SEMINOLE — By day, Paul Chesler is a hands-on business owner, removing land mines from area yards as the Super Pooper Scooper. (Motto: No poop too big, no poop too small, the Super Pooper Scooper gets them all).
Come December, Chesler puts down his scooper long enough to juggle a part-time holiday gig. The 71-year-old Seminole resident bleaches his smoke-gray beard, dons a $1,500 custom-made Santa suit and drives to parties, day cares and other private events in a bright red Toyota convertible with FL SANTA on the license plate. Sometimes his wife, Carol, comes as Mrs. Claus.
A native of Queens, N.Y., Chesler has been working as a Santa for hire for about seven years. He got started when someone at the SPCA where he volunteered asked him to be a Santa to pose with pets. He now has a doctor of Santaclausology from the International University of Santa Claus and is a member of the Palm Tree Santas, the Florida chapter of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.
We asked Santa Paul, as he's known, to tell us about playing the jolly old elf. Here are his responses, in his own words:
One year the SPCA asked me to help out and be Santa in photos for a fundraiser at PetSmart. One guy gave me a Lab puppy and said, "Hold it like you're offering it to somebody." The kids were going to get the picture for Christmas and then the dog after the first of the year. I thought, those kids are going to see Santa giving them a dog, and it's me!
It's hard to describe what you feel like when you walk into a room full of children when you're dressed as Santa Claus. Let's face it, we are all just regular guys, but when we put the suit on we are someone special. You take on the persona and you stand a little taller, you talk a little more distinctly, your whole demeanor changes. It's an awesome responsibility and you can screw things up really quick if you don't know what you're doing.
I'm not a gregarious individual. I'm kind of an introvert. But when I put on the suit, I take on that persona to be able to perform.
At my first private gig, I had a child say, "I want my family to love me." I had no training, I had no idea. I told her I'm pretty sure they love you, otherwise you wouldn't be here with them at this party. Let's face it, Santa's a toymaker, he's not able to cure every ill in the world, so when a child comes up with something that's beyond my ability, I tell them I'll be happy to include you in my prayer book, and that usually satisfies them.
I once had a girl ask me to bring her grandma back. I said, "We can ask God to take Grandma into his hands and show her around in heaven."
I do mostly private parties and events. It's a totally different situation than sitting in a mall. A mall Santa is going to have to deal with stuff I will never, ever have to deal with. (Malls) just want you to produce. Picture, picture, picture, move on, whereas at a private function you can spend more time with the child.
It's a grueling time of year for us. I put in, depending upon the day, 12 to 14 hours, sometimes more, plus I own a business. I try to book as many hours as I can and I've got three and a half, four weeks.
I could buy a $99 suit with a plastic belt, but I don't want to do that. When I walk into the room, I want people to say, "Wow." The more you look authentic, the less problem you're going to have with kids. I once had a big brother tell his little brother, "That's the real Santa, because he's wearing real boots."
I've had kids ask me, "Are you real?" I say, "Of course I'm real, I'm sitting here!" Am I saying I'm the real Santa? No, I'm saying I'm a real human.
The suits I have are custom made. My last suit cost a little over $1,500. My wife asks me, "How many suits do you need?" I say, "I don't know, I don't have them all yet!"
You have to always be in character. I've had parents come up and say, "How much do you charge," and I look at them like they're crazy. Santa Claus doesn't charge anything! They're trying to have a business conversation in front of the children, and you can't do it. These children believe you're Santa Claus and you have to stick with it.
You're picking up kids, so you've kind of got to be physically fit. A helper is great, but if you're at an event and a child walks up to you, you have to pick them up. Some kids are less frightened and will climb into your lap without asking. Some kids stand there and don't know what to do until you reach out and pick them up and start having a conversation.
I did an event earlier this month and it came away wet and I realized it was urine. It was a matter of changing my glove and keep going. I always have extra gloves.
Every year in August I try to get to an event in Atlanta, Ga., called the Santa Claus Academy. We get a tour of Toys "R" Us and they'll tell us what's hot and what's not. When kids say what they want, I repeat it loud enough so mom and dad can hear.
This year, it's been electronics, iPads, iPhones, things of that nature. I try to remind them I'm a toymaker. If it's an older child, I ask, "Do you have a job? Because after you get the phone somebody's got to pay for it." You have to bring them back to reality. Same thing with puppies. Mom and Dad will have to say okay to the puppy. I don't deliver live animals.
I ask them if you could have one toy, what would that be? A lot of Paw Patrol and Legos. I've been asked for Lincoln Logs this year which amazed me, and Tinker Toys, which also very much surprised me.
You never promise you're going to do anything.
When I see (a crying child) coming, I ask the parents not to do it. Wait until next year. Don't traumatize your child like that.
In July, I weigh 175 because at my regular job, I'm out walking all day in the heat. My ideal weight for my suit to fit is 195, 200. I do the one thing my doctor tells me not to do: I eat donuts. Entenmann's chocolate.
I think this has brought me a little closer to the Lord, because that's part of being Santa. I try to remind people that it's not about Santa, but about Jesus Christ. It's made me a little more spiritual.
As Santa, I do not deal with politics. My message is be good and treat people the way you want to be treated.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.