Updated Monday, December 24, 2012 at 04:18 PM
It's a Christmas story that is replayed thousands of times each season for as long as Santa's laugh has echoed in shopping malls.
A hesitant 2-year-old boy at the South Bay Galleria approaches Santa on his yuletide throne. The man of legend exudes goodwill, draped in red velvet, an oversized belt and buckle holding his belly back.
For all that mirth, the boy shies away. Seeing Jolly Old Saint Nick for the first time in all his white-bearded glory is too much.
But Santa smiles, pats the silver key hanging from his belt — it unlocks the North Pole, he says — and soon the child is balanced on a knee and the picture is snapped. Another memory, made to last.
How did you do it, Santa?
"Speak calmly, and to their level so they can understand you," said Santa Rex, the Galleria's Kriss Kringle. "And just try to make it a fun experience."
Then he winks.
Men like Santa Rex who professionally put on the red suit each season pack almost nonstop holiday gigs into five-to-seven weeks each year, a total of 400 or 500 hours of photo booths at malls, private party appearances, parades and tree lightings.
The majority of Santas are semi- or fully retired, said Mike Bordeleau, president of Simi Valley-based AmuseMatte Corp., a business that specializes in holiday and event photography.
"These are people who are looking in their twilight to stay engaged and give back," he said.
Giving back can be rewarding — one industry insider said pay for Santa's winter whirlwind schedule ranges from $6,000 to $30,000 — but ask a Santa, and he'll surely tell you the greatest presents he gets from giving others his bowl-full-of-jelly laugh are the smiles he creates each year.
And there are also the stories. Oh ho ho, are there stories.
Santa Rex, a semiretired man from Las Vegas who travels to Southern California to spread holiday cheer, recalled a time at another mall that had pet nights with Santa Claus.
One memorable child brought their Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. How cute.
Another photo-seeker brought a pet snake.
"I had an 11-foot boa constrictor wrapped around my neck," Santa Rex said, still smiling, somehow.
While Mall Santas are the foot soldiers slugging it out at shopping centers, some Santas with the drive and a special talent take it to another level.
Take Santa Tim, real name Tim Connaghan, one of the most famous Father Christmases of all.
A member of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame, he is also known as Santa Hollywood. He can be seen each year in the Hollywood Christmas Parade, and has also appeared on "The Tonight Show," "Dr. Phil," and commercials for Oreos, Target and others.
Connaghan, a 64-year-old native of suburban Lakewood, first donned the familiar red hat and a shaving cream beard in 1969, as a GI in Vietnam, and played Santa off and on during a 30-year career as a fundraiser and television producer.
It wasn't until about 17 years ago, Connaghan said, that he decided to hitch up the reindeer and run his sleigh full time.
Connaghan and his wife were watching "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," and who should appear, but Santa to the Stars5/8, Brady White. White's beard is insured with Lloyd's of London.
"Santa's driving around in a limousine, posing and this Santa makes $1,000 a day," Connaghan said.
"I got this pain in my rib. My wife was nudging me, and said being Santa may be a good retirement plan."
It was. Now, in addition to his paid work and many charity events, Connaghan represents a stable of 175 Santas and runs the International University of Santa Claus.
A school for Santas sounds funny — to people who want coal in their stockings, perhaps — but it's a big responsibility to represent the embodiment of Christmas.
Some children may ask for the impossible, like bringing back a dead relative, returning a military parent from an overseas deployment or reconciling divorced parents.
"You acknowledge what they say," Connaghan said of the latter case. "It's not their fault, and let's hope they get back together. They both love you, and Santa loves you, too."
Other Santa do's and don'ts include no eating on the job. Always keep your hands visible. Mints are better than chewing gum for maintaining fresh breath. No flirting, because for some women, Santa is a chick magnet. And, a word of caution, baby powder dusted in the beard reminds some young children of mom.
Above all, "You never promise anything, and you never deny anything," Connaghan said. "And all children who come to Santa are good."
Back at the South Bay Galleria in Redondo Beach, Santa Rex said he's looking forward to going home the day after Christmas and eliminating those famous whiskers with his once-a-year shave.
Santa Rex's hair will return to its natural blond, and the beard will grow in the intervening months, and all will be ready to be dyed Santa's white next December.
Personally, Santa Rex doesn't do his masquerading for fame, he said, but for the children.
As a few kids approach, Santa is suddenly back in character, greeting a little girl in a gentle voice.
He does, however, offer a farewell message.
"Remember, I'm always watching," he said, his eyes twinkling.
BRYAN MITCHELL / AP
A man dressed as Santa Claus holds 1-week-old Zachary Nicolson for a Christmas visit at Twelve Oaks Mall on Saturday, Dec. 22, in Novi, Mich.