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Beyond the Red Suit

Natural Santas know when you've been naughty or nice



'Twas a warm and sunny fall afternoon
With nary a Christmas thought to be had
Except for inside of the Gooch family pad.
Seated on the couch, all in a row
Were Santa Dick, Santa Frank and another Santa I did not know.
And in the kitchen in the beautician's chair
Sat one more Santa perming his hair.
Down in the Gooches' basement
The stockings were hung here and there
Above the fax machine, the computer and the ergonomic chair.
"This is where it all happens," said Santa Bill to me.
"We get perms in our hair and beards to make them look nice,
But other than that, we all look like Santa -- naturally."

This was the scene at Naturally Santa Inc.'s headquarters in early November, where preparations for the approaching holiday season were in full swing. Though Thanksgiving hadn't even arrived, Naturally Santa Inc.'s headquarters -- Bill and Alma Gooch's Colorado Springs home -- was already abuzz with that frenzied anticipation that only Christmas can elicit.

Christmas was still weeks away. But within the week, the five guys waiting for perms, in addition to 41 other Naturally Santa Inc. Santas, would be scattered to cities all over the country to take their mall thrones.

Naturally Santa Inc. is a locally based Santa Claus company, which hires, trains and supplies Santas to various locations around the country. All of the Santas look just like the real deal. The company stipulates that at the very least, the beard must be real.

Behind every Santa

Founded six years ago by Alma ("but everybody calls me Mamma") and Bill Gooch, the Colorado Springs company boasts 60 natural-looking Santas (15 of them live in Colorado) proud to call themselves the most natural-looking and best-trained Santas in the industry. Come Christmas time, these Santas are in high demand, working throughout 27 different states.

Naturally Santa Inc. did not happen overnight. Its evolution really began 20 years ago in Oklahoma, where the Gooches were living at the time.

"Occasionally I played Santa," Bill Gooch recalled. "Then I ended up in this little town, where, well, there was a lot of poverty. And these little kids would come up and all they'd want was something to eat, or something for their mother. It was really hard. It was so bad, I said I would never do it again."

Soon afterward, the Gooches moved to Colorado Springs, where Bill worked for the now-defunct Sun newspaper. One year, when they were strapped for Christmas cash, Mamma again convinced Bill to resurrect Santa. After a year as a mall Santa, Gooch became The Broadmoor hotel's belly full of laughs for eight years.

"Funny thing is," said Gooch, "I had my own beard, but they still made me wear a false beard."

One day in the winter of 1991, Mamma Gooch thought she'd go to other malls and check out the competition.

The findings were ugly. There were Santas that smelled like cigarettes or alcohol. There were Santas with fake hair, fake beards and fake bellies. There were Santas that were 16 years old, literally, holding on their beards. "I just remember thinking, there has to be something better than this," said Mamma Gooch. "I thought, children deserve better than this.

Within the year, Naturally Santa Inc. was in service.

No womanizing

You need more than a white beard and white hair to be Naturally Santaqualified. "To most of our guys, this is a lifestyle," said Santa Frank, who also serves as operations manager for the company.

With his round belly, wire-rimmed glasses, red overalls, and perfect white beard and hair, Santa Frank is the embodiment of old Saint Nick, even with his black Birkenstock clogs and cell phone.

Frank insists his name is Santa. "Or, you can call me Father Christmas if you want," he mused.

Santa Frank, usually in persona most of the year just because of his looks, but especially during the season, likens his job to that of a celebrity.

"Really, it has the same pitfalls as any other type of celebrity," he said. "When you are in the public, you belong to the public. And that makes you aware of your surroundings and how you have to present yourself. Because you always have to present yourself as who you represent. You don't want to give a bad impression or a bad image."

Naturally Santa Inc.'s Santas must pass drug tests and background checks. In addition, there's no public drinking or smoking. Or womanizing.

"No matter where you go, you're recognized as Santa, and it doesn't matter what you are wearing," said Santa Frank. "You can have on a hat and cowboy boots, or whatever, but you are still Santa.

"So you have to live your life around that, and if you're not prepared to, then you are not prepared to be one of our Santas."

"Actually, I think with our Santas, it's a lot more detailed than with any of the other Santas," piped in Santa Dick from his recliner chair in the corner. Santa Dick, who also has no last name, looks completely different from Santa Frank, aside from the hair and beard. Yet, just as with Santa Frank, you'd swear that the sleigh was parked outside.

