Entertainment & Life

Red-suit confidential: The magic of being Santa

Ann Leake suits up in her Seattle home before an appearance as Santa at a VFW Post. Leake wears padding for a more manly physique but no longer worries whether kids figure out she's a woman. Below, she glues on large eyebrows.
Ann Leake suits up in her Seattle home before an appearance as Santa at a VFW Post. Leake wears padding for a more manly physique but no longer worries whether kids figure out she's a woman. Below, she glues on large eyebrows. TNS

Some kids – shy or scared – don’t know what to make of a big, jolly guy in a fuzzy red suit, let alone ask him for anything.

Others whip out newspaper ads to show Santa exactly what they want and where he can find it. Some even circle the price, says Dan Kemmis, a.k.a. The Seattle Santa.

“I try to avoid promises, because I don’t want to put the parents on the spot,” said Kemmis. “I'll usually say, ‘I'll talk with the elves about it.’”

Being able to enjoy both shy and assertive youngsters, and all in between, he said, is a prerequisite for donning an outfit that symbolizes generosity and goodwill.

Ann Leake agrees wholeheartedly. Eighty-five years old and female – wearing the Santa suit her father wore in the 1960s – Leake is definitely not your typical St. Nick.

“It’s the only time of the year I cross-dress,” Leake smiled, “and I can still do a pretty good ‘Ho ho ho.’”

She demonstrated that recently, entertaining several dozen children of National Guard families at a Christmas dinner held by a VFW Post in Seattle.

“It’s a joy to be with the kids,” she said. “They’re in a world of wonder and awe, of learning and discovery. It’s a magical time.”

Magic, wonder and awe. Talk to those who spend parts of the holiday season in Santa garb and you'll hear the experience described as a role, a gig, an honor, a responsibility – even a calling.

“You must remember at all times that this is not about you,” said Santa Bob Partlow of Olympia, Wash., a longtime newspaper and radio reporter. “It’s about the man in the red suit with a history back to the era of 300 AD.”

Partlow, 67, said it’s common for kids to have some reluctance around Santa – what he calls “Claus-tro-phobia.” But the visits by wriggling or even teary kids sometimes produce treasured photographs.

Santa, as everyone knows, likes being around kids and elves. But it turns out he also enjoys hanging out with other Santas.

Recently a three-day Santa workshop at an area resort drew 27 Santas, 10 Mrs. Clauses, four elves and a Grinch. In addition to sharing tips of the trade, the activities included Christmas karaoke, an ornament exchange and a dip in an indoor pool in old-fashioned striped swimwear.

The event was held by Norpac Santas, a 6-year-old Northwest group that offers training, support and camaraderie to those who put on the classic red and white.

“We require all of our Santas to have background checks … and we encourage them to have liability insurance,” said Norpac co-founder Santa Dennis Simpson, 66.

Simpson, a semi-retired high school teacher in his 36th year as a Santa, said he hopes event planners have a measure of confidence that a Norpac Santa will be reliable and well-behaved.

The group’s website lists information on 26 Santas in the Puget Sound area, including the kinds of events they usually work.

Kemmis and Partlow are Norpac members. So is Santa Randy Cook, whose appearances last year included a birthday party for a 60-year-old man who wanted a photo with Santa to take to his seriously ill mother.

“So I guess there’s no age at which you need to stop believing,” said Cook, 59.

Almost all Santas do some free appearances, particularly for causes, clubs, schools or churches they are close to.

A paid Santa gig, depending on the magnitude of the event, can bring in up to a few hundred dollars.

“I use a sliding scale, based on their ability to pay,” said Kemmis, 51, who has been doing this eight years. His girlfriend, Elise Child, often joins him as Mrs. Claus.

Santas typically provide their own suits, although a store or a mall might provide a Santa suit for a consistent look. Santas pay for insurance, travel expenses and often for the treats and gifts they hand out.

Santas working in malls and stores are typically paid by the hour, often by the photographer running the Santa display, rather than by the store.

Kemmis’s appearances run the gamut. Among recent engagements: Some mall work. Hotel and theater lobbies. A scout troop, a motorcycle show, a Greenwood preschool, some private parties and an event for kids at a local gym.

“It gets pretty crazy as you get close to Christmas,” Kemmis said.

His greatest joy, he said, comes on his Christmas Eve walk from a local park to a market area in the city, giving gifts to those who appear in need.

The first year, he gave out only about a dozen, but a friend, Allena Gabosch, suggested he make it a more formal event, and joined in on the walk.

Last year they gave out more than 300 plastic bags with gloves, socks, hand-warmers, a snack, toiletries and $5 bills.

The charity walk, Kemmis said, is financed through his paid gigs, and this year for the first time, a Christmas variety show called “Santa’s Really Funny & Super Good Christmas Variety Show” at a local theater.

Kemmis has worked as an actor, writer and at various other jobs, including being “The Seattle Garden Gnome” at fairs and garden parties in the warmer season. At 6-foot-3 and 297 pounds, he makes a striking Santa.

In a closet of an upstairs bedroom at Ann Leake’s Queen Anne home hangs her late father’s Santa suit, with its real rabbit-fur collar.

“The suit is magical,” she said. “When I put it on I become Santa Claus.”

Many decades have passed since she first donned the suit to entertain her son’s Scout troop. She wore extra padding to conceal her contours and lowered her voice for the requisite laugh and a hearty “Merry Christmas.”

Although she does just a few appearances these days, she’s still convincing.

Just ask 7-year-old Liam Urbina, thrilled to get a pair of plastic binoculars from Santa recently. “I wasn’t nervous, because he’s nice,” Liam said after leaving the stage.

Leake doesn’t charge for her Santa work, which includes annual appearances at a local VFW Post, where her husband, Herbert, 94, is a lifetime member. He served in the Pacific in World War II and later joined the National Guard, retiring at the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The Sunday holiday dinner was put on by the VFW Post for families of the Seattle-based Headquarters Company of the National Guard’s 81st Brigade Combat Team. More than 150 attended.

Santa Ann pulled up as the midday meal was ending, and was the focus of attention for more than hour, despite the fact that on a TV in the corner, the Seahawks were beating Philadelphia.

At just over 5 feet tall, Leake is smaller than most Santas, which puts her closer to the eye level of children venturing forth.

Leake said it’s an honor to carry forward the tradition of her Czechoslovakia-born father, Paul Lalka.

His 1967 obituary said Lalka, a resident of Hermiston, Ore., had appeared as Santa or his European equivalent for 65 years.

Ann Leake enjoys keeping his spirit alive and no longer worries whether youngsters can discern her gender.

“I don’t think they’d care anyway,” she said. “To them it’s just Santa.”

For many Seattle-area families, visiting Santa means a trip to the downtown Nordstrom store, a generations-long tradition dating back to when it was the flagship Frederick & Nelson store.

In addition to its traditional-looking Santas, Nordstrom has an African American Santa, an Asian Santa and a Santa who does sign language. Nordstrom didn’t want its Santas interviewed for this story, a spokesman saying attention to the people inside Santa suits might detract from the magic of Santa.

Kemmis also takes the magic of Santa seriously. It’s something many adults hold onto, he said, regardless of whether they still believe Santa comes down their chimney.

When Kemmis is seeing children, “I want to meet them where they’re at. If they’re super inquisitive, I’m super inquisitive. If they’re a little shy, I’m a little shy.

“And I always try to leave them with the idea that they could be good all day,” he said. “I figure that’s my Santa duty.”