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Shopping for a Santa

Being a shopping-mall Santa is not an easy job.
The words "G.I. Joe!" "Nintendo!" and "Barbie!" make Santa's ears ring. His nose plays host to 1,000 viral invaders. His eyes acquire a permanent glaze from 10,000 flash bulbs.

This weekend, members of the corps will hitch up their baggy pants for one last campaign before they hang up their beards and go back to being school-bus drivers, construction workers, grandpas and unemployment-check recipients.

A New Times investigation reveals that some of them--not all of them-- should have remained school-bus drivers, construction workers, grandpas and unemployment-check recipients. This highly subjective analysis is based on several hours of intensive observation and personal experience as a former shopping-mall Santa.

Explanation of some of the criteria: Accessing Santa: The most efficient way to find a particular mall's Santa Claus.

Weekday line length: Measured in "strollers." Figure a three- to four- minute wait for each stroller in line. Line-wait time varies according to number of children per mom, usually a variable based on geographical location of mall.

Photo specs: The price of capturing that special moment.
Santa's helpers: Decent helpers are key to any well-run mall-Santa outfit. They're responsible for crowd control, photography and all commercial exchanges. Helpers who snap their chewing gum, roll their eyes or who present a bored, Valley Girl demeanor are to be shunned. For sure.

Santa's beard: Out in the malls, natural beards are very rare. However, some fake beards are better than others. Straps, beard rigging or natural hair (facial or otherwise) should not be visible. The better fake beards don't hide Santa's mouth.

Santa's boots: Real boots are greatly preferred to artificial, spats-like leggings worn over street shoes. The real Santa lives where it's cold and snowy. He also spends a lot of time around reindeer. He wears boots. The difference, to kids, is the difference between an honest representation of a much-beloved childhood icon and some fool at the mall in a smelly suit.

Santa's age: For obvious reasons, older Santas are vastly superior to young pups.

Santa's eye twinkle: Self- explanatory.
Santa's personality: It's not necessary for a mall Santa to be a rowdy, backslapping, polar yay-hoo. Lots of young kids are scared of loud, obnoxious, unshaven, adult males, usually because they remind them of their fathers. On the other hand, burned-out, mopey Santas look lousy in photos. The ideal character is a cheerful, gentle guy who obviously enjoys the job and who is not obviously desperate for indoor work at $5 an hour.

These are tough criteria, but Santa is a much more important position than most temporary jobs, up to and including vice president of the United States

Chris-Town Mall
1703 West Bethany Home
Accessing Santa: Use north entrance.

Background music: Recorded orchestral favorites. Weekday line length: One stroller.

Santa's setting: Throne sits inside huge sandcastle. Several fairy tales also depicted in sand. Truly amazing setting.

Santa's throne: Hard to see because of location, but it appears to be made of sand, too. Photo specs: Cost of one 3x5 photo--$6.87 plus tax.

Free gift: Coloring book and candy cane.
Santa: Fake beard, simulated boots, no visible eye twinkle, quiet style. Estimated age: 30.

Santa's helpers: Four attractive, but mostly useless, young women. Penalty points: Severe mudslide danger if fire sprinklers are accidentally activated. Bonus points: Santa's stationed near a fry-bread stand.

Fiesta Mall
1445 West Southern, Mesa
Accessing Santa: Go through Broadway or Robinson's.

Background music: Recorded instrumental favorites, heavy on brass arrangements.

Weekday line length: Two strollers.
Santa's setting: Several scenic towers of oversized gift boxes filled with mechanical toys. Santa's throne: Rather ordinary white chair.

Photo specs: Cost of one 3x5 photo: $5.69 plus tax. Package deal (two 3x5s plus four wallet-sized shots): $16.98. Free gift: Crummy, blue stick-on decal of nonrepresentational reindeer-like beast.

Santa: Two of them. One was a tall guy with a good-quality fake beard, simulated boots, decent eye twinkle and forced "ho-ho-ho." Estimated age: 40. The other had a neatly trimmed natural beard, excellent eye twinkle, mellow style but simulated boots. Estimated age: 60.

Santa's helpers: Squad of four-- three youngsters and one senior team-leader. Camera operator couldn't have been more uninterested. Actually filed fingernails while waiting for photo opportunity.

Penalty points: A dozen former believers waiting in line witnessed a disastrous shift change. Santa who left set was robust young man with booming voice. Santa who returned seconds later was slight, gentle oldster. (This was truly a thoughtless Santa error, motivated purely by greed. When two obviously different men are playing The Man, a decent break of some kind should be made between performances. But harried moms waiting in line usually split when Santa heads for the break room, which means lost photo sales and lost cash for SantaCo, Santax International or whoever it is who is taking profit from the mall's Polaroid-making operation. For shame!)

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Dave Walker