By Tyler Polk, Point Park News Service:
As the holidays have ended and the Christmas Village in Market Square is torn down, John Suhr hangs up his Santa suit and returns to his work as a locksmith for the city of Pittsburgh.
Suhr, 60, of Carrick, has the keys to more than 300 city buildings, and he can pick the locks of other doors and desk drawers. He said it’s a skill the real Santa Claus could use.
“If you don’t have a chimney, I could still get in your home,” Suhr said with a hearty chuckle.
Being an authentic-looking, real-bearded Santa requires a year-round effort, experts on old St. Nick say. Even in the off-season, Suhr maintains his long white beard because the best Santa Clauses maintain the look, appearance and mannerisms long after the holidays, said Howard Graham, 63, a real-bearded Santa from North Haven, Conn., who works at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Graham serves as a board member on the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (IBRBS). He is an ex-officio director for the New York chapter.
Yes, the Santa Clauses have a union.
“Being Santa Claus is being an actor,” Graham said. “You really have to be on key all day long. I know that there’s a lot of Santas who wear red or green [clothes] during the off season.”
Graham’s career began when he was 14 years old at a Salvation Army location.
“I was a short, stocky kid. They asked if I could do it for the kids there and I said, ‘Yeah,’” Graham said. “I didn’t become Santa again until my son was born, then I started again with friends and family and it just kept on going.”
The payoff can be decent: A professional Santa can earn up to $20,000 in a holiday season, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many men behind the suit said they play the role because they love it – not to make money.
Dean Hodgson, 68, originally of Charleroi, and now living in Derby, Kansas, said he prefers his payment to go to charities fighting for causes like cures for leukemia or lymphoma.
“I used to ask for cookies as payment instead,” he said. “Many people can’t believe that I don’t ask for payment. I try to emulate the myth, and be as Santa-like as possible. I enjoy doing it. It’s just one smile from a little one and that’s all the pay I need. I enjoy that.”
Graham said he finds the charitable side of being Santa therapeutic.
“I’ve done work with St. Jude’s Hospital,” Graham said. “I also work with the Wounded Veteran’s Conference. It’s an organization that I love. There’s an annual concert I’ve been apart of for five years, and we raise money for improving their lives.”
Suhr agreed that charity work can be a big part of the job.
“I’ve worked with corporations like 4Kids for their Christmas parties and the Reindeer Ball with Mercy Hospital,” Suhr said. “Being Santa Claus is my passion. I love everything about it, I love suiting up, and I love the visits with children and live events.”
After helping out as a Santa for a family friend who owned a flower shop, Suhr was asked by a woman to play the character for her family’s holiday party.
“I never knew they could pay you for being Santa Claus,” he said. “I told her $50 or so, and she accepted. She was so grateful; she even gave me a tip. To this day, she still visits with her two boys who are now teenagers.”
In the beginning, Suhr didn’t have a real beard. Now, he has a real beard that he bleaches before every holiday season.
“I used to use stage makeup, but it made [the beard] look like latex paint,” Suhr said. “After bleaching, to maintain it, I apply oils and creams to make my beard smooth and a little wavy.”
The brotherhood does not discriminate on any basis of race, nationality or religion when it comes to the type of person that can be Santa Claus.
“We have Jewish Santas in our organization and black Santa Clauses,” Graham said. “You can Google Santa Claus and come up with 150 different pictures in one sitting, of people that change and look totally different from each other.”
Graham attends the World Santa Claus Convention in Copenhagen, Denmark, every year. He has met Santas from all over the world, from places such as Nigeria, China, Taiwan, Portugal, and Spain.
“In Europe and Holland and everything else, they don’t dress like we do here,” he said. “They’re not in their red suits and everything else. So it’s just based on international interpretation of the region that you belong to.”
For example, the Europeans have Sinter Claus, which is a form of St. Nicholas of Myra, in Turkey, who was the original Santa Claus that everybody bases it on.
Hodgson said he has attended the International School of Santa Claus where he learned about what to do in photographs, how to play harmonica, how to tell stories and other things.
“There were 50 of us on a cruise ship, heading to North Pole, Alaska,” Hodgson, who is a member of the IBRBS and another group called the Mid-America Santas, said. “We loaded onto a couple buses and had a full police escort, to meet a Santa from the town.”
Hodgson’s first gig as Santa Claus came when he was 14 years old, at a fire hall in Fallowfield Township, near Charleroi, in 1969. His first job as a Real Bearded Santa, was in 1996, at Rainbows United in Wichita, Kansas, which assists those with disabilities.
A favorite for every Santa is the children’s requests. Hodgson said you have to be prepared for a child’s reaction to you, whether good or bad.
“I had one kid ask for a toilet and a whistle. I assumed it was a joke, because the parents began laughing,” Hodgson said. “I don’t know what kids would want with that. [Kids] also have asked for animals like kangaroos.”
Suhr said he has gotten requests for hoverboards, video game consoles, laptops and phones.
“Then I’ve gotten heartbreaking stories from kids who are sick, or have family problems” he said. “I always say a prayer for them, and hope everything gets better for them.”
Every Santa has tries to incorporate his own personality into their impersonation.
“You have to be very quiet, very laid back with most of the children,” he said. “Your ‘ho, ho, ho’ really has to be in the form of laughter when you’re talking with the kids and everything else, to make them comfortable.”
Many Santas base their look off the iconic movie “Miracle on 34th Street.” The 1947 version starred Edmund Glenn, the only man to win an Oscar playing Santa Claus.
“I would study his mannerisms, the way he styled his beard,” Suhr said. “It’s like a training film for me.”
There are numerous ways to get employment as a Santa. Groups like the IBRBS provide a network of jobs around the country. Online agencies hire out Santas from all over the United States. The most common way, however, remains to be through word of mouth.
“Typically I’m booked up by August,” Suhr said. “The only agency I’m a part of is a commercial agency. I’ve been on print and TV ads with Rite Aid and GNC, plus I’ve worked with Macy’s, Mercy Hospital and the Christmas parade.”
Graham has appeared in some national commercials and music videos, and he has served as the Santa for United States Postal Service advertisements.
“Looks is a big part towards getting hired, and how much you commit to it,” said Hodgson, who appeared in a local commercial for a holiday parade. “How you portray yourself is another. You have to be jolly all the time and that can be very demanding.”
This story was published by the Trib.