Santa silent on his trade secrets

Franklin Park’s real-beard elf adheres to professional code of not talking to reporter

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    Santa Claus poses for a picture with Aubree Konwinski, 4 months, of Toledo at Westfield Franklin Park Mall.

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  • Santa Claus waves to people passing by in Westfield Franklin Park Mall.
    Santa Claus waves to people passing by in Westfield Franklin Park Mall.

    Santa Claus can pilot a sleigh pulled by reindeer, circle the world in one night, and shimmy down a chimney with a bag full of gifts.

    There’s just one thing Westfield Franklin Park mall’s Kris Kringle can’t do: Talk to a reporter. It’s a strictly enforced policy that makes for a very Silent Night indeed.

    The Santa who greets children from a festive set near Macy’s said he’d give an interview — with clearance from Cherry Hill Photo Enterprises Inc., the company that brings Santa to the mall. A local manager referred the request to the New Jersey corporate office. The response: A no-go on the ho-ho-ho. Santa, apparently, is to be seen but not quoted.

    “Because none of our people are trained in public relations,” said Cherry Hill’s Bonnie Fluck, explaining why Santa couldn’t be interviewed.

    Several other folks close to Santa — or his many look-alikes who appear at malls, parades, and parties throughout the Christmas season — said it’s common for Mr. Claus and his associates to be careful with the press. Tim Connaghan, a professional Santa from Riverside, Calif., trains Santas through his International University of Santa Claus. He advises Santas to be nice to journalists but to tell reporters to talk with management before going on the record.

    Other red-suit regulars adopt a similar ask-first policy.

    “It protects me too, because if I am working for someone I don’t know necessarily what their positions are, what their viewpoints are,” said Tom Pellitieri, owner of Toledo Santa LLC.

    Santa, of course, has more on his mind than media matters.

    Franklin Park’s Santa, whose non-North Pole name no one would reveal, greets children daily from his oversized green wing-backed chair and called a recent 1 p.m. break a chance to feed the reindeer.

    Santa Claus poses for a picture with Aubree Konwinski, 4 months, of Toledo at Westfield Franklin Park Mall.
    Santa Claus poses for a picture with Aubree Konwinski, 4 months, of Toledo at Westfield Franklin Park Mall.

    When a reporter tugged Santa’s white beard his skin stretched too. His twinkly eyes crinkled at the corners. He aced other tests as well. Disposition? Downright jolly. Suit? A cheery red. Figure? Appropriately plump.

    He exhibits uncanny knowledge of those he meets. Sara Hegarty, co-host of the Morning Rush radio show on 92.5 KISS FM, said when she met Santa he responded with a quip she often uses: “Sara ... without the ‘H’ until you get to the last name,” he told her.

    The local radio personality, who was host for a special event for Santa’s mall arrival in November, frequently uses a similar line to explain her commonly misspelled name. But she doesn’t recall saying it on the radio recently.

    “It stopped me in my tracks,” she said. “He’s really Santa. That’s the story I’m going with; I’m completely a believer.”

    This year is this Santa’s first time at Franklin Park; he spent last season in another northern climate — Portland, Maine. So far, Toledo’s reaction has been enthusiastic.

    “It’s magical for me to stand down there and watch children interact with this Santa Claus,” said mall spokesman Julie Heigel. “He’s authentic; he’s genuine.”

    Westfield has a corporate partnership with Cherry Hill to provide a Santa to more than 40 mall properties in the United States. The photo company has arranged for Santa to come to the Toledo mall before, but Ms. Heigel wasn’t sure for how many years.

    Malls often contract with a photo provider to bring the bearded fellow to shopping centers. Cherry Hill places Santas in roughly 300 sites, as does Toledo-based IPI. IPI President Steve Hardin said the company is “in the smile business,” but it also offers a photo to commemorate the special Santa visit, including those who stop at Maumee’s Shops at Fallen Timbers. Levis Commons in Perrysburg takes a different approach. The shopping center hires a Santa on its own and encourages people to bring a camera to snap a photo, said spokesman Casey Pogan.

    The Noerr Programs Corp. of Colorado dispatches Santas to about 230 venues, including Lima Mall in Lima, Ohio, and runs a training program called Santa University.

    “To be a true, a genuine Santa that really shares the heart and appearance of Santa — it’s a calling,” said Noerr spokesman Ruth Rosenquist. “It’s not just something that you decide randomly one day.”

    Mr. Hardin said Fallen Timbers’ Santa will do interviews, but nobody wants to share sensitive details. Ask Mr. Hardin how much money a mall Santa makes, and he’ll tell you Santa gets paid in “cookies and milk.”

    Other friends of Santa, however, said reimbursement varies. Mr. Connaghan, the California Santa whose company, the Kringle Group, offers a variety of Santa services from booking to training, said an experienced Santa in a good mall will make $8,000 to $10,000 a season. Wages go up or down depending on years of experience, the mall’s location, the Santa’s “magnetic personality,” and special skills — such as a Santa who speaks both English and Spanish.

    Mitch Allen, a Texas Santa and an owner of a Web-based company that helps people find and hire Santas, estimated that a good Santa in a high-traffic mall might make $800 to $1,000 weekly. Hourly event rates cover a huge range — from $20 to $300 an hour — depending on the Santa and the city.

    “One of the things that people don’t know is that it’s hard work. You are on; you’re in the spotlight; you’re handling children, taking pictures — sometimes 12 or 14 hours a day,” he said.

    There are also the Santas who really do work for just cookies and milk, or the chance to spread good will. Stephen Patterson, membership chairman of the Society of Santa, estimated that were about 10,000 professional Santas in the United States each holiday season, but many more volunteering for church events and private parties.

    “They are not what I would call professional Santas,” Mr. Patterson said, “but there’s a lot of them out there wearing the suit.”

    And, some of those children might pose some prickly questions. Mr. Connaghan teaches how to handle a child’s Christmas wish to reconcile divorced parents. His tactic: Sympathize, reassure the child how much both parents love him, and remind the youngster “Santa loves you too.” That’s a lot to pack into a one-minute-or-less interaction, during which Santa must cover all the basics, such as hoped-for gifts and the classic good-or-bad behavior query.

    “You still have to give that same sincere answer to the child and make them feel good when they walk away,” said Mr. Connaghan, whose Santa work can be seen in TV shows, commercials, and the Hollywood Christmas Parade.

    Franklin Park’s Santa continues to draw children and admirers. Tera Rolf of Cleveland and her children, Henry, age 16 months, and Lily, 3, stopped by the decked-out Christmas display on a recent weekday, narrowly missing Santa when he took a reindeer-feeding break. A Santa photo is a holiday tradition, she said, adding that her sister-in-law maintains that every family needs a photo of their child crying on Santa’s lap.

    Lily, sans Santa, shyly recited her wish-list: Dream Lites, which is a plush animal that projects starry lights, and Stompeez, a special pair of slippers.

    Santa will remain at Franklin Park through Christmas Eve, after which his true work begins.

    Contact Vanessa McCray at: or 419-724-6065.