'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, the whole family was listening, as quiet as a mouse. Santa Claus read a story, then said a prayer, before letting the children know that he was there to make their wishes come true.
A holiday fairy tale? No way.
That's precisely what the white-bearded Walt Pollock -- also known as Santa this time of year -- will be doing this Christmas Eve in several homes across the area. The jovial Columbus resident has just begun a monthlong break from his job at Best Buy to spread cheer and put a big smile on the faces of local children.
You see, Pollock, 65, is among the legions of Santa Clauses who make a little extra income during the holidays, entertaining at public gatherings such as the Christmas Village at The Landings, in private homes and inside local businesses, apartment complexes, churches and charitable organizations.
Pollock, a retired soldier, former labor department representative, Baker High and Columbus State grad, took time recently to discuss his love for playing Santa, the experiences he has had and even a bit of the business aspect behind being a jolly old elf.
How in the world did you get started playing Santa Claus?
Thirteen years ago, I was sitting and watching television when my neighbor, who works for Smith Barney, called and said her Santa the year before got drunk at the Christmas party and asked if I would play Santa Claus this year. She said I'll buy you the suit and pay you $50. I said, "Wow!" I did that for two years with the fake suit and the fake beard.
After Christmas, I thought: Wait a minute, I've got the belly, I've got the beard. All I've got to do is let it grow and I need to find somebody that will bleach my beard. I called all over town and I finally found Peggy's Image Makers there in Bibb City. She bleached my hair and the rest is history. I've got 75 jobs booked this season.
So there is demand for Santa out there?
Yes. My job has no recession. People are going to forgo something to make sure that their children have a good Christmas.
What types of events and places do you encounter?
I do a lot of different ones. I'm the sit-down Santa Claus at The Landings there on Airport Thruway. I go to businesses, such as Kennon and Parker, and this year I'm going to Gigi's Cupcakes. I go to all the Greystone Apartments and Whisperwood. I do private homes. I've got a job out there at Fort Benning.
Ten percent of my jobs I do for free. Right now I'm giving one away for a Catholic church. There's a lady called "Pam for Unity" and I'm giving her one because she works with Teen Challenge.
Just how much does a "Santa for hire" make these days?
When I go into a private home, I charge $100 for a visit. If I do a business, I charge $100 an hour. However, if I do a private home on Christmas Eve, I charge $200. And if I do a private home on Christmas Day, I charge $300.
This year I have seven jobs on Christmas Eve. Between 5 and 10 (p.m.), I've got seven homes. That's all here in Columbus. But I do travel. This year I've got a job up in Newnan, Ga., Hatchechubbee, Ala., down near Eufaula, and in Ellerslie, Ga.
Why do you enjoy taking on the persona and appearance of Santa?
It's just the children. Years ago I was a Girl Scout leader when I was a single parent. It's just all about the children having a good time. I just love it. I get paid good money to do it. But it's almost like a ministry now.
When I play Santa in a private home, I read the story, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." I have a real Santa Claus bag, so if somebody says they've got toys to pass out, they put them in the car and I fill my bag up and take the toys into the home with me.
I ask (parents) for something good and something bad every child has done that day. So at some point during my visit, I'll say, 'Well, you know Santa's naughty and nice list? Hmmmm, Tony, you talked back to your Dad today.' Let me tell you, if you tell a child something they've just done, their eyes get about as big as saucers, and you can just see the tears start to build up in their eyes.
Then I follow real fast with, "Oh, but Tony, you helped Daddy take out the garbage. I'm so proud of you, give me five." So I build them up real quick.
They can take all the pictures they want, I don't care, grandma, grandpap, the whole family, it doesn't matter. Then I have a little Christian prayer that I pray, and the first stanza goes, "My dear Lord precious Jesus, I did not mean to take your place. I bring toys and things, and you bring love and grace." And it goes on from there.
Then I ask (parents) that they put my money in a Christmas card and have one of the children give Santa a Christmas card, and I'm out the door until next year.
Do they offer you cookies and milk?
They do. I sit there and eat the cookie and drink the milk. Even though I drink skim milk, they always give me whole milk, but that's OK.
Is playing Santa essentially acting?
It is, because you're performing. There's a lot of Santa Clauses out there, and you just have to have a personality. You have to be a Type A personality where you're not afraid to answer all of the questions.
There's not a question I have not heard that I don't have an answer for. One of the big ones is: Where is your sleigh at? I always tell them, "Did you ever see the movie, 'Polar Express,'?" And they all say yeah. I say, "Remember how big that sleigh is? I can't park it out here. I can't put it on the roof. So I just park it at the airport and let the reindeer eat the grass at the airport."
The kids always want to know how old I am. I give them an age of around 857, and say my son's just a young whippersnapper at 432, so he's in training to become Santa Claus.
Some kids have to be skeptical?
They get to that age where they're skeptical. But I let them touch my beard and touch my stomach. I'm physically real.
You're also retired from the military?
My first 10 years in the Army I was in combat arms, infantry. But my last 10, I was a hospital administrator managing a medical records department. (After retirement) I bounced around to a few jobs, but I finally got a job there at the Georgia Department of Labor. Right now, I'm security at Best Buy and it's just a part-time job. But retirement is not a word in my vocabulary.
The store lets you take a break at such a big sales time of the year?
I'm leaving there only for the month. I commend Best Buy. Whenever they need me to work, I work. And they let me go every year right around this time and I don't go back until after Jan. 1.
Does it take long to get into the Santa role mentally?
Actually, it takes longer to get into the role physically. I say that because my beard is almost totally white, but it still has some dark in it. So I have to go to Peggy's Image Makers about a month before my first job to get it all bleached out. And then I go every other week to keep it. In fact, I have a beauty shop appointment next Wednesday.
Getting suited up has to be interesting?
About an hour before my job, I start getting dressed and I keep Christmas music on. But I'm pretty jovial anyhow. I can carry on a conversation with a rock.
I have five suits; I just got done buying one. As a matter of fact, I still have the first suit that was ever bought for me 13 years ago and I still use it sometimes. It was a $75 suit from Chapman's on Wynnton Road.
But a good suit will run you $400 to $500. They're expensive things. I've got a real pair of boots. I've got about five or six pairs of gloves, a huge black leather belt. The whole outfit.
Let's get into your Santa psyche and have a little fun: Are your elves unionized or do they simply work at your will?
They work at my will; they're not unionized. The children always ask me what they eat. The elves eat cookies and milk three times a day. That's what they get fed. And we provide them a place to sleep up there at the North Pole.
Does Santa really like the cold or are you dying to move your workshop to Miami Beach?
I love the cold. So I sweat like a bear when I'm inside those suits down here in Georgia.
Is it tough having a reputation for being jolly?
I would say no, if you keep in mind that it's all about the children and them having a good Christmas and just seeing their faces light up.
The other day I saw a little girl hit her brother inside Best Buy. And I walked up behind her and said, "You can't do that," and she looked up at me. I always keep these novelty coins in my pocket, and it says, "I've been caught being good." So I gave the coin to the little girl and I'm walking around the store and she's getting ready to go with her parents. She runs over to me and says, "I'm sorry for hitting my brother." That's what it's all about.
Are the kids generally well-behaved when they meet you?
Actually, people always ask me: Don't they pull your beard? And I say, no, children don't ever pull my beard because they know it's real. It's (wiseguy) teenagers and adults that pull the beard.
Is there a theme for what the kids ask for?
Girls are a lot of baby dolls and boys are a lot of Legos. I (also) get the video games and the Ds3s and the iPads and iPods and the Xbox 360s. In fact, I have every little piece of paper that any child has ever given me as their Santa. I have saved every one.
Are there sad or unusual stories you've run across?
I was doing the battered women's shelter here a bunch of years ago. I was playing Santa Claus and I was in the room with all the children reading, "The Night Before Christmas," and taking pictures. Then they took Santa into a different room and it was just full of toys. And every child was allowed to come in and pick one or two toys. So the kids would come and get a gift and I would give them a candy cane and the kid would leave.
But this one boy got his present, got his candy cane and I gave him a hug and he walked toward the door and turned around and looked at me. I said, "What can I do for you?" He came running back to me and got up in my lap and he said, "I'd like to have my Daddy home for Christmas." It just tore me apart. All I could do is say Santa loves you and Jesus will always be there.
That's a tear-jerker. Any other moments?
I was doing a job one year at a foster children's program, and the room was just full of children and we had a lot of helpers. There must have been a couple of hundred children. You literally almost had to push these children through like an assembly line because there were so many of them. It was so each child could get a minute with Santa Claus and they could get their gift and some goodies provided by McDonald's.
I had all kinds of elves calling names and moving them along. We got to this one little boy whose name was Anthony. Well, Anthony didn't come up. So we called a couple of more times. Then all of sudden you could see Anthony come running across the room, just at breakneck speed. He jumped up in Santa Claus' lap and gave him a great big hug and he didn't stop hugging. I had elves saying, "You've got to move on, we've got other children." I said to them: When Anthony's done hugging, we'll move on. Anthony finally got done hugging. He got up, walked away and didn't want his toy, nothing. All he wanted was a hug from Santa Claus.
What's the toughest part of the job, picking up kids over and over to put them on your lap?
You're sitting down and you're picking these children up. The average child will weigh probably 50 or 60 pounds, and you're lifting them straight up from a sitting position, and you're doing that repeatedly. At the end of the season, I'm a little bit sore. (laughs)
I had this one kid here last year, a little girl who must have been 6 or 7 years old. That child had to have been every bit of 250 pounds. I could not put that child on my lap, and you could see it in her face that she was disappointed. There was nothing I could do. I could not get her in my lap. That's probably the toughest.
Any funny moments?
People ask: Don't children pee on you? I say, no, I've never had a child pee on me. But I've had parents give them to me wet and stinky.
How long do you think you'll be doing old Saint Nick?
For years as long as my health will let me. I don't see that stopping in the near future. I'm in good shape and a little lighter than I used to be, and that's all good. People ask: How can you be a thin Santa? And I say: If Santa is telling children that they have to be good and eat their vegetables, then Santa has to think healthy, too.