By Joe Goncalves & Jillian Weynand
Two weeks ago a man named Frank, with a full white beard and a neat silver ponytail, was polishing his black boots and counting white gloves when the doorbell rang at his Mastic Beach home. At the door, he was greeted by trick or treaters. They would have been shocked had they known that Frank is also Santa Claus.
Throughout the country there are 792 other men like Frank readying themselves to work as Santas during Christmas. They are all employed by Cherry Hill Programs, an entertainment and photo company which hires Easter Bunnies too.
Frank works at the Smith Haven Mall, an “A” mall, one of the busiest locations the Santas work at. Cherry Hill assigns Santas to malls of different categories based on their experience and skill. The malls are ranked in an A, B or C category, which determines what kind of Santa would best fit the location.
“The older ones are starting to doubt, and I tell them just think of all the fun you’re going to lose out on,” the 12-year mall Santa veteran of Mastic Beach said. “I say, would you like to pull on my beard, most of them believe it.”
Of the three largest malls on Long Island, two were ready to set the scene of the North Pole as early as Nov. 1 and are offering the chance to see Santa Claus until Dec. 24.
September marked the 10th anniversary of the trademark Santa convention, Santa University. The convention began with the Noerr Programs Corporation which merged with Cherry Hill this year, becoming The Cherry Hill Programs. Contracted Santas come together to collaborate on their work ethic as Santa, how they stay in character and prepare care packages for non-profit organizations.
His wife Francine, who spends weekends at the mall dressed as Mrs.Claus, says it is exciting to spend the weeks leading up to the holidays seeing the families excited to visit Santa.
Being married to Santa Frank is something that doesn’t wear off, he plays the part all year long she said. “We get stopped in the stores and the restaurants and children want to say hi to him,” Mrs. Claus said.
The Smith Haven Mall offers more families with a Santa visit than any other mall within Cherry Hill Programs. Some 14,508 families visited Santa last year, according to a spokesperson at the location who tracks how many families who take photos with Santa. Another 12,000 people visited Santa at the Roosevelt Field Mall.
To ease the hard work of seeing so many families, the high-profile malls have more than one Santa at their location. Both Roosevelt Field and Smith Haven take a brief enough break replace one Santa with another. The most important part of the change-over is that the two Santa’s are never seen at the same time.
When the clock strikes half past three, Santa Al arrives at the same location that Santa Frank worked at for the first half of the day. He arrived on Long Island this November to begin his 16th year as a mall Santa.
“Looking out for people, looking out for children especially, that is why I do this,” Santa Al said.
This year he opened his South Carolina home to a young man from the local flea market where he works in the months he is not dressed in his red suit. The teen is formerly homeless, and was living in a car with his mother, sometimes going for weeks without a shower and other necessities. Santa Al said he hopes to provide a caring environment for the young man and be his legal guardian within the year.
“I come to the mall, go to the dressing room, get dressed, get in the right frame of mind,” Santa Rick of the Roosevelt Field mall, said. “You just gotta be happy all day.”
It’s an endorphin rush for Santa Rick. He traveled for the second year in a row from his home in Georgia to work as a mall Santa.
A short drive away at the Walt Whitman Shops sits Santa Don, who works at his construction company in Indiana when he isn’t wearing his red hat. With boxes full of letters and drawings that he has collected over the many years, he plans to write a book about the double life he leads as Santa Claus.
At one of the home office locations in Arvada, Colorado, sits Ruby Wright, a contract manager who hires a great number of Santa’s helpers in a department called Santa Central. She works to find Santa’s who are capable of taking on the volume of the mall, even if it means traveling across the country.
It isn’t just about the appearance or location, for Wright it is also about the kind of spirit the gentleman have. She said that the Santa’s participate in the experience for the opportunity to make memories for happy families.
“I told my own children that there is only one Santa, but he has friends who he elects to go sit in those chairs and at one time in their life they will sit on the real Santa’s lap and they know when they will. It is my job to get those Santa’s out there until they find the real one,” Wright said.