In the 54 years that Jim Heichelbech has played St. Nick, he's seen plenty of naughty and nice. From bizarre gift requests (Viagra?) to physical training that starts in July, the 80-year-old reveals what it's really like to suit up.
You wouldn't believe the demands of the job: I start training in July!
Because of the physical demands of suiting up as Santa, I have to take care of my body on and off of the job. I get up everyday at 6 a.m. to walk a mile. I take vitamins, and my wife, Marilyn, fixes me balanced meals. My employer, Noerr Programs Corporation, hosts a three-day Santa University conference in July where RBSs (Real Bearded Santas) learn proper posture and sitting and breathing and techniques. I also depend on moms and dads to help me by lifting their kids onto my lap.
Looking the part is expensive and sweaty
I've got a real beard, but my hair's dark, so I have to get it bleached by a professional twice each holiday season to keep it snow white. My Santa figure is all natural; I'm 256 pounds and 6 feet tall (what can I say—I love to eat). Noerr makes the best custom-made suits in the country in an unusual burgundy shade, and they retail for more than $1,000. A full-time employee works on the costumes year round, and mine gets dry-cleaned weekly. Then there are the white gloves. My wife washes mine, and I keep several pairs near my seat so that I can switch when one gets dirty or covered in drool. It heats up underneath that 35-pound suit, when I've layered on a shirt, a vest, and a robe. Add three or four kids squirming on my lap, and I've got to really concentrate to keep from passing out. When a child gets off my lap, that's the time I most want to wipe away the sweat, but I can't. It's a total mind control exercise.
I get the third degree about whether or not I'm the real Santa
Children are much savvier than they were 40 years ago, and you can't play around with them as much. A kid will start off by questioning me: "Are you the real Santa?" Years ago, I could've said, "Well yes, Tommy, I'm the real Santa," and he would've believed me in a heartbeat. These days I say, "Well, what do you think? Take a look at my eyes—do you see the color of my eyes?" Thankfully, they're blue, like Santa's. "Feel my beard," I'll say. "Do you think I'm the real Santa?" Then finally I'll hear, "Oh, Mommy, you were right—he is the real one!" But, there are some that you just can't convince—or console. It happens frequently with the young ones, usually around the age of 2, who get really scared. I'm this strange-looking man, and they're terrified that their parents might abandon them. I use a distraction and reward method; I try to find anything I can to get them to calm down, usually a candy cane or a stuffed Elmo. I make sure the photographer quickly snaps the photo and then give them back to their mom or dad. Usually, even if the child is sobbing in the photo, the parent will still buy a package of copies.
"Santa, I'd like Viagra this year"
Forget a hula hoop or a Barbie doll. It's all about the electronics now, which I'm sure cost hundreds of dollars. These kids as young as 3 are asking for things like a Nintendo DSi, a cell phone, and an Xbox 360. I love to watch the facial expressions of the parents, especially the mothers, who just roll their eyes when they hear these kinds of requests. But they get weirder. One time, a boy came up to me who was about 8 years old. He stood about five feet away from me with his hands on his hips, and I could tell by his body language that he didn't believe in Santa. Finally he stepped up to me and told me that he wanted Viagra for Christmas. I responded with "What's that?" He said, "A pill." And I said, "Why do you want to take a pill? He answered, "I want to be strong, and my Dad says Viagra will make me strong." I had to think fast on my feet without getting flustered, so I told him, "Son, I just don't think my elves know how to make that pill." It was wild.
Santas don't get any breaks
I work six-hour shifts from November 2, the first day we open up in the Burlington Mall, through the last shift on Christmas Eve. There's usually a two-hour wait to see me, so it's a nonstop job. I don't even take a break to go to the bathroom because I have to make sure that every single kid gets about two minutes of time with me. When I arrive at work, I head straight to the dressing room, change into my costume, and fuel up with a quick snack like a PB&J sandwich. Then a staff member escorts me to my place on the set. Sunday nights are the craziest. The mall closes from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. for pet night. People bring in their snakes, birds, dogs, cats, turtles—I've even had a horse come in—to take a photo with me. A lady once brought in her three golden retrievers. They all sat around me, and then she called them by name to get up and switch positions without her touching them—and they did!
My favorite part is taking the kids by surprise
At least I still have some ability to make magic. Kids are always taken aback when I call out their names as they approach my lap. I have the photographers to thank for this. They help me by asking the parents for the kids' names, then step forward and whisper them to me right before the children walk up. If I get a skeptical reaction, I tell the child that I know his or her name because I've seen it before in my big book of wishes. And yes, that works.