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."

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