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North Pole relocates to Knott’s for a day

November 24th, 2009, 2:10 pm · 5 Comments · posted by Michael Mello, The Orange County Register

On a cloudless Tuesday morning when it was 75 degrees, a large group of men wearing dark boots, felt hats, and fur coats made their way past Knott’s Berry Farm visitors caked in sunblock and wearing shorts.

Santa Claus had come to town. Fifteen of him.

Several jolly elves from around Southern California gathered at Knott’s new Pink’srestaurant to kick off a quick refresher training course before heading off to the area’s stores, malls, and private parties. All of them are part of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas–known as FORBS for short.

The organization started 15 years ago when 10 Santas gathered in Hollywood to make a commercial for a German company. Now the Orange County-based fraternity serves as a resource group for thousands of Santas across the globe, promoting “quality” Santas with the goal of having each child walk away smiling.

The group even boasts of a Santa cruise for members (because Santa needs a holiday after the holidays). An international Santa Jamboree is planned in Anaheim for next year.

Santa Bob Callahan of Garden Grove first donned his red suit in the 1970s, for his kids’ camping group. He stopped doing it for a while,  but resumed when he had young grandchildren.

“I found out it could actually be a vocation,” he said. Callahan now makes regular appearances at the Bear Street side of South Coast Plaza.

His wide eyes highlight his enthusiasm.

“It’s definitely the kids,” Callahan said of his raison d’être. “It’s wonderful being the most important person in their lives for just a moment. You’re a fantasy - a dream come true - and they love you so much.”

The cozy room filled with gutteral ho-ho-hos and the crisp clink of sleigh bells, but it soon quieted. Despite the twinkling eyes and the permanent smiles, these men take playing Kris Kringle seriously, and this holiday season will present them some challenges.

“Official Hollywood” Santa Tim Connaghan, who has played Santa for 40 years on numerous television shows and commercials, cautioned his brethren that kids have noticed their parents’ worried whisperings. They should be provided with hope and encouragement.

Children “are hearing the ‘E’ word,” Coonnaghan said, “and unfortunately the ‘E’ word they are hearing is not Elmo. They are hearing the word ‘economy.’ They think Santa’s not coming this year because they did something wrong.”

Then there’s the spectre of H1N1 influenza, not to mention the whole host of other germs the average three-year-old plays host to. Santa Art Brown, who also serves as a Buena Park councilman, cautioned other Santas to use alcohol-based sanitizer often, and to change their white gloves frequently.

“I found some gloves for $1 (a pair) the other day,” Brown said. “I bought 20 of them.”

Of course, there are some dos and don’ts for every Santa. Do have a smile; don’t answer a cell phone. Do refer to yourself as Santa; don’t flirt, drink or smoke while in character.

Throughout the hour-long meeting, kids headed into the park suddenly weren’t interested in roller coasters or gobs of cotton candy–not when they’d spotted 15 Santas through the window of Pink’s. Many kids pressed their noses up against the glass. Other people stopped to take photos.

When the meeting ended, the Santas posed for a group shot. Many of them then wandered into the small crowd that had gathered, reassuring the children that Santa knew they’d been good this year.

Though he’s been an entertainer most of his life, Ric Erwinof Laguna Niguel has been a Santa only since 2002.

“Like many Santas here, I was volunteered by a family member,” he said, recalling when his wife and some colleagues gathered gift baskets for the needy. The group wanted someone to dress like Santa, “And my wife said, ‘What a coincidence. There’s a fat man at home who’s not doing anything on Saturday morning.”

But he’s come to enjoy his role.

“There’s power to the suit. It’s addicting,” he said. “When I catch a dad’s eyes and you know he’s believing it as much as the kid is…there’s nothing like it.”

Erwin serves as FORBS national secretary, filming events and adding to archives, seeing Santas from all walks of life.

“We’ve got Santas that are struggling to grow into leather boots from vinyl,” he said. ”You’ll find just about every profession in our fraternity: Doctors; lawyers; Indian chiefs.”

Some Santas earn money; many more, he added take what money they do earn and give it to charity.

Dos and don’ts while playing Santa

The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas provides these guidelines for being the best Jolly Ol’ St. Nick:

Always:

  • Have a smile
  • Refer to yourself as Santa
  • Use deodorant
  • Remember the reindeer’s names

Never:

  • Promise anything
  • Answer a cell phone
  • Correct or reprimand
  • Flirt, drink, or smoke

Dec09-BostonHerald