Beyond the Red Suit 

Natural Santas are the real thing

'Twas a warm and sunny fall afternoon With nary a Christmas thought to be had Except inside of the Gooch family pad. Seated on the couch, all in a row Were Santa Dick, Santa Frank and another Santa I did not know. And in the kitchen in the beautician's chair Sat one more Santa perming his hair.

Minus the bad poetry, that was the scene at Naturally Santa Inc.'s headquarters in early November, where preparations for the approaching holiday season were in full swing. Though flowers had rebloomed because of the warm temperatures and Thanksgiving was still three weeks away, Naturally Santa Inc.'s headquarters -- Bill and Alma Gooch's Colorado Springs home -- was already abuzz with that frenzied but warm-fuzzy feeling that only Christmas can elicit.In the basement, stockings were hung above the fax machine, the computer and the ergonomic chair.

"This is where it all happens," said Bill. "We get perms in our hair and beards to make them look nice, but other than that, we all look like Santa -- naturally."

To the unsuspecting one-track mind, Christmas was still months off. But within the week, the five guys waiting for perms, in addition to 41 other Naturally Santa Inc. Santas, would be en route to various locations throughout the country to take their mall thrones.

Naturally Santa Inc. is a Springs-based Santa Claus training, support and employment agency whose Santas look just like the real deal -- no, they are the real deal. These guys could inspire belief in the mind of even the most hard-core Santa cynic. And that's exactly why the company was founded six years ago by Alma ("but everybody calls me Mamma") and Bill Gooch.

Currently, with Mamma as CEO and Santa Bill as president, the Colorado Springs-based company boasts 46 Santas (15 of them live in Colorado) proud to call themselves the most natural-looking and best-trained Santas in the industry. Come Christmastime, all 46 Natural Santas are in high demand, working throughout 25 different states.

Behind Every Santa there's a Mrs. Claus

Naturally Santa Inc. did not happen overnight. Though officially founded as a company in 1992, its evolution really began 20 years ago -- in Oklahoma -- where the Gooches were living at the time.

One year, Alma convinced Bill to go out and play Santa.

"Yeah, occasionally I played Santa," said Bill. "Then I ended up in this little town where, well, there was a lot of poverty. And these little kids would come up, and all they'd want was something to eat, or something for their mother. It was really hard. It was so bad, I said I would never do it again."

Soon afterward, the Gooches moved to Colorado Springs, where Bill worked for the now defunct Sun paper. But one year, when they were strapped for Christmas cash, Mamma again convinced Bill to resurrect Santa.

He was hesitant. "I thought, well, I can do Santa again. I still had my beard." He started at the old Pioneer Plaza (now Rustic Hills Mall) and the following year became Santa at the Broadmoor, where he remained Santa for eight years. "Funny thing is," said Gooch, "I had my own beard, but they still made me wear a false beard."

During the late '80s, Bill Gooch was Santa in Minneapolis for five years. Then, one day in the winter of 1991, Mamma Gooch thought she'd go to other malls and check out the competition.

The findings were ugly. There were Santas who smelled like cigarettes or alcohol. There were Santas with fake hair, fake beards and fake bellies. There were 16-year-old Santas who were, literally, holding on their beards. "I just remember thinking, there has to be something better than this," said Mamma Gooch. "I thought, children deserve better than this. And I figured other parents probably wanted the same thing, too -- somebody who would portray Santa in a positive light. So I got home and told Bill that I wanted to get my own stable of Santas."

Within the year, Naturally Santa Inc. was in service.

Santa 24/7

You need more than a white beard and white hair to be Naturally Santa-qualified. "To most of our guys, this is a lifestyle," said Santa Frank, who also serves as operations manager for the company.

With his perfect white beard and hair, round belly, wire-rimmed glasses and red overalls, Santa Frank is truly the embodiment of old Saint Nick, even with his black Birkenstock clogs and cell phone. But it's his relaxed, easygoing manner and jovial chuckle, in addition to his looks, that really make you think twice -- and want to ask him for a new train set.

Frank insists his name is Santa. "Or, you can call me Father Christmas if you want," he mused.

Santa Frank, in persona most of the year just because of his looks, but especially during the season, likens his job to that of a celebrity. "Really, it has the same pitfalls as any other type of celebrity," he said. "When you are in the public, you belong to the public. And that makes you aware of your surroundings and how you have to present yourself. You don't want to give a bad impression or a bad image."

Naturally Santa Inc.'s Santas must pass drug tests and background checks. In addition, there's no public drinking or smoking allowed. Or womanizing.

