people think about being Santa for years and years and as their beard turns white and people come up to them at Dennys and they start to think about it," said Mesco. "The world calls them to it."

Even if they can pass the background check, most can't hack the 54 hours of rigorous training -- five days from 8:30 a.m. to as late as 1 a.m.

"They have to learn Spanish and sign language and have a clean background check," she said. "They have to put white under their eyes and go to the store and memorize toys. They weed themselves out."

"It all sounds good when someone screams out free money, but Santa has to prepare," she said. "He has to work on his outfit, on his skills and getting his bookings. People call me Christmas morning for their booking the next year."

It's good work during hard economic times.

"Some people save up their vacation time and work the holiday season," said Mesco. "A lot of companies know a guy who looks like Santa and they give him the afternoon off. Some guys who are retired are supplementing their income and are available 24/7 for every Santa situation."

They have to be healthy, as well. "Sometimes a guy is 75 years old with a white beard weighing 400 pounds and he can't get through the season being around kids with all the sniffles."

Mall work is especially demanding. "I was an elf and we had 300 children in one hour and 45 minutes," said Mesco. "You have to be in shape."

The Santa chairs are also uncomfortable with carved arm rests a straight back and no cushions. "And people like to put Santa by the fireplace just has he has come in from outside with three layers of under armor on."

They are taught how to answer the impossible questions: Mommy and Daddy moved out of the house and Daddy doesn't have a job -- can you help Daddy? Or Grandma died and the only thing I want is to see her at Christmas dinner.

Sanderson's hears those heartbreaking requests and will often reassure the child, then say, "Can I surprise you?"

"That's one thing they teach you in school," he said. "Santa can't promise them anything -- Santa has to be optimistic, but he can't lie to them."

He said he will never forget the 5-year-old boy in a tri-cornered hat who, when asked what he wanted for Christmas, said "a wig for Uncle John" who had lost his hair in chemotherapy.

"Children are not given enough credit," said Sanderson. "They are aware of what's around them."

"The whole point is to listen and be empathetic," he said. "Empathy is losing ground in our culture."

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