"I really think we put more into it than most of the others," he continued. "Like the persona. Especially during the season, whether we're walking around the mall on our break, or at a convenience store."

Santa Dick feels that many of the Santas are out there just for the picture.

"And of course, we're there for the picture too, but most just grab the child, put the child on the lap, take the picture and get to the next child. I don't know that they really pay attention to what the kids say, and some don't want to."

You hear it all'

Listening appears to be what the Santas of Naturally Santa Inc. do the best and enjoy the most. As the afternoon winds on, Santas trickle in and out of the Gooch household. In the living room, most wearing overalls, they talk about the upcoming season as well as those past.

"I could get to telling stories, about the kids, what they want and talk about, and talk for a week straight," said Santa Bill. "Because as Santa, you hear it all."

As all of these Santas agree, kids will tell Santa things they wouldn't normally tell others. That's why Naturally Santa Inc. has an extensive training program. In addition, they have organization-wide meetings three times a year.

In February, all of the Santas meet in Las Vegas. It serves as a vacation, a chance to rehash stories from the season, and meet prospective Natural Santas. Then there is a company-wide photo shoot in April, here in the Springs.

And in September, is the fall picnic to inaugurate the new season. It also involves three days of training seminars, though training is a year-round process for new Naturally Santas.

Training involves everything from reading and watching videotapes, to learning how to talk to children, how to hold children, where you can and cannot put your hands, methods of fielding questions, dealing with parents, and tips on getting good pictures.

"All of our Santas go through training for a year before going on site," said Mamma Gooch. "They learn how to handle certain questions, like 'Are you the real Santa?' or 'Do you believe in God?'"

Mamma says her Santas aren't allowed (public) political agendas either. "They are there for the children, and every child is different, whether by different backgrounds or different beliefs."

Part of that training focuses on the Naturally Santa Inc. dress code. Unlike most Santas, these Santas have adopted what they call the workshop look. Though they enter and exit the mall in the traditional red Santa suit, on the set -- and even on their breaks -- they dress down. The workshop look consists of the traditional red pants and black shoes, but with a flannel shirt, suspenders and no hat.

This look, they say, has proved successful. "We felt it just was not all that realistic, and sometimes scary to the kids," said Santa Frank of the traditional formal attire. "This is more of a grandfatherly approach."

Occasionally the Santas do get asked to put on the full garb, but it's usually at the request of the parents because that's what they are used to, said Santa Dick.

"The kids don't care. In fact, I'd say 85 percent of the time when I do that [put on the coat, hat and boots], the pictures turn out lousy because the kids freeze or get scared."

For the same reason, the Santas have also dropped the traditional deep-bellied, ho-ho-ho laugh from their routine, which can be too imposing to children -- unless that's what the child wants.

Instead, the Santas speak in hushed tones, accompanied by very slow and deliberate movements. They focus their attention on one child at a time, creating a very intimate Santa/child moment

According to Santa Dick, the ability to hone in on other things -- like what the kids are doing while standing in line to see Santa -- is also essential.

"You can gain a lot of information about what's going on with the next child, like a name or whether or not they've been fighting with one of their siblings. Then the child gets up on your lap and you can say, 'I hear you've been fighting with your sister.' That really surprises them."

Stories from the chair

One of the reasons Naturally Santa Inc. gathers three times a year, face to face, is to share these techniques. But most importantly, it's to swap stories.

"We learn from each other's experiences," explained Santa Frank. "There are a lot of similar situations that all of the guys encounter, and everybody has their own ways of handling them. We learn all sorts of different approaches to similar situations. It's incredibly helpful."

Some of those tales involve children asking for toys that their parents simply cannot afford. "You have to be creative when it comes to that," said Santa Bill. "I usually say things like, 'My elves have been working real hard, but I'm still coming up short on that. I'll try, but if I come up short, can I leave you something else?'"

The method usually works, he says, and the parents thank him afterward.

Others are more involved, like a child who has lost a parent and wants Santa to bring them back for Christmas -- or children who don't ask for toys, but for more food. "You just get all kinds of stuff," said Santa Bill. "Stuff you wouldn't even dream of."

Santa Bill remembers vividly one encounter with a little boy. "His father brought him up to me and said that he [the child] had been causing trouble, could I please talk to him. So I put the boy on my knee and asked him, 'Is that true? Have you been making trouble?'

