Story by Haisten Willis. Photo by Jenni Girtman.
Everyone recognizes Santa Claus: the big smile and rosy cheeks, the white beard, the “bowl full of jelly” belly and the bright red suit.
But who is the man behind the beard? Not surprisingly, Santas come from a variety of backgrounds far away from shopping mall atriums or the North Pole.
One of America’s best Santas lives in metro Atlanta. Thomas Tolbert has been named a Top 11 Santa Claus nationally by Time magazine. He’s been involved in the Saint Nicholas scene since his teenage years, and trains other Santas through a program he co-founded called the Legendary Santa University (legendarysantauniversity.com). His Santa duties will take him to San Diego over the holidays this year.
Tolbert discussed how he got started, what it takes to be Santa and what he most enjoys about the gig. Certain trade secrets, such as how he reaches millions of homes in a single night, will have to remain a mystery.
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Living Intown: How did you get started playing Santa Claus?
Thomas Tolbert: It was the Friday after Thanksgiving in 1976, and I was a 16-year-old high school student. I was at home, being lazy, and my dad called and told me to go down to a department store in Roswell. The Santa had not shown up, and parents with children were waiting in line. I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to hang out with my friends. My dad replied, “There is a long line of new friends you are going to hang out with.”
I arrived, and was rushed into a back area where I put on a department store Santa suit. One of the teenage girls who worked there applied my wig and beard, plus some makeup. As I walked to Santa’s chair, an overstuffed recliner, I felt different, but not in a bad way. I was looking at the long line of children waiting to see Santa Claus. I put a jingle in my step and let out my first “Ho Ho Ho” as Santa Claus.
What do you enjoy most about playing the role?
There is so much I love about being Santa Claus, beginning with the attention I get. Any Santa or Mrs. Claus who says they don’t like the attention deserves to be on the naughty list for fibbing. We are performers, and all performers love attention.
But beyond the attention, I love making people happy, from babies to great-great grandparents who are over 100 years old. Making people happy costs me nothing, and can make someone else’s day brighter no matter their age.
What is the biggest challenge?
Originally I was a wigged Santa, and my dad’s family loved me. But eventually I began growing out my real beard and hair, and many family members did not like it. People started coming up and wanting to talk to me or take photos with jolly old “Santa Claus.” I had to make a choice: Do as some family members wanted, or do as I felt I was called to do. I chose the path that was right for me.
What is the most outlandish request a child has made to you?
At a mall in Bridgewater, N.J., a little boy of maybe 3 or 4 years old came up and sat in my lap. When I asked what he wanted, he ran to his daddy and came back with a rolled up list that was three pages long. He had written the list all by himself, and decided he was going to read it to me. … After we had gone through about 25 items, I told him that I would see what I could do, but that I needed to save room in my sleigh for other children too.
How did you get involved with training other Santas through the Legendary Santa University?
About seven years ago, I went to a Santa roundtable meeting in Piedmont Park. I met a man there named Santa Lou, and was impressed by him. Afterward, I asked if he would be my mentor and he said yes.
I attended a Santa school where he was teaching, and while I loved him, I hated the school. One day he called me up and we talked about starting our own school, which we now run. During our last Legendary Santa University, we trained nine new Santas and three new Mrs. Clauses. We have also taught new trends and magical information to many seasoned Santas.
You’ve invested in a personal tailor for custom-made clothes and accessories, and regularly visit a hairdresser to keep your beard North Pole worthy. Why is it so important to get the Santa look just right?
I have all of my clothing custom made. I mostly design the items myself and work with a designer and seamstress. My customers do not want an average Santa Claus. I spend money to stay at the top of my game, and I go to the most sought-after hair artists for bleaching my hair. It is important to keep my Santa lively and always full of surprises. As a famous movie star once said, “Do it once, do it right, do it big, and do it like you know you can.”