More than a stuffed suit
By James Fuller
Anyone smelling like Jack Daniel’s and Marlboros need not apply for the role of Santa Claus. That’s not what fuels the man in red.
Santa doesn’t have black-rimmed glasses and dark eyebrows. Nylon is for pantyhose and basketball nets, not beards. Wrapping black trash bags around your sneakers instead of using actual boots? Get real.
Being Christmas’ master of ceremonies ain’t easy. You have to curb your ego. You have to look the part. And what do you do when kids really do say the darndest things?
Santa pros say there’s no room for hacks in the ho-ho-ho business.
“Most mall Santas don’t have a clue about what’s going on except snap, smile, snap, smile,” said Phil Wenz, aka “Mr. Santa.” “Anybody can do that. Why would Santa ask what your name is when he’s been to your house for years? You have to get who this guy really is.”
Wenz is a professional Santa Claus. It’s his sole source of income year-round. He’s learned enough in his 36 years of playing the part to separate the folly from the jolly.
These days Wenz spends much of his time working from his home in downstate Cissna Park as president of the Chicago Area Santas. The Santa-for-hire group works at many area malls and corporate parties. He and other professional Santas draw a clear line between quality Santas and guys just collecting a paycheck.
But there are some rifts among the pros about what constitutes quality. For instance, some say only Santas with real beards give an accurate portrayal.
“Dude, the beard is just like the belt and the boots,” Wenz said. “Santa doesn’t come from the outfit. There is only one Santa Claus. Who’s ever in the costume at the time is the real deal. Santa comes from the heart.”
Would-be Santas are quickly tested at malls, the North Pole’s minor leagues. Failure there means never making it to the big time of private parties, nursing homes, children’s hospitals and parades.
Chuck Geigner, a Lombard native, is an anomaly. His first Santa role is on the stage, starring in the Holiday Spectacular in downstate Bloomington. The part has the stress level of trading stocks on Wall Street. Flop and you break the hearts of hundreds of children.
The responsibility has taken its toll.
On Halloween, Geigner weighed 220 pounds. Now he’s down to 211, the opposite direction for someone portraying the king of cookies and milk.
The responsibility hit him the first time he put on the suit. It was a publicity photo shoot for the Holiday Spectacular. After four days of taking Santa classes, Geigner put the costume on and stepped outside.
“All of a sudden there were horns honking and kids screaming, ‘There’s Santa!’ ” Geigner said. “When you put the suit on, you’re Santa Claus. What does that mean? Well, it means a lot. I mean, tell me something bad about Santa. He’s all that’s good. Santa is the last best hope.”
That means staying in character from the minute he shows up for rehearsal. After all, there are children co-starring with him in the Holiday Spectacular who really believe he is Santa.
“You have to go the whole nine yards,” Geigner said. “You can’t sneak into the corner and have a cigarette. You can’t argue with your wife. It’s an emotional high, but I come home completely wiped out.”
The ability to make people smile just with your presence is hard to walk away from. St. Charles’ most famous Santa, John Forni, has played Santa for 59 years straight.
The community has come to love him so much that it wouldn’t let him retire a few years ago when his Santa suit was worn out. The community got together, bought him a new one and begged him to keep going.
Forni said next year will be his last year. He’ll hang up his stocking for the last time at the age of 80.
Along with all the love and emotional highs come some tense moments. Just about every Santa has tales of woe when it comes to the things people want for Christmas.
Children trust Santa. So it’s not unheard of for a little boy to ask Santa to make daddy stop hitting him, or talk mommy and daddy out of a divorce.
One year, Wenz put on his Santa suit and persona for an appearance at Children’s Memorial Hospital. For the terminally ill, Santa’s smile is one of their few joys. Maintaining a smile in the face of death is not something for the unprepared.
During his visit, a little girl, weak and dying of cancer, crawled up into Wenz’s lap.
“Her only wish was that she didn’t want to go into ‘the box,’ ” Wenz said. “It dawned on me that she was talking about a casket. So I asked her what her idea of heaven was like. She told me, and I just said, ‘Yes, sweetheart. That’s exactly right.’ ”
Sometimes even the lighthearted requests are difficult.
Martin Chasen has photographed Santas at malls and parties for more than 20 years for SMC Photo Promotions in Deerfield. Every year, he puts on the suit at least once to stay in touch with what Santas deal with.
One year, that meant becoming Santa at a home for mentally disabled adults.
“This one woman sat on my lap, and we talked a little bit,” Chasen said. “I eventually asked her, ‘What would you like Santa to bring you this year?’
“She said, ‘I want Santa to bring me a new man because Suzy stole my boyfriend.’
“Well, that’s beyond the power of Santa.”
So Chasen had to play the role of Dear Abby. He talked to her about the things she liked about her ex-boyfriend. Then he likened those to qualities in some of the other men at the home. The possibility of a new and better romance clicked.
“All of a sudden you could see it enlighten her,” Chasen said.
Santas who can turn a bad situation like that around are a rarity. As such, they are in high demand and make good money.
Private gigs are where the cash is. Santas working a corporate party can get paid more than $50 an hour.
That’s made for a pretty decent living for Wenz, who is in costume about 200 days a year.
His in-depth portrayal has put him in high-enough demand that he needs no other job. He lives off his Santa salary, using whatever he can to improve his suit and portrayal.
Wenz’s Santa outfits are custom-made, costing $2,500 each. He uses real boots, a pricey yak hair beard and eyebrows and a $600 belt made with real gold and silver inlay over titanium.
But the glitz of the suit is not nearly as important as the quality of impromptu acting and the visit with the individual person, he said.
“Anybody can dress up like a clown, but not anybody can be Bozo,” Wenz said. “You have to understand what makes this guy tick. You can only play Santa if you have the love in your heart.”