"The boy wouldn't talk, so I told him, 'Now, I don't think that's true.' And the child said no, and started to cry, and said that his parents were fighting all of the time and that his daddy was always yelling.

"Now, you get to know little kids," Santa Bill continued, "and can usually tell when things are or aren't true. And I looked at the father, who looked away. I told the little boy to go back home and just be the best that he could be and to remember one thing -- that Santa loves him.

"Sometimes the last thing we tell a kid is to make sure they know that Santa loves them. Because you can't tell them that's it's going to be OK; because you don't know."

Last year, just months after Sept. 11, the Santas were bracing for a hard season, but were surprised.

"We did discuss the situation extensively during our September meeting," said Mama Gooch. "But we've only had a few incidents."

Santa Bill, who was in Queens last year, tells of one little girl who had lost both of her parents. "She had come in, reluctantly, with a group of firemen. And she told me that she didn't believe in anything any more; not God, not Jesus, not even Santa Claus."

Many Santas, however, were not in areas of the country directly impacted by the tragedies.

For Santa George, working in Mississippi, being with the kids was comforting -- for him. "They are so real, and down to earth. And you have to realize, the kids we deal with are very young; most are under 8 or 9. They don't have the awareness yet. And in no other place in the world is Santa such an icon. So they are absorbed in it."

The Santas say tragic stories are not the norm, but they do get them often enough, and that almost everybody has at least one.

"I guarantee you," said Santa Frank, "that we go through a box of Kleenex at every single one of the tables at our meetings. The stories range from the silliest to the most tragic."

"But one little girl, she was just a ray of light," Santa Bill said of a child who visited him last year. "All she wanted was to get ice cream with Santa so we went and got ice cream and on the way back we passed a store that had one of those dancing Santas in the display window.

"We stopped and got to watching the Santa and then started dancing like [the toy] was. People walking by started dancing with us. Anyway, after it was all over, her mother left a note with the mall, saying that was the first time her daughter actually laughed."

And the stories continue. Santa Bill tells of the gentleman that approached him just a few days before Christmas Eve. He said that his little nephew was dying and would give him (Santa) anything he wanted if he would come see the boy on Christmas.

"I told him I wasn't for hire, but to leave me his number and I'd see what I could do." So Santa Bill spoke with the mall, which ended up donating a $150 gift certificate. He chipped in $50, called the uncle to find out which toys the boy wanted, and went to the house on Christmas.

"When I got there, he was upstairs in his bedroom. So I go up there, open the door, call his name. His eyes just lit up. He jumped up out of bed, grabbed me around the neck and wouldn't let loose."

It stories like that, say all of the Santas, that are often difficult, but the most rewarding. Sometimes, they say, they'll catch the parents around them wiping their eyes.

"Even Santa cries," said Santa Bill. "After you get the really sick kids, or the ones who have really bad circumstances, you just have to stop for a minute, get up and walk around the chair or something, and get yourself back together."

The main goal

Conversation around the living room has now turned to toys -- what's hot, and what's not. Being up on toys, the Santas say, is vital.

"Sure, you can fake it," said Santa Frank. "And I can tell you a good story about one of our guys that wasn't up on the latest toys, but you can't print it."

Let's just say, that particular Santa did not know that Woody and Buzz were characters from the movie Toy Story. So when the child told Santa he wanted a Woody for Christmas ... well, you know.

To keep current, Santa Frank gets toy catalogs and spends lots of time perusing the aisles at Toys R Us. Santa Dick does the same, and also watches Saturday morning cartoons. "That's when they advertise all of the new toys," he said.

"We consider it a ministry," said Santa Frank. "Without being religious, of course. Our main goal is to bring happiness to kids. Year-round."

Ultimately, the Santas said, being Santa goes beyond getting paid. Naturally Santas will tell you that they'd do it for free. It's worth it -- the psychic income far outweighs the financial reward.

The financial reward, however, for working 40 days straight is no lump of coal. The average take-home pay ranges from $9,000 to $12,000, including paid airfare, meals and hotel expenses.

"OK, I just have one more story," Santa Bill said, wrapping things up.

"One morning, when I was in Minneapolis, this little kid came running out and stopped right in front of me. He reached up, pulled his pants down and stood there looking at me. The kid had on a brand new pair of undershorts with Santa's picture on them. He wanted to show me his new underwear.

"You see it all. If we'd been caught on video, I know we could have won a contest."

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