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The secret life of Santa

Santa and Mrs. Claus had to move to the side for Frida the Airedale terrier's portrait.

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It was picture day at Dog Lovers, a pet supply store in Tampa. A pair of yipping terriers had already posed with Vic and Fran Sitmer, a believable Santa and Mrs. Claus.

But Frida's owner was Jewish, and this was a Hanukkah present for him from his roommate. Having Santa in the picture would not be appropriate, the roommate explained.

Vic Sitmer, 81, just smiled.

He didn't say a word, even though this Santa impersonator is Jewish.

Well, sort of Jewish. Half, if you want to get technical.

As a boy, Sitmer spun the dreidel when his Jewish grandmother was around, but his family also celebrated Christmas with trees and presents.

He wasn't raised in any particular religion, though one tenet has held out the past eight decades.

"I believed in Santa, and I still do," Sitmer said. "Probably more so than most."

That is a requirement to be a good Santa, Sitmer said. Along with a real beard, a real belly and a convincing Mrs. Claus.

Sitmer has all three.

Sitmer lives in Land O'Lakes, but appears as Santa all over the bay area. His sidekick is wife No. 3, Fran, 76.

They met after his second wife died under hospice care. Fran Sitmer, now retired, worked at the hospice center and was a widow. They married in 1999.

"I certainly never dreamed about doing this type of thing," Fran Sitmer said. She wore a homemade red suit with fuzzy white trim down the middle. "I decided I wanted to join him rather than fight him."

By the time Fran entered the Santa scene, Vic Sitmer had played the role for decades. He started out ho-ho-hoing with his kids and grandkids.

In 1991, he stood in for an absent Santa at a now defunct department store in Tampa.

"I just sat there in amazement that I did what I did, had fun doing it, and there I was getting paid for it," Vic Sitmer said.

The couple won't share how much money they make, but they say it's enough for the occasional Caribbean cruise.

They stay pretty busy. There are regular visits to children under hospice care with the volunteer group Santa America. (Those are Mrs. Claus' favorite.)

The couple also maintains a steady string of gigs at retirement homes, churches and stores.

"Over the years, we've developed good Santa–client relationships," Vic Sitmer said.

Most of their gigs are in November and December. They also make occasional appearances at Christmas in July events.

But even during the down season, Sitmer has a hard time mentally leaving the North Pole, his family said.

"Santa doesn't ever want to stop being Santa," said Fran Sitmer. "There are times when I think, 'Christmas is over, Santa, let's just let it rest for a while.' "

The long white beard is now a permanent facial fixture. He started growing it a few years after retiring from his previous life in the banking world. In the summer, he trims the fluffy hair down, an agreement he made with his wife.

"I like a break from it here and there, but he does not want to let go of that beard," Fran Sitmer said.

It's the beard that gets him recognized as Santa in Home Depot, where people in the checkout line insist on taking pictures of him with their cell phones.

"We can be waiting in a restaurant 20 miles from the house and someone will recognize him as a Santa Claus, even when he's not in costume," said his son, Lindsey Sitmer, 57.

There's always candy in Santa's pockets. And every encounter is a marketing opportunity.

When Fran Sitmer needed an operation earlier this year, her daughter Sally Williams, 49, accompanied her parents to a medical consultation.

"The first thing (Vic) does is let them know that he is Santa and gives out a business card," she said.

"You can be anywhere, out in the middle of the boonies camping, and he'll be pushing that he's a Santa professional," Lindsey Sitmer said.

Vic and Fran Sitmer's bedroom has a year-round portrait of Santa on the wall and a shelf dedicated to Santa, nutcracker and reindeer figurines.

They sleep on a — wait for it — king size sleigh bed.

Sometimes the Santa shtick comes in handy.

On the day before Thanksgiving this year, they were en route to a gig, in full costume, when flashing blue lights showed up in the rear view mirror.

Mrs. Claus was driving 68 in a 55 mph zone. A Florida state trooper appeared at the car window.

"He said, 'You know, I just couldn't feel right giving you a ticket, but would you please watch your speed,' " Fran Sitmer recalled.

"I told him I'd put him in my 'nice' book," said Vic Sitmer.

Back at Dog Lovers, Frida the Airedale terrier's photo shoot was over and there was a pause in the action. Mr. and Mrs. Claus rested on some North Pole photo props while the next dog was outfitted in a colorful scarf for his glamour shoot.

The couple talked about their Christmas Day plans. Santa and Mrs. Claus would visit the grandchildren in costume.

When it comes to entertaining kids, Vic Sitmer considers himself the real thing, not an actor.

"I don't see me as 'playing' Santa," he told his wife.

"That's just because of who you are, dear," Fran Sitmer replied.

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312.

The secret life of Santa 12/18/08 [Last modified: Saturday, December 20, 2008 12:41pm]
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