Santa Frank says that he always takes a moment to survey his surroundings. "You have to take a second to think, am I in a place where, say, it's maybe all adults and I can let my hair down a bit? Or are there going to be children?"

"No matter where you go, you're recognized as Santa, and it doesn't matter what you are wearing," he continued. "You can have on a hat and cowboy boots, or whatever, but you are still Santa. You have to live your life around that, and if you're not prepared to, then you are not prepared to be one of our Santas."

"Actually, I think with our Santas, it's a lot more detailed than with any of the other Santas," piped in Santa Dick from his recliner chair in the corner. Santa Dick, who also has no last name, looks completely different from Santa Frank, aside from the hair and beard. Yet, just as with Santa Frank, you'd swear the sleigh was parked outside.

"I really think we put more into it than most of the others," he continued in a calm, soft-spoken voice. "Like the persona. Especially during the season, whether we're walking around the mall on our break or at a convenience store."

Santa Dick feels that many of the Santas are out there just for the picture. "And of course, we're there for the picture, too, but most just grab the child, put the child on the lap, take the picture and get to the next child. I don't know that they really pay attention to what the kids say, and some don't want to."

Santa 101

Listening appears to be what the Santas of Naturally Santa Inc. do best and enjoy most. As the afternoon winds on, Santas trickle in and out of the Gooch household. Hanging out in the living room, most wearing overalls, they talk about the upcoming season and share stories -- and more stories -- from seasons past.

"I could get to telling stories, about the kids, what they want and talk about, and talk for a week straight," said Santa Bill. "Because as Santa, you hear it all."

All of the Santas present in the room agree. Kids will tell Santa things they wouldn't normally tell other people. To prepare for difficult encounters, Naturally Santa Inc. has an extensive training program. In addition, they have organization-wide meetings three times a year.

Training involves everything from reading and watching videotapes, to learning how to talk to children, where you can and cannot put your hands, methods of fielding questions, dealing with parents and tips on getting good pictures.

"All of our Santas go through training for a year before going on-site," said Mamma Gooch. "They learn how to handle certain questions, like 'Are you the real Santa?' or 'Do you believe in God?' "

Mamma says her Santas aren't allowed public political agendas either. "They are there for the children, and every child is different, whether with different backgrounds or different beliefs."

Part of the training focuses on the Naturally Santa Inc. dress code. Unlike most Santas, these elves have adopted what they call "the workshop look." Though they enter and exit the mall in the traditional red Santa suit, on the set -- and even on their breaks -- they dress down. The workshop look consists of traditional red pants and black shoes, but with a flannel shirt, suspenders and no hat.

The look, they say, has proved very successful. "We felt it just was not all that realistic and [was] sometimes scary to the kids," said Santa Frank of the traditional formal attire. "This is more of a grandfatherly approach."

Occasionally, the Santas do get asked to put on the full garb, but it's usually at the request of the parents, "because that's what they are used to," said Santa Dick. "The kids don't care. In fact, I'd say 85 percent of the time when I do that (put on the coat, hat and boots), the pictures turn out lousy, because the kids freeze or get scared."

For the same reason, the Santas have also dropped the traditional, deep-bellied "ho ho ho" laugh from their routine. They say bellowing like that can be frightening to a child. Unless the child asks, they won't bellow.

Instead, the Santas are taught to speak in lower tones, accompanied by very slow and deliberate movements. They focus their attention on one child at a time, creating a very intimate Santa-child moment.

"That's not to say that we totally tune out," added Santa Dick. According to him, the ability to hone in on other things while focusing almost all of your attention on a child is essential.

"You can gain a lot of information about what's going on with the next child, like a name or whether or not they've been fighting with one of their siblings, which often happens in line. Then, the child gets up on your lap, and you can say, 'I hear you've been fighting with your sister.' That really surprises them."

Stories from the chair

"One of the reasons we get together three times a year, face-to-face, is to share these techniques. And tell stories," said Santa Frank.

"Through sharing stories, we learn," he explained. "We learn from each other's experiences. There are a lot of similar situations that all of the guys encounter, and everybody has their own ways of handling them. So, by sharing these stories, we learn all sorts of different approaches. It's incredibly helpful."

Those situations run the gamut. Some involve children asking for toys that their parents simply cannot afford. "You have to be creative when it comes to that," said Santa Bill. "I usually say things like, 'My elves have been working real hard, but I'm still coming up short on that. I'll try, but if I come up short, can I leave you something else?' " He says the method usually works, and the parents thank him afterward.

