If you’re wondering why Fresh Ink’s weekly picture of George Whitesell has gone missing, it’s probably because he’s stationed in Utah this month.
As many of you know, and at least a few have guessed, Colorado Springs’ most beloved show-band leader is also a professional Santa. In addition to recording a 2002 album called Santa Sings Christmas Favorites (George’s name only appears in the copyright notice, but that's definitely him), he is regularly deployed each Christmas season to some distant town where children don’t know him, to field requests for extravagant toys and hope that the youngest ones don’t pee on him.
In fact, George is part of an elite force of Santas based right here in the Springs. What began in the early ’90s as a two-Santa operation has grown into a seasonal monolith with a stable of more than 50 Santas who've been deployed to 33 states.
And not just any Santas, mind you. The company is called Naturally Santa, Inc., and claims to be “the nation’s leading provider of naturally bearded Santas.” (If this sounds familiar, it's because the Indy printed a cover story on Naturally Santa in 1999 and 2002. The same story, as best we can tell. Ambition flowed like egg nog in those days.) Anyway, Naturally Santa Santas have been stationed at the White House and escorted Defense Secretary Robert Gates through NORAD.
According to naturallysantainc.com, founding Santa Bill Gooch and his wife Mama Gooch started their company with the dream of recruiting “men who were neat and clean, men who had real beards and authentic costumes.”
Unlike the “unsavory characters who were vulgar, smelled or reeked of cigarettes and alcohol” and even went so far as to wear fake beards, these would be “men with moral standards, who didn’t smoke, drink or womanize.”
A crazy, zany, even madcap dream? Well, sure. But isn’t that the same thing they told jolly old Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street — and what happened there? (I ask because I haven’t actually seen the film, but I can’t imagine it turned out badly.)
Once the Santas are safely home and recovered from their missions, many of them ship out to Las Vegas for a five-day, mid-February reconnaissance that would test the moral mettle of lesser Santas. After that, they pretty much lay low until Labor Day for a pre-season gathering at the Franciscan Retreat Center right here in Colorado Springs.
I swear I’m not making any of this up ...
As for George, he’ll be back playing Castaways, the Antlers Hilton and his other usual haunts after the holidays. In the meantime, see how quickly you can find him in the following sampling of Santas from the company's website: