Time Machine: Timeless tips from Santa

Four offer advice on being a jolly old elf

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Jim McGuire had 11 years of experience wearing a Santa suit when he was interviewed by The Gazette in 1962.

He had portrayed Santa in stores, churches, union halls and private homes and was well qualified to offer tips for new Santa helpers. It takes more than a red suit, long white beard and a jolly “ho, ho, ho” to be successful, he said.

First, a couple of don’ts:

— Don’t promise the child you’ll bring any of the things he or she asks for. If you do, it would put parents on the spot, and if Santa doesn’t deliver, the child’s Christmas won’t be a happy one. Instead of promising a gift, say something like “if I don’t run out” or “I’ll have to talk to mom and dad first — if I bring something they don’t want you to have, they may not let me come again next year” or “I have something special in mind for you this year — how would you like me to surprise you?”

— Don’t insist that you are the real Santa, even if the child asks you. Throw the question right back in the child’s lap with: “What do you think?” It’s more convincing if the child concludes you’re the real Santa than if you talk him or her into it.

Some do’s:

— You’ve got to know the product — toys, that is. If a kid asks you for something and you don’t know what he’s talking about, you are in trouble. (McGuire said he would spend 15 to 25 hours in toy stores before each Christmas. He also watched kids’ TV shows.)

— If you can, talk to a child’s parents beforehand. This is often impossible in stores or at parties, but it is almost a must when calling at a child’s home. A chat with parents will reveal their plans for the child’s Christmas, and it also will provide handy information about the child.

— Even though clothes aren’t all that are necessary, they are important, so look the part. (The Santa suit McGuire is wearing in the accompanying photo was his third. It was fitted in Chicago and cost him about $300.)

Any other advice?

You’ve got to be on your toes all the time. You have to have answers for all the questions, and it has to be a satisfactory answer.

Finally, not everybody can do it. You’ve really got to have the desire to be Santa. And, of course, you have to like kids.

Santa at Westdale

More than 20 years later, in 1983, three more Santa helpers were listening to kiddie wish lists at Westdale Mall in southwest Cedar Rapids.

The trio — Charles Riley, Larry Goodfellow and Glenn Bys — held court at the Santa House set up at the mall.

They were, according to mall director Pam Schenck, “the best Santas we’ve ever had.”

Riley and Bys, both engineering draftsmen, and Goodfellow, a used-car salesman, had lost jobs in the economic downturn and were looking for work at Job Service of Iowa when they were chosen for the jobs at Westdale.

Irma Schweitzer, manpower specialist at Job Service, hired the three. “I felt they would do a good job because they were eager to work.”

The men were wary at first about playing Santas, but Schweitzer assured them, “I think you’ll enjoy it. You’ll make all those kids happy.”

Each of the Santas wore the full uniform for a five-hour shift.

Riley said, “It’s a nifty one. You really perspire a lot.”

Added Goodfellow: “People don’t realize how difficult it is to work with kids for that long of time. All ages, even a lot of teenagers and grown-ups, have their pictures taken with Santa Claus. A lot of them are just there for the visit.”

Riley described the hundred kids who took turns sitting on his lap every hour: “Some huggers, some kissers, some shy ones, some who don’t believe and want to kid around. Some kids have a long list, some kids have a short list, and some kids want to tell you a story.”

“The kids have been really good,” Goodfellow said. “I haven’t had any of them kick me in the shins. At least not yet.”

The three had tips for other Santa helpers as well:

— Smile a lot.

— Don’t get too loud. Young children scare easily.

— Be at ease and try to get children to be at ease, too.

— Talk to children about something that interests them, such as their clothes.

— Keep it simple.

Goodfellow, in his full Santa outfit, had one more tip: “Try to think cool.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; diane.langton@thegazette.com

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