By Steve Sears
For Bob Smith, it may have started in 2009, but you can tell during discussion with him that he’s had the Santa Claus goodness within him all along.
Just ask Emily.
Although in his words he was terrified when he first dressed up as the Big Red Santa and the event was a success, it was best defined by little Emily, who the next day visited the event organizer and thanked them for bringing a real Santa Claus. “And it was because I was nice and I had a real beard,” Smith says. It mattered not to Emily that the red Santa suit Smith wore was older, that his beard was short, or whether it was sprinkled with baby powder. What mattered was Smith’s kindness to her, which Emily returned the following year, she showing up with a gift for the Big Red Santa.
“I think 90% of Santas find their way into the role by someone asking them to fill in for somebody that can’t make it,” Smith says. “I think 100% of the people who get that question are kind of reluctant to do that because they’ve never done it before.”
Smith wasn’t reluctant when first asked thirteen years ago. He filled the role, but was concerned his voice wouldn’t be correct or he’d say something wrong. The request came from a group called Rainbows for All Children, a nationwide group which meets with and supports children who had a parent pass away during the year and are grieving. Smith recalls the instructions he received at that time. ‘They said, ‘We’ve got all the toys, we’ve got the bag. Just show up, everything’s tagged, call up the kids, take the picture, and off you go.’” The group had available a Santa Claus suit from K-Mart, and Smith took care of the rest. “I had this very short George Clooney beard,” he says. “It really wasn’t quite right, and I peppered it with some baby powder, because I was not going to wear a previously used polyester beard. Then I threw on a white turtleneck to cover the lack of beard.”
After his first appearance, Smith returned the suit and thought nothing more about dressing up as Santa Claus – until the following September, when he was asked by Rainbows for All Children to do it again. This time, not only was the child called up, but Smith also asked the parent who had lost a spouse to head forward as well. Smith explains. “I would say, ‘What would you like for Christmas?’ and ‘How have you been?’ I realized it’s about the family.”
During his first eight years as Santa Claus, Smith would do just a gig or two per year. In addition to the Rainbows event, he would get calls to do Breakfast with Santa get-togethers. As he started to get more requests for appearances, he then began to buttress his Santa skills. “For the first eight years, I had no idea that there were Santa Claus organizations,” Smith says. “There are Santa Claus groups that will help you hone your skills in terms that if you’re going to see 200 kids in a day, one or two of them are going to be on the autism spectrum. How do you handle that? How do you deal with sensitivity in terms of questions? If somebody asks, ‘Can you bring grandma back?’ There’s that part of it, the part in the chair, which we call ‘Chair Time.’ And then there’s also the business side of it.”
For the record, Smith now dons a custom-made Santa Claus suit, and his appearances aren’t limited just to the Christmas season. During this past summer, he had three Christmas in July gigs. Also, it took about six or seven years to convince Mrs. Claus (Smith’s wife, Pam) to make appearances with him. “The Knights of Columbus, every time they saw her, they said, ‘You’re coming to the Breakfast with Santa, too?’ and she would say, ‘No, no, no.’ I just bought her the dress, and once she had the dress, she was okay with it, and said it was a lot of fun. And Mrs. Claus is an integral part of the Santa experience.”
For more information about the Big Red Santa, visit www.bigredsanta.com.