Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Claus and effect

Christmas means getting into character for these Santas for hire

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Wayne Johnson has filled in for Santa at functions around Winnipeg since 1971.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Wayne Johnson has filled in for Santa at functions around Winnipeg since 1971. Photo Store

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something... red?

Christmas came early this year for Ed Benner, a married father of one who, every December, works as a Santa-for-hire. On Sept. 7 -- that would be 108 nights before Christmas -- Benner was booked for a wedding at the Gates on Roblin. The bride was a huge fan of St. Nick, Benner was told, so her father thought it would be a nice touch if he incorporated the jolly old elf into his toast.

"First her dad told the audience how his daughter kept a copy of every Santa letter she'd ever written. Then he said he wanted to invite a special guest to read some of those letters out loud," Benner says, noting that was his cue to emerge from the wings, jingling all the way.

Jennifer Andrews is the proprietor of Santa School, an Alberta-based academy that teaches people how to be the best Claus they can be. Through the years Andrews has fielded requests for "Santa regional representatives" who can roller skate, swim or speak umpteen languages. But until Benner, she'd never heard of Santa being the guest of honour at a wedding.

"That's a new one, but it doesn't surprise me; after all, Santa isn't about presents and candy canes -- he's about joy and hope -- so really, what better occasion?" Andrews says when reached at ho-ho-home in Calgary.

People enrol in Andrews's three-day course ($500) for a variety of reasons: some hope to land work in malls or commercials while others are simply curious-types who want to learn what makes Santa tick.

Count us in among the latter group -- which is why we recently sat down with three merry gents who, collectively, have been portraying Kris Kringle for almost 80 years.

 

Ed Benner has little recollection of Christmas past because of a childhood accident that pretty much wiped out the first decade of his life. It's a tad ironic, then, that Benner, 48, now creates lasting memories for hundreds of children every holiday season.

 

In November 1995, Benner spotted a help wanted blurb for a shopping mall Santa. Benner, a size XXXL, already had a leg up on the competition, he figured, thanks to his physique. Only problem: he couldn't squeeze into the provided gay apparel. Benner went home and explained the situation to his wife. She responded by heading to a fabric shop, picking out a few metres of material and fashioning a crimson suit her husband dons to this day.

Benner toiled in a mall setting for the first 10 years of his career. The hours were long, the pay was minimal and -- worse than children with lengthy lists and weak bladders -- he wasn't granted a bathroom break on the off-chance he'd run into kids who had been seated on his lap five minutes earlier.

In 2005, Benner was approached by Kelly Golembiski, owner of an entertainment company called Clowns, Magicians & More. Golembiski asked Benner if he enjoyed working in a mall. "No, not particularly," he said.

So she handed him her business card and said, "Call me and I'll get you some private bookings."

Nowadays, Benner makes 10 times what he used to pull in. Golembiski has 11 Santas on her payroll and books her fleet for an hour at a time to show up at day cares, office parties and, in Benner's case, the odd wedding.

This time of year, Benner also incorporates his character into his other job -- he runs a mobile DJ service called By Request Music.

"If I'm doing a social in December, I'll usually show up in costume," he says. "When it's time for the dancing to start, I'll take off my beard and tuque but keep the rest of the suit on."

Normally it takes Wayne Johnson 30 minutes to drive to Winnipeg from his home in Stonewall. When the 71-year-old grandfather leaves the house fully dressed as Santa, however, he has to allow for extra travelling time.

"Just this morning I got stopped at red lights three times by people who wanted to take a phone picture," Johnson says, catching his breath after a two-hour Breakfast with Santa affair at Red River College. "A couple of years ago I was doing an event here when a bus driver called out to me as I was getting out of my car. He said there were a couple of kids (on the bus) who wanted to say 'Hi.' I pretty much have to honour every request like that."

In 1971, Johnson was working at Wilson Auto Electric in East Kildonan. That winter, company employees formed a social committee. Their first order of business was a Christmas party for the workers' children.

"They asked if anybody was willing to be Santa and I put up my hand," Johnson says, apologizing for the bells on his wrists that ring every time he wipes his brow. "I started in a paper suit -- I actually went through six paper suits before my wife made the clothes I'm in today."

Largely through word of mouth, Johnson quickly became one of Manitoba's most sought-after Santas. There was a 21-year-stretch when he never spent Dec. 24 with his family; instead, he would hit one home after another, often not pulling into his own driveway until 1 a.m. (Ho ho whoa: ask Johnson about the Christmas Eve he was flagged down by Winnipeg's Checkstop program and asked the obligatory questions by a nonplussed officer.)

Johnson has only missed playing Santa one time in the last 42 years; he battled cancer in 2010 and didn't have the wherewithal to hold children in his lap for hours on end, he says.

"That was a tough year; I really missed it," says Johnson, who is often booked a year in advance by repeat clients. "I get very emotional at this time of year. Because kids aren't just up there asking for toys; they share a lot of their family grief with you and you have to be prepared when somebody says something like, 'Dad beat mom up last night.' "

Steve and Louise Charriere are one of the few couples in Winnipeg who book themselves out as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. Steve has been the resident Santa at a breakfast event in Balmoral since 1995 and is also a familiar face at garden centres like Shelmerdine and Lacoste. A few years ago, he convinced his wife to get in on the act.

"He kept telling me how much fun it is, how the kids make you feel so special so finally I said 'Yes" and got a seamstress to make me a suit of my own," Louise says.

Mrs. Claus came in handy a couple of weeks ago when the Charrieres were being interviewed by a French reporter prior to an appearance at the St. Boniface Museum.

"I don't speak French but Louise does," says Steve, who sports a traditional get-up that has a wizardly feel to it. "I was supposed to go 'Ho ho ho,' whenever the reporter made a joke but since I didn't understand a word she was saying, Louise had to give my hand a hard squeeze whenever it was time to laugh."

Steve says the most common question he fields is "Are you real?"

His stock response -- "Well, I'm sitting here. How real do you want me to be?" -- didn't quite cut it for a six-year-old girl a few weeks back.

"She told me she was hoping more for a yes or a no."

As for that stuff about jingle bell rock -- well, you can definitely believe in that, Virginia. When Steve isn't dressing up as Santa -- or working in the insurance biz -- he adopts the persona of Reverend Steve J. Charriere and handles bass guitar for the Saturday Night Basement Blues Band.

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2013 D13

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