NAPLES — Who knew that being jolly takes more than a big heart.
Santa Clauses can go to school to learn the art of making memories for children. When there's down time at the North Pole, they can head to a convention for some camaraderie with their bearded brethren.
"If we don't do our job as a person and as a Santa Claus, then we are cheating those children and they are our future," said Larry Sellers, a former book shop owner in Naples.
Sellers became a Santa five years ago, starting with a fake beard and progressing to a real beard and two suits. This past fall, he attended Professional Santa Claus School in Denver.
"We had 30 gentlemen in our class and you know they all had the same interest at heart," Sellers, 62, said. "Every guy who was in that class, you could hear the reverence they have for the children. It was a fantastic experience for anyone who is Santa Claus."
For a year, the school helps its graduates get Santa gigs. Sellers has his preferences.
"The charities to me are the most important," he said, but added that he is doing appearances at the Walmart on Collier Boulevard this year.
Twenty-five years ago, Ski Oleski, owner of Immokalee's Lake Trafford Marina, became a Santa for a jewelry shop owner in the town. His Santa duties have mushroomed to include schools, charities and community events.
"I have no training whatsoever," said Oleski, 70, who is aware Santa schools exist but never considered it. "I don't know what they teach."
He now sees second and third generations of children since he's been Santa for so long.
"I have parents who used to sit on my lap," Oleski said. "I'm getting into the grandkids."
Why go to school
Santas-in-training have a half-dozen options for schools. The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Mich., bills itself as the nation's longest continuously run school. The International University of Santa Claus is a traveling school.
"I'm usually in Florida every year," said Timothy "Santa Hollywood" Connaghan, who has been a Santa for 45 years and started the traveling school. He goes to a dozen cities around the United States. In Florida, he usually conducts the school in Tampa.
Among other lessons, he teaches Santas how to hold children on their laps properly and offers secrets for working with a Santa's helper to learn a child's name, he said.
"And we teach them how to handle difficult questions," Connaghan, 65, said.
Some children ask Santa if he can get mom and dad back together, or if Santa can bring dad home from active duty. Another is if Santa can get the family's home back.
"Kids are learning the "e" word and it is not Elmo, it is the economy," he said.
Oleski has heard his share of the tough questions.
"You just have to go through it," he said. "I will not promise anything. If they ask for live animals, I tell them I can't deliver live animals. I fly so high in the sleigh, it's too cold."
Susan Mesco launched the Denver-based Professional Santa Claus School in 1983 after arranging for Santa Clauses in malls for her events planning business. She conducts her five-day school in a Denver hotel and enrollment is limited to 40 or 50 men. The school is always held around Labor Day.
"That gives the Santas plenty of time to do 50 to 80 Santa events the first season," she said.
She keeps background checks on file of her Santas and will provide letters to potential jobs for her graduates.
"We call them safe Santas," she said. "We as an industry have become socially responsible so that Santas now get a national background check."
The school buys hundreds of Santa outfits each year at wholesale prices, which her Santas can buy to get started. The expenses add up.
"Most Santas spend close to $1,000 to $2,000 on their beard," Mesco said. "A professional Santa will work with a salon to bleach and condition their beard."
For those who aren't real-bearded, a quality artificial beard can run $300 to $500, she said. Nice touches include glitter or ringlet curls.
"So now when a child looks at the beard, it's an 'awe' moment," she said. "The child is mesmerized by the beard."
Santas hard at work
All sorts of people are drawn to being Santa.
For some aging baby boomers, it's because they have fond memories of Santa from their childhood. For others, there's the opportunity to make some extra money for 30 to 40 days a year, Mesco said.
"But they have expenses all year long," Mesco said. "I think most reputable Santas spend time at conventions and talk to local groups."
At shopping malls where Santas get paid, 10-hour days with breaks are the norm as Christmas Eve nears.
A half-dozen photography companies also train Santas who get dispatched around the country to malls. That's where pictures with Santa are revenue-makers for the photography companies and the malls alike, Mesco said.
Coastland Center mall in Naples gets its Santa from Worldwide Photography, based in Houston, under contract for the service, said Melissa Wolf, the mall's marketing manager.
"This year we actually have a new Santa," she said, adding they have just one and she can't recall a Santa ever calling in ill.
"They are very dependable,'' she said. "Usually it's just retired men who really enjoy the kids and making them happy."
Edison Mall in Fort Myers has the same Santa this year as last year, arranged by the Noerr Programs Corp., which is under contract with the mall's owner, Simon Properties, said Sarah Berthold, the mall's marketing director.
"Our Santas are all real-bearded. They must have a full beard so the children can pull and tug it," she said.
It's also required that the Santa have training.
"They graduate from Santa University with the skills they need," she said.