Other situations are more involved, like a child who has lost a parent and wants Santa to bring them back for Christmas. Or children who don't ask for toys, but for food. "You just get all kinds of stuff," said Santa Bill, "stuff you wouldn't even dream of."

Santa Bill remembers, in particular, one encounter with a little boy. "His father brought him up to me and said that he (the child) had been causing trouble, could I please talk to him. So I put the boy on my knee and asked him, 'Is that true? Have you been making trouble?'

"The boy wouldn't talk, so I told him, 'Now, I don't think that's true.' And the child said no, and started to cry and said that his parents were fighting all of the time and that his daddy was always yelling.

"Now, you get to know little kids," Santa Bill continued, "and can usually tell when things are or aren't true. And I looked at the father, who looked away. I told the little boy to go back home and just be the best that he could be and to remember one thing -- that Santa loves him.

"Sometimes, the last thing we tell a kid is that Santa loves them, to make sure they know. Because you can't tell them [things are] going to be OK; you don't know."

"And there's really nothing we can do in those situations," added Frank, who had a similar story. "We can only go by what the child says, though I had one instance where a woman working on my camera crew also worked for the city. She overheard the conversation, where, in this case, the child was being physically hurt. The parents paid with a check, which had their name, address and phone number, so she did report that incident."

While the Santas say that they don't get too many of those stories, they do get them often enough, and almost everybody has at least one.

"I guarantee you," said Santa Frank, "that we go through a box of Kleenex at every single one of the tables at our meetings. The stories range from the silliest to the most tragic."

It's not always fun, they say. Sometimes, it's downright difficult. Like with the Make a Wish (foundation) kids. "I had four of them last year, and it was tough," said Santa Bill.

"But one little girl, she was just a ray of light. All she wanted was to get ice cream with Santa. So we went and got ice cream, and on the way back, we passed a store that had one of those dancing Santas in the display window. So we stopped and got to watching the Santa and then started dancing like [the toy] was. People walking by started dancing with us. Anyway, after it was all over, her mother left a note with the mall, saying that was the first time her daughter actually laughed."

And the stories continue. Santa Bill tells of a gentleman who approached him just a few days before Christmas Eve. He said his little nephew was dying, and he would give Santa anything he wanted if he would come see the boy on Christmas.

"I told him I wasn't for hire, but to leave me his number and I'd see what I could do." Santa Bill spoke with the mall, which ended up donating a $150 gift certificate. He chipped in $50, called the uncle, found out which toys the boy wanted and went to the house on Christmas.

"When I got there, he was upstairs in his bedroom. So I go up there, open the door, call his name. His eyes just lit up. He jumped up out of bed, grabbed me around the neck and wouldn't let loose."

It's experiences like that, say all of the Santas, that are often difficult, but the most rewarding. Sometimes, they say, they'll catch the parents around them wiping their eyes.

"Even Santa cries," said Santa Bill. "After you get the really sick kids, or the ones who have really bad circumstances, you just have to stop for a minute, get up and walk around the chair or something, and get yourself back together."

The Ministry of Santa

Conversation around the living room turns to toys -- what's hot and what's not. Being up on toys, the Santas say, is vital.

"Sure, you can fake it," said Santa Frank. "And I can tell you a good story about one of our guys that wasn't up on the latest toys, but you can't print it."

Let's just say that particular Santa did not know that Woody and Buzz were characters from the movie Toy Story. So when the child told Santa he wanted a Woody for Christmas ... well, you know.

To keep current, Santa Frank gets toy catalogs and spends lots of time perusing the aisles at Toys R Us. Santa Dick does the same and also watches Saturday morning cartoons. "That's when they advertise all of the new toys," he said.

There's no doubt that if these guys could, they would make their own toys. It's debatable whose eyes light up more -- the Santas or the children's.

"We consider it a ministry," said Santa Frank. "Without being religious, of course. Our main goal is to bring happiness to kids. Year-round."

Ultimately, say the Santas, being Santa goes beyond getting paid. Any one of the Santas with Naturally Santa Inc. will tell you they'd do it for free, though they are well paid for their services. Some make up to $10,000 a season, working 10- to14-hour days, seven days a week, generally from the week before Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve. Many don't actually make it back home for Christmas Day.

But the spiritual income, they say, far outweighs the financial reward.

"OK, I just have one more story," Santa Bill said as things were wrapping up. "One morning, when I was in Minneapolis, this little kid came running out and stopped right in front of me. He reached up, pulled his pants down and stood there looking at me. The kid had on a brand-new pair of undershorts with Santa's picture on them, so he wanted to show me his new underwear.

"You see it all. If we'd been caught on video, I know we could've won a contest."


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