Santa Grooms for the Job

It takes lots of work to be a Santa Claus. They have to look the part too. Early preparations take place in a beauty shop in Atlanta where aspiring Santas with real beards come to get their hair and whiskers bleached to a snowy white.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the Onion's wacky world view in a new volume. But first, a Santa Claus story. So, if you have children in the house, you might want to turn down the radio for just a few minutes, if you catch my drift.

One of the last things you might be thinking about this holiday season is all the work it takes to get the right look for the Santa Claus, and Atlanta reporter Phillip Graitcer spent some time with some St. Nicks who are not content to merely don a wig and fake beard.

PHILLIP GRAITCER: A seemingly ordinary suburban beauty shop. It's the kind of place where you can come for a cut or a perm. But today, there are middle-aged men, a little plumped, and they all have beards. Wearing identical red smocks, they're sitting in the barber's chairs, under hair dryers, or just gossiping. One is leaning backwards over a sink.

PHIL(ph): I'm Santa Phil. And I've been a Santa - this is my fourth year professionally. And I'm sliding down to get my hair washed. There we go. Oh, that's cold.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GRAITCER: Hair Appeal is the place where aspiring Santa Clauses with honest to goodness beards can come to get their hair and whiskers turned to a snowy white. Joyce Beisel, the shops co-owner, grooms about 300 Santas a year.

Ms. JOYCE BEISEL (Co-Owner, Hair Appeal): What I'm trying to do now is just take the color out of it in order to get them into a white state because he still have a lot of dark hair.

GRAITCER: Today, there are 9 Santas in the shop to get their hair and beards bleached, conditioned and trimmed. The whole process takes six hours and costs about $200. First, a bleaching solution is applied. It looks like shaving cream and smells awful, like ammonia.

Ms. BEISEL: Can you imagine it up under your nose? That's why they have these cute little pipes to breathe at it. They just keep the fumes away from their mouth.

GRAITCER: During the downtime, there's lots of opportunity for the Santas to exchange tricks of the trade.

Unidentified Man #1: I'm looking for an inexpensive pocket watch, you know, one that just that the top flipsup.

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible) it's my everyday one. I mean, (unintelligible) you want one.

GRAITCER: Darrel Dean(ph) is a little anxious. He's a first time Santa and soon he'll be in a mall in Florida.

Mr. DARREL DEAN: I was thinking that this company would have a - like a school that I would go to but they don't. They just send (unintelligible) and a DVD to watch. And so I guess, the first day or two, I'm just going to have to climb by the seat of my pants.

GRAITCER: Dean listens in on a couple of old-timers who were discussing what to say when a child asks for a kitten.

Unidentified Man #3: You be sure and put a note on the Christmas tree from your parent's permission slips - signed by both parents. If you have that note there, I'll leave a live animal.

Unidentified Man #4: I always tell them Santa doesn't bring a lot of animals. I say well, you know, how Santa (unintelligible) is. It's cold up there. It's like mom standing out about 10 feet if you don't say that, that would be your last Santa job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GRAITCER: With their gray black scraggly wet beards, the Santa wannabees looked more like Osama bin-Laden than St. Nick.

(Soundbite of a kitchen timer)

GRAITCER: Each carries a kitchen timer. And when it goes off, the bleach is washed out and the toner is applied. This step can make a grown Santa cry.

Mr. DEAN: It's burning. It feels like somebody has put a poker into fire and took it out and stuck it on top of your head. It really, really does burns. It just burns, burn. It just burns.

GRAITCER: But for the honor of playing such a joy-giving role, most of them would agree that the burns, the fumes and the hours in the chair are a small price to pay.

For NPR News, I'm Phillip Graitcer in Atlanta.

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