December 3, 2020

Repping the Man — and Woman — in Red

What it takes to be Mr. & Mrs. Claus
By Al Parker | Dec. 21, 2019

Every year a dedicated cadre of Kris Kringles man the front lines of the Christmas season. From Thanksgiving to nearly Christmas Eve, these are the Santas that you see in stores, parades, parties and anywhere else a dab of holiday jolliness is required. 

It would be easy to be cynical about these guys. After all, most Santa images in popular culture are used to peddle everything from soft drinks or Red Bull to M&Ms.

But that misses the point.

Spend some time talking with these Santas, and you quickly learn that these are the guys to whom we entrust our children’s most heartfelt wishes and dreams. They are from a place where good behavior and kindness are not only valued but also rewarded.

Santa Claus, in truth, is not about giving or receiving gifts, but about joy — giving and receiving.

Here, Northern Express sits down with several area Clauses — both Santa and the Mrs. — to find out how they came to embody the spirit of the season and hear some of their most memorable moments.
 
The Instincts of a Good Santa
When Williamsburg resident Rod Kuncaitis invites a few friends over for his jolly ol’ appearance at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa’s annual “Breakfast with Santa,” it’s hardly your average get-together.

“I think we had 580 people, all told [last Christmas],” said Kuncaitis, a bright-eyed elf of a Santa Claus. “It takes a while, but it’s really fun.”

With no formal training, Kuncaitis said he was sort of drafted into Santa duty about six years ago, when he took over from Dick Smith, a long-time Acme area St. Nick.

Kuncaitis has the natural instincts that make a good Santa, asking a few ice-breaking questions to the shyest of children and never promising a specific present. “I’ll ask their name, where they go to school,” he explained. “I’ll ask if they’ve been good, and sometimes I’ll joke and ask if they drive. One time I asked a boy if he’d been good and he said ‘No.’ I asked if he loved his mom and dad and he said ‘Yes.’ Then you’re good, I told him.”

Kuncaitis has heard more than a few unusual requests over the years. “One 60-year-old woman asked me to pray for her because she had just been diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “Another lady told me about her failed marriage. You don’t know what’s coming next.”

He was once taken aback by an overly friendly woman who crawled onto his lap, flung her leg across his and openly flirted with Santa. “This was right in front of her husband and children,” he recalled, shaking his head. “You never know.”
        
Over the years, Kuncaitis has invested about $1,800 in two Santa costumes. He rotates them out during the busy season, during which he makes about 20 appearances as the Jolly Old Elf.

Within the Santa community, he said, there are different genre of Santas, namely fake beard vs. real beard — and the difference in valuation is real.

“A fake-beard Santa gets about $100 an hour, while a real-beard Santa gets $150 and up,” he explained. “I’m a fake-beard Santa. I’m not looking to get rich at this, just to have fun with the youngsters. My goal for next year is to learn sign language.” 

This Santa Doesn’t Charge a Fee
Ken Mattei got pressed into Santa service about two decades ago and has no plans to stop St. Nick-ing any time soon.

“There was a ‘Breakfast with Santa,’ event but we couldn’t find a Santa [at a reasonable price], so I bought a suit and did it,” recalls Mattei, a retired GM executive who lives in the Gaylord area. “I’ve been doing it for charitable organizations now for many years. I get a lot of phone calls.”

Each year, Mattei does 20 to 25 events between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Unlike some St. Nicks, Mattei doesn’t charge a fee for his services, which take him across northern Michigan and as far south as Pontiac.
Out of all his holiday appearances, one event in Mancelona last year stood out.

“You know, a lot of kids come up and want an iPad or Xbox or something expensive,” said Mattei. “But this one little guy came up with his two brothers and quietly whispered to me ‘All I want is my Dad back with us. He’s in jail. And I want my Grandpa alive — he passed away. And our dog passed away.’” 

That request sent Santa reeling.

“That just torqued me big time,” said Mattei, who later launched an investigation to find out who the boys were and what their family situation was. “We tracked them down and learned that they lived south of Kalkaska. Mom worked at a diner, and everything the boy said was true. They were having some hard times.”

Mattei, who is president of Gaylord annual Alpenfest, approached the Gaylord Chamber of Commerce and worked with Kiwanis and the Meijer Store to help the family. “We got a conference room full of things for Mom and the kids,” said Mattei. “And we delivered them the weekend before Christmas.”

No (Legit) Beard, No Problem
Cadillac resident Al Dumond has been an Old-World Father Christmas at Wexford County events for two decades. It began when he was approached to play the role and narrate a community theater event.

“They kind of found me,” said Dumond, who works for the city of Cadillac. “And I’ve been at it, on and off, ever since.”

Dumond’s version of St. Nick features a slightly different coat and a walking stick complete with tinkling bells, plus a bushy beard, which is fake. “I can’t grow a beard, so I go with a fake one,” said Dumond, who has no formal Santa training.

His Old World look sometimes takes youngsters and their parents aback.
“I was at an event at the Wexford Historical Museum, and there was a modern Santa leaving as I replaced him,” recalled Dumond. “There were a couple of kids looking and looking at me. ‘Come here,’ I whispered to them, and the boys did but looked confused.”

After the youngsters left Dumond, their parents explained the boys’ puzzled behavior.

“They had just sat on the lap of the modern Santa who I replaced, and then they sat on my lap,” said Dumond. “They wondered who was the