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Enter the food court at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City and you’ll find what looks like your standard mall Santa meet-and-greet. But the corporation behind the holiday staple likes to call it something else: The Santa Photo Experience 2007.
Falls Church residents Joe Iazzetta and Caroline Butler have just experienced it. Their 6-month-old son, Clyde, rests in his stroller. Today, he met Santa for the first time. As his parents talk to St. Nick, Clyde grasps at the air with his hands. Mostly, he blinks. Clyde didn’t ask Santa for anything because he can’t form words. “He doesn’t even know who Santa is,” Butler says. Adds Iazzetta, “He was just captivated by the beard.”
Don’t sweat it, Clyde: I don’t know who Santa is, either. I’m not allowed. The Noerr Programs—the corporation that employs Pentagon City’s Father Christmas and his bevy of facilitators—won’t authorize it. This is what I do know: I know that the Noerr Programs is a private corporation that stocks 185 malls with approximately 200 “Naturally Bearded Santas” and his companions each winter and follows up with a smaller-scale Easter Bunny program each spring. I know that the outfit is run out of Arvada, Colo., in a headquarters dubbed the “Noerr Pole.” I know that Noerr pulled in more than $14 million in sales last year. I know that in a strange incident in 2006, a bunny-costumed Noerr employee stationed in Fort Myers, Fla., was summarily sacked after getting into an altercation with a customer and—allegedly—punching her in the head. I also know that, bad bunny aside, the Noerr Programs is in the serious business of Santa management, and it’s damn good at it.
“The name is something that we don’t provide because the Santas aren’t to be identified as private individuals,” explains Irene Neofotistos, spokesperson for the Noerr Programs. “If a child were to read something in the media that indicated that Santa Claus was really someone else, it would ruin the experience. That’s our policy, across the board.”
The policy is one of many that the Noerr Programs employs to ensure that each child’s Santa Photo Experience 2007 is one of coolly regulated holiday cheer. Beneath the beard and the gold-rimmed glasses, the role of Santa Claus is still a seasonal position at a mall—and Noerr knows how to pluck sleigh-worthy candidates from the typical temp minefield of the unsavory, the unenthused, and the unemployed. Before Santa is cleared to bounce babes like Clyde on his estimable knee, he undergoes an extensive training process that includes an instructional book, a DVD, field training, and background and drug tests. Additional information about the selection process, including how many Santas are considered each year, and what the background checks entail, is unknown. That information can’t be authorized. Here’s what Noerr can authorize: “The key to a great Santa is a big heart.”
Also authorized is the Noerr Programs’ top ten things santa needs to know!—a list of hard-and-fast rules for potential St. Nicks. What makes the Top 10? The list ranges from the practical No. 3: “Never promise a child anything you can’t deliver” to the fussy No. 6: “Every Santa has an obligation to manicure his beard daily and have it professionally bleached.” Santa himself recommends Clairol Shimmer Lights every other day to maintain “that snowy white appearance.”
The Santa at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, whoever he is, knows what he needs to know. Every day, from Nov. 10 through Dec. 24 (Mondays to Saturdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.), Santa smiles, heaves dozens of butts onto his velvet-draped left knee, and grants wishes. It’s all part of Rule No. 1: “You must be physically and mentally ready when the first child is in your lap until the very last child leaves that night,” and if Santa takes a break, I didn’t see it. His beard, which he’s grown out for about a year and a half, is genuine, in accordance with Rule No. 6: “Folks love Santa’s natural beard!” “Parents,” the Noerr Programs insists, “will go to great lengths to seek out a naturally bearded Santa.”
Santa also looks as if he avoids the urge to eat a huge meal, never smokes or drinks, and uses breaks to do some deep-breathing exercises (No. 4). The suit is top-notch: His velvet pants are tucked carefully into his black leather boots. The pompom that clings to the end of his hat is fluffed and snow-white. Santa always keeps his white-gloved hands where you can see them. But though the suit is immaculate, this Santa embodies No. 2: He is “much more than a Santa suit.” Look into his face and you’ll also encounter strange Rule No. 8: “And his eyes are the magical portal where all children will enter.”
Santa’s also schooled in Rule No. 7: “Santa must always stay in character when in the public eye.” On a slow afternoon, I stole a chat with Santa on his oversize throne and was met with strictly in-character responses. Ask Santa where he’s from, and he’ll say the North Pole; ask him about his significant other, and he’ll name Mrs. Claus. But even these campy disclosures might land Santa on Noerr’s naughty list: He’s not even supposed to be talking to me. Take a look at Rule 7’s fine print: “Santa must make sure that his Mall Marketing Director and The Noerr Programs are aware of every interview request from a reporter.”
“Santa shouldn’t have been speaking with you without first clearing it through us,” says Neofotistos. “You’re not going to get Santa in trouble,” she says, “but I will have to let him know that he should clear all interview requests before speaking with the press.”
That’s where Rule No. 9 comes in: “Santa plays the lead role in a well-orchestrated cast.” At Pentagon City, this cast includes a headset-wearing set manager, a photographer, and a child wrangler trained in the trade of the “funny face.” After I throw Santa some snowballs—What’s your favorite wish? How long did it take to grow the beard?—I am beckoned to the photo booth by a cast member, a man in a red button-down and a festive tie. He informs me that my interview was not authorized and has me wait as he works the phone, searching for the correct corporate contact. Later, I speak with the Santa Photo Experience’s set manager. I ask him if he works for the Noerr Programs. “Are you authorized to refer to the Noerr Programs?” asks the set manager, whose name I am not authorized to divulge. I call corporate. I am not authorized to speak to the set manager; he “is not a spokesperson for the Noerr Programs, and therefore is not someone you should speak with.” The Santa Experience ends here. In an e-mail, Neofotistos informs me: “I have provided you with all the information that I am cleared to as a spokesperson for The Noerr Programs.”
So who besides the Noerr Programs is behind Santa’s beard? Clyde, for one, doesn’t seem to care. Neither do his parents. “Of course, your worst nightmare would be that Santa was a pervert,” says Iazzetta. “But it’s just not likely that that element would present itself,” says Butler. “There are so many people right there watching him.”
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