August 5, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

How COVID has changed the business of being Santa Claus

Elusiveness has always been part of the Santa Claus brand.

He comes and goes in the night, leaving little trace but Christmas presents and cookie crumbs. He lives at the North Pole, of all places. The only way to contact him is by snail mail.

Only during the holiday season does Santa become accessible, offering up his lap while he poses for pictures and listens to wish lists. In this pandemic-plagued year, he’s doing his best to maintain a presence at malls, family gatherings and Christmas tree lots, but like the rest of us, he has had to adjust.

Socially distant St. Nick comes in many forms, among them face-shield Santa, drive-by Santa, Plexiglas Santa and, inevitably, $750-an-hour Zoom Santa.

At the Westfield Century City mall, he’s tucked away inside an ornate Cinderella-esque carriage. At South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, he’s available for distanced visits by advance appointment. Over at the Grove, he’s riding atop the shopping center’s emerald-green trolley twice a night, waving to customers below.

Larry Buckelew, as Santa Claus, greets visitors at Westfield Century City.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

You can still take photos with Santa at Underwood Family Farms in Moorpark, but don’t try to climb onto his lap: A red-ribbon-festooned bench placed six feet in front of him is as close as you can get. Santa lurks in the background, flanked by two towering Christmas trees, and leans forward to greet kids as they peer furtively over the divide. “So what would you girls like for Christmas? I’ll see what I can do!” he half-hollers.

“I thought it was a toy at first. Then I saw him moving and I was like, ‘Oh, he’s real,’” said Marcos Rodriguez, 26, who took his kids, 5-year-old Alyssa and 3-year-old Gabriel, to the farm on Saturday to see Santa because “there’s nothing else to do.”

(The precautions serve a purpose. At a Christmas parade in Georgia this month, dozens of children were exposed to the coronavirus after posing for pictures with a costumed Santa who afterward tested positive.)

Kids always want to visit Santa, and this holiday season parents need something — anything — to entertain them after nine months of back-and-forth playground, park, theater and school closures. For businesses, having Santa on the premises, even if he’s not doling out hugs and candy canes, is a surefire way to draw customers — especially important when many have been reluctant to leave their homes and spend money.

Three kids in coordinated Christmas outfits and masks sit on a bench and wave to Santa.

Griffin Hodge, 5, at left, his sister Delaney, 7, and brother Wyatt, 10, visit Santa at the Janss Marketplace in Thousand Oaks.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Cherry Hill Programs provides more than 1,000 Santas for 700 malls and other retail locations in the U.S. and Canada, with hiring and training beginning each January. The Marlton, N.J., company has been encouraging guests to make advance reservations for its contactless Santa experience at locations in the U.S. and Canada and is requiring everyone age 2 and older to wear a face mask. Santa and staff are required to undergo daily health screenings and temperature checks.

Some Santas have deemed any in-person appearances too risky, even though forgoing them can be a considerable sacrifice.

“When you’re a Los Angeles Hollywood Santa Claus, it can be very lucrative. So it is a loss of income,” said Greg Gill, 59, the longtime Santa at the Wilshire Rotary Christmas tree lot on Larchmont Boulevard. The automobile broker from Altadena decided not to don the red suit amid the pandemic this year.

“In September I thought to myself, ‘This is not going to happen,’” he said. Dressing up as usual “wasn’t going to be consistent with Santa’s values. It’s really not open for interpretation.”

Although the Larchmont gig was done on a volunteer basis, Gill began receiving inquiries from people wanting to book him for private parties as he became more established. Last year, he earned about $500 per 90-minute appearance. Plus incidentals: “If it’s a long event, you have to feed Santa and have parking.”

“I have been in a 16-year cycle: Don’t shave, grow your beard, make sure the outfit’s put together,” he said. “How do I feel this year? I’m like a superhero whose powers are not here anymore.”

Other Santas have opted to go the virtual route.

Families are using technology in so many ways, and it just made sense to FaceTime or find some other way to talk to Santa.

Ed Taylor, who is offering virtual Santa visits over Zoom and FaceTime

Around six or seven years ago, Ed Taylor, one of L.A.’s most famous Santas, began supplementing his in-person Santa work with phone calls and video chats. This year, he added Zoom to the mix and said he had received hundreds of bookings from families around the country and from Japan, Australia, England, Ireland and Poland.

“That whole concept of visiting with Santa virtually has been growing for quite a while. It’s just timely. Families are using technology in so many ways, and it just made sense to FaceTime or find some other way to talk to Santa,” said Taylor, who lives in Oregon but used to fly to Los Angeles for several months each year to fulfill his Santa duties. “And then of course this year — it’s a tipping point.”

Zoom Santa is not cheap.

Taylor — who has dressed up as Santa since 2003 and has starred in Chrysler and Kohl’s commercials, appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and made a cameo in a Gwen Stefani music video — set up a website to tout his virtual-Santa-for-hire services. Prices range from $100 for a 12-minute off-peak call to $750 for a 55-minute Christmas Eve or Christmas Day call.

Ed Taylor, dressed as Santa,  smiles as he does a virtual St. Nick visit on his computer.

Ed Taylor has found a lucrative business as a virtual Santa on Zoom and FaceTime.

(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

“Santa will Zoom, Skype, FaceTime or use most any other service to have an amazing ‘Virtual Visit’ with a person of your choice,” Taylor’s website says. “Santa right there, in person, from the NORTH POLE … what could be better than that? You select your day and time and prepay for the chat.”

“I’m at 398 booked visits already,” he said in early December. “It’s really kind of exploded.”

Taylor noted the upsides of virtual Santa, saying he’s better prepared because parents can give him specifics on their kids in advance; families also get a video recording of the encounter. “In many ways,” he said, “it’s a better Santa visit.”

As of Tuesday, all of his appointments were filled except for the ones on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Taylor, 66, won’t say how much he makes annually from being Santa: “I’d take too much heat.”

“My rates are considerably higher,” he said. “I do OK; I’m very happy with the income. I’m a SAG-AFTRA member now.”

But for some parents, fatigued after a year of being largely homebound with their children, screen Santa just won’t do.

“I wanted a real Santa, not a virtual one,” said Maritza Rodriguez, 45, who drove more than an hour from Huntington Park with her two daughters so they could take photos with Santa at Underwood Family Farms on Saturday. “Everything’s been Zoom for them.”