This is a tale of two Santa Clauses.
Real-beard Santa. Fake-beard Santa.
Pay attention. There is money at stake.
Real-beard Santa said the heck with the sleigh and reindeer and flew by jet on an all-expense paid trip to Shenzhen, China, a couple of years ago. He collected $2,500, free room, free hotel meals, all for sitting in the five-star hotel’s Santa throne for an hour each evening.
“That was a highlight,” said Ed Burgh, 68, of Fredericksburg, Virginia. “I’m hoping to do it again next year. I am already booking next year’s gigs. I have two so far.”
Fake-beard Santa bemoans his lack of whiskers.
“That’s why I don’t make the big money,” said Michael Levick, 62, of Washington, D.C., who has been playing the big jolly fellow since he was 16. “We are talking 50 percent more for real-beard Santas. You are not even going to be considered for a mall job without a real beard. It’s just the way they roll these days.”
Don’t shed any tears for Levick yet. He does well for sitting around, pillows padding his mid-section, offering thundering “Ho, Ho, Hos” to little ones.
He once pocketed nearly $1,000 for sitting (baking, really) a few hours next to a fireplace at a swanky Mount Vernon party.
“The host piles on logs just to cook you,” said Levick. “I was sweating bullets.”
Fake beard and all, appearances at parties, lunches and country clubs swept $6,000 into his pocket during the good years. And that was just for December.
“That’s all gone,” said Levick. He’ll be lucky if he takes down $1,500 or $2,000 this season. The first blow was Sept. 11, 2001, “the year we couldn’t be happy at Christmas. It changed everything.” The financial crisis took even more business away.
So Levick has to be nimble. Next week, the part-time actor and local tour guide is donning a glitter-covered, white jumpsuit, sunglasses and wig to play Elvis at a holiday office.
“Santa isn’t politically correct any more,” said Levick, who charges $200 for the first hour, then $100 for each hour after that. “Kids still love him. But the office party crowd doesn’t go there anymore.”
Don’t wave bye-bye to Santa just yet.
Brian Wilson of Orange County, California-based Santa For Hire, a temp agency for Kris Kringles (and for Burgh), has placed Santas in 425 jobs worldwide this season. His firm will pay more than $150,000 to his various Santas.
Wilson’s firm bills companies anywhere from $150 an hour on up for a Santa. Santa For Hire, whose tag line is “Providing Real Bearded Santas since 1999,” pays the Santa roughly 60 to 70 percent of that, or about $80 of a $150 gig. The rest goes to Santa For Hire to cover its costs.
“Clients pay us before the gig, then the Santas either call in their hours or go online,” he said. “We pay them twice monthly. It’s like having temporary employees.”
Wilson, who works in real estate during the off-season, said his Santas go anywhere, including Spain, Dubai and Singapore.
They even supply a Santa to North Pole, Alaska, a summer tourist attraction near Fairbanks. The North Pole Santa – of course he’s from the North Pole – earns between $13,000 to $15,000, travel and expenses covered, for Santa’s summer hibernation season. The Thanksgiving to New Year’s North Pole Santa gets between $7,000 and $8,000.
Wilson takes Santa work seriously. He does phone interviews and requests photos for each prospective candidate. He also orders up a national background check to see whether there is a criminal record.
Wilson breaks Santa work into two categories, too.
First is the “Mall Santa,” the iron bottoms who sit and sit and sit for hours, posing for photos. Mall Santas tend to like the security of knowing they have a solid month of work, Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve.
Then there are the “corporate party” Santas, generally actors and performers who ham it up with songs, hearty “Ho, Ho, Hos,” and think on their, um, fete.
Corporate Santas need to be nimble, with the Santa suit packed and ready to go, whether it’s a two-hour car ride to a country club or an 18-hour sleigh ride to China.
Fake-bearded Levick sticks to parties.
“I usually start off a party by singing ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ That way, you are in control and that’s very important. You can’t let the parents and kids push you and take over. There has to be an order.”
Wilson said Santa needs to get there early and stay in character.
“The Santa needs to remember he is the focus and all eyes are on him,” Wilson said. “It’s really about attitude.”
As for handling the toy requests, Burgh follows his own rule.
“I never promise anything,” Burgh said, even when some parents nod their heads like crazy and signal that the kid is getting his wish.
He hugs kids, but no kisses allowed.
Though Burgh has the requisite real-beard for Mall Santa, he avoids them.
“It’s mega-hours. When I had the mall, I started the day after Thanksgiving and went through Dec. 24th. It was 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.”
Burgh will pull down $3,000 and $4,000 this season, which he will use to help pay some bills.
Both Santas own their own outfits. Levick bought his 20 years ago from Rubies Costumes out of New York City for around $280.
Burgh, who spent $200 to attend Santa School in New Jersey, has two suits that he bought online for about $250 each. Boots for $60 and a belt for $120.
Levick loves it. His first Santa gig came when the head of the kindergarten school at his southeastern Pennsylvania church asked Levick, then 16, to play the jolly big guy.
“I’ve always been a ham,” said the occasional thespian.
He may have been a ham, but he isn’t shaped like one. His thin profile back then was very un-Santa. So he put on the suit and a tobacco-reeked fake beard, stuffed some pillows over his belly and faked his way through a Santa session.
His first real job was in Washington in 1978, when he replaced Willard Scott for an Embassy Row fundraiser.
“It was the most beautiful suit I ever saw,” he said. “Beautiful, natural rabbit fur. The beard did not smell like cigarettes.”
He would eventually catch on with a Cleveland Park firm that booked costume jobs for actors and showpeople.
“I became the firm’s head Santa. It’s go-to Santa. I did the voice, ‘Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!’ I really act it up.”
Both real-beard and fake-beard Santa said the kids are the most enjoyable part of their job. Really.
“The kids are great,” said Burgh, who decided to be a Santa after retiring from the Coast Guard. “They come sit on your lap. Some cry. Here is this really old guy with a big red suit, bright beard. He scares them. But you deal with it.”
Most kids like toys, but their first questions tend to be, “Where are the reindeer?” and “How did you get here?”
Those are easy:
The North Pole.