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Shopping for Santas

November 21, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

TRI-STATE - When Julie Rohm sees children climb onto Santa's lap to share their Christmas wish list this holiday season, she wants them to tug on Santa's beard.

Rohm, Valley Mall's marketing director, wanted to create an aura of realism around the mall's Santa so, starting last year, Santa has a natural beard.

The mall even ran a campaign last year asking children to come tug on Santa's beard. If they tug on the beard, it hurts, she said.

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"He wasn't too excited when he saw it, but it really did work," Rohm said. "(We) had a lot of 'wows.'"

A real beard is just one of the requirements for being the mall's Santa, Rohm said.

A jolly face with rosy cheeks and someone who interacts well with children also are required, Rohm said.

To find such a Santa, the mall hired Digital Memorys of Atlanta, a firm suggested by the mall's parent company, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust. Digital Memorys also found Santas for Martinsburg (W.Va.) Mall and Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick, Md.

Digital Memorys considers many factors when hiring a Santa, but the main thing is to ensure adults and children have a positive experience with the character, said Jim O'Connor, owner of Digital Memorys.

O'Connor said he doesn't really advertise for Santas.

Sometimes, they see people on the street or in the malls who resemble the physical characteristics or interact well with children, he said.

In the case of Valley Mall's Santa this year, Tammie Voytko, Digital Memorys' area representative, said she approached a longtime friend of hers about portraying Santa because she knew he was nice and was good with children.

Vernon G. Davis, 65, of Halfway, said he was interested and, starting March 1, began to grow back his white beard.

At the end of summer O'Connor talked to Davis for about 45 minutes while he was having dinner at a local restaurant.

"What had he done around children? Did he have children? Grandchildren? What does his wife think about him being the character?"

This year's Santa is a father and grandfather, O'Connor said.

The job isn't done there.

Digital Memorys conducts a criminal background check to make sure there's no history of violence or abuse, O'Connor said.

Then, there are the rules and tips.

One of the biggest rules is not to promise children anything when they ask for stuff, such as a horse, for Christmas, O'Connor said.

An added security measure is to make sure Santa is wearing white gloves and that his hands are visible at all times, O'Connor said.

While many people envision Santa with a robust "ho, ho, ho," O'Connor said overt gestures such as standing and saying "ho, ho, ho" can scare children.

O'Connor prefers a Santa with a gentle gesture, such as extending a hand to a shy child.

In his first job as Santa, Davis appeared to have no trouble Saturday morning when he arrived at Valley Mall and was greeted by hundreds of children and parents.

He posed with children for pictures, taken by Digital Memorys, and walked around talking and waving to children, occasionally reaching out with a red sleeve and white glove to hold a child's hand.

Prime Outlets at Hagerstown uses The Children's Party Wagon in Smithsburg to supply a Santa and an elf for holiday events such as Breakfast with Santa on Dec. 4, said Rachia Green, Prime Outlets' marketing manager.

Donna Barnes, who co-owns the Party Wagon with her husband, Mike, said they advertised earlier this year for Santas.

"We have four Santas, and holiday elves, Jingles and Jangles," she said.

Barnes said they look for people who have worked with groups of people, especially children, and have done costume character work.

While they don't run a criminal background check, they do check references, she said.

The Santa personality, with a jolly attitude and a good "ho, ho, ho," is more important than having the exact physical attributes, Barnes said.

Several organizations bring back the same Santa year after year so they don't need to shop for a new one.

Probably the most well-known local Santa is Bud Kline, who still appears at Long Meadow Shopping Center, said Debra Hunt, the center's marketing director.

"To me, he's the spirit of Christmas," Hunt said. "He looks like Santa. He acts like Santa. I'm an adult and when I look at him, he's just Santa.

"It's like he lives what he believes. He believes in Christmas. He believes in kids. That's why, to me, he would always be my Santa."

The Greencastle-Antrim Heritage Christmas in Greencastle, Pa., has used the same "gentleman volunteer" for a number of years because he really likes children and has his own suit, said Barbara Bock. Bock is a member of the Greencastle Exchange Club, which is in charge of finding a Santa for the event.

John T. "Jack" Geary has been the Santa for Christmas in Shepherdstown, W.Va., for about seven years, he said. An organizer called him to offer the job and he was invited back.

Geary, 82, who lives outside Shepherdstown, said he tells the children he is Santa's helper.

"The real Santa Claus is at the North Pole," he said.

That's why Rich Gaver said he wrote a letter to the North Pole, inquiring about Santa coming to Olde Tyme Christmas in Funkstown.

"When it comes to hiring Santa, it's all on who you know," said Gaver, co-chair for the event.

Gaver said organizers guard Santa's identity as a "treasured secret" because he gets booked quickly.

"He's got the real white beard, the real belly," Gaver said. "It doesn't get any closer to what we got. There's a chance he could be the real Santa."

When asked if his Santa was Bud Kline, Gaver fessed up.

"He could be the real deal. He could just not be telling ya."

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