Santa School Trains Would-Be St. Nicks in Beards, Bad Breath and 'Ho Ho Ho'

Charles Howard Santa School is known as the Harvard of Santa schools.

December 6, 2012, 5:09 PM

Dec. 7, 2012— -- On a chilly winter day in Midland, Mich., Fritz Schmidt walked into a hair salon to get his annual extreme makeover -- as Santa Claus. After a few hours of bleaching his hair and beard, Schmidt was a dead ringer for jolly old St. Nick.

"I first started when my daughter was born. She'll be 28 this year," said Schmidt, a 60-year-old semi-retired agricultural salesman.

Schmidt said his transition to Santa was an enjoyable one because he loves children and this is one job where they are your main clients.

"You gotta have a good heart, and you have to believe yourself, because the kids can see through it if you're just there just for the sake of being there," Schmidt told "20/20."

That's just one of the many mantras Schmidt learned at Charles Howard Santa School in Midland.

The Santa School was founded 75 years ago by former Macy's Santa Charles Howard and is the oldest Santa Claus Training Academy in the world, boasting more than 3,000 graduates.

"We have between 90 and 115 Santas attend every year and somewhere between eight to 20 of them are Mrs. Claus," said Holly Valent, who's been running the Santa School for 25 years with her husband, Tom.

The school for mastering the spirit of Father Christmas is so popular that there is a waiting list every fall.

"I tried for five years to get into this school," said Rick Hyman, who's been a Santa since 1972. "This without a doubt is the most exciting time that you'll ever experience in this life of being a Santa Claus."

This Harvard of the Santa Schools, as it has been called, costs more than $400 and spans three days in October. The school offers instruction and fine tuning for returning students.

"They cover everything from bad breath to your beard and how to maintain your hair," said Schmidt. "They teach sign language, too."

The school brings in a trainer from the local gym to help Santas stay in good shape, a must for picking up hundreds of children per day, and the training is not complete without perfecting the all important "ho ho ho."

"They even brought in an attorney whose primary emphasis was to make sure that you had both hands in every picture," said 64-year-old Ray Davis, a land surveyor who's been doing Santa for eight years.

Yes, Santa needs liability insurance.

"You have to watch the way you handle the children," said Tom Valent, dean of the school. "If you're gonna sit them on your knee, keep your hands exposed so people and the cameras can see them."

Across the U.S. this holiday season at least 70,000 Santas are suiting up at malls, parades, company parties and other venues. These Santas are part of a growing number of office workers and retirees looking to make extra money to supplement their income.

On average, many Santas can make between $20,000 to $50,000 during the holidays, and a few lucky ones rake in $80,000 or more. That's a good thing, because authentic Santa outfits can cost north of $2,000, and black boots are going for $400 these days.

Aside from the attire and the lessons from the Santa School, most Santa students agree that the appearance of the hair and beard is key.

Schmidt and Davis get theirs done at Sue Myers beauty shop in Midland.

"The beard needs to be a very soft white," said Myers, who has bleached and coiffed the curls of some of the finest Santas in the land for 15 years. "The color has an illusion, and if you have dark hairs in there, it looks dry or wiry."

Myers shared with "20/20" her biggest secret: peppermint oil. Just a touch for Santa's beard.

"It makes Santa smell like a candy cane for the children," said Davis.

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