A Holly Jolly Job
Portraying Santa is a passion for those with a certain resemblance
By Ann Craig-Cinnamon
Spoiler alert: If you believe in Santa, stop reading right now. For the rest of you, you’ve probably noticed that we have again arrived at that time of year when our malls, homes and events are populated with men sporting white beards, wearing red suits trimmed in fur and displaying a jolly disposition. At least the ones doing it correctly have a jolly disposition. Have you ever wondered who these people are and how they came to play Santa Claus?
Well, it’s actually a rather lucrative side job and for the crème of the Santa crop it can be a year-round gig. It’s a business and comes with the usual business-related issues such as training (yes, there are Santa schools), liability insurance, appropriate “uniform”, marketing, scheduling and transportation (and I don’t mean a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer).
The Right Gear
Byron Fritz paid thousands of dollars to have his vehicle wrapped as a “Hoosier Santa” mobile billboard. Normally you’ll find Fritz, and his vehicle, at the Cicero United Methodist Church where he has been pastor for the past 11 years. In total he’s been a pastor for 38 years. Rev. Fritz says when he was younger he looked like Jerry Garcia. “When I started turning white, people said ‘you ought to do Santa Claus’,” he says.
So 16 years ago he went to a mall and bought a red zoot suit, trimmed it with fur and bleached his hair and beard. Now he has multiple suits including a Father Christmas suit consisting of a green crushed velvet robe and burgundy coat and a red and white striped 1920’s style swimsuit that he wears for dunking booths. “My main suit now comes from Adele’s in Hollywood and it’s about a $600 suit. I have two belts that have been handmade for me,” says the pastor who advises that if you want to be Santa you need to have the right gear.
The Outlet Mall in Edinburgh was his first Santa assignment. Now, his calendar is full of events, even throughout the year, and he says he is one of the most-booked Santas in the area.
His appearances include homes, businesses, charity events, libraries, restaurants and nursing homes. “I go to two different nursing homes, and one lady who is 93 years old sat on my lap,” he says. He’s the official Santa for the party prior to Yuletide Celebration, has appeared at Pacer games, the Indiana State Fair and a certain museum that he is not allowed to mention by name. He does both Christmas in July and the holiday season at the Harley Davidson store in Fishers. Now at the age of 63, Rev. Fritz is so busy that he often refers bookings to other Santas.
You know he takes it seriously when his phone rings and you hear ‘Have a Holly Jolly Christmas’ as his ring tone. “Yeah, I have a lot of fun with it,” he says and adds, “I’m an entertaining Santa. I do animal balloons. I do magic. I have probably 50 or 60 different books. I do singing. So when I come to a person’s home, I’m there for about an hour.” Rev. Fritz has a background in acting, puppetry and clowning which made him a natural at portraying Santa.
But like any business, there are important rules. “Make sure you wear white gloves. Some of that is for germs and part of it is in a picture to see where your hands are. So it can’t be said that you put your hands somewhere you shouldn’t have. So we have to deal with that,” says Rev. Fritz who adds that you don’t come on set after smoking or drinking either.
So how much money can a busy Santa actually make? Rev. Fritz says he grosses $12,000 a year portraying Santa, something that goes on his taxes just like any business. However, other than paying for expenses, he gives it all away to charity.
Through his church, Rev. Fritz has established several ministries in Africa and has helped pastors in Uganda and Kenya get masters degrees; purchased farmland in Uganda so that the local people can become self-sufficient; and has built classrooms for a school. Back at home, when people in his area come into church and need help, he digs into his Santa funds to help them. “Then I get to be Santa all over again,” he says.
Santas come from all walks of life. Take 52 year old Tim Etter who is an insurance company damage appraiser in his “other” life. He’s been portraying Santa since he was 20 when he found a cheap Santa suit on sale while shopping and decided to dress up for a young cousin. “It was a wonderful feeling being able to bring a smile to a child and to bring happiness. And it just took off from there,” says Etter.
His wife now makes his suits and he has 12 of them. After an incident that required emergency super glue repair, his beard is now real too. Etter has served as Santa for several museums, including the Indianapolis Museum of Art; Westfield’s Festival of Trees; corporate events; homes and charitable events.
He donates some of his earnings to two charities and keeps dates open for families in need where he doesn’t charge. But his saying is “If money is being made, Santa gets paid”.
Etter is careful in public because he is representing a beloved figure. “I take special precautions when I go grocery shopping with my wife, I don’t go down the beer aisle or something like that,” he says.
The Santa image is one of the reasons that 67 year old Fred Imhausen has been portraying Santa for 40 years. “The main reason I do it is I think that Santa is a representative of good and I like to see children smile,” says Imhausen who sells houses when he’s not visiting them on Christmas Eve.
He too started small with church and neighborhood groups and now has a busy season of appearance at museums, craft shows, homes and businesses. He also makes free appearances such as at the Ronald McDonald House and elsewhere.
But the realities of the world we live in has caused him to get liability insurance with a child molesting rider. “I get it now, partly to protect me and partly to set yourself apart from others to let people know you are serious about it,” says the realtor.
Imhausen teaches wanna-be santas through the group Hoosier Santas. “One of the Santa Schools says that I’ve got a bachelors in Santatology,” he jokes.
None of these men portray Santa at a mall because Etter says that takes a special person to be in the chair for 8 hours and he says he enjoys more interaction with the kids.
Clay Terrace in Carmel offers visits with Santa through the Christmas season. The mall hires them through a third party. Megan Coors, the Director of Marketing and Business Development says that over 1,000 families visit Santa each year at Clay Terrace. “We are delighted to know that through this experience not only do we draw visitors to Clay Terrace, but we have been a part of many family holiday traditions,” she says.
For many Santas, it’s not just a money making proposition, it’s a passion. Rev. Fritz says he can’t imagine not being Santa. “For me it’s the joy. When a child’s eyes get big or they smile or they give you a hug. When kids run up to me and give me hug, there is nothing greater in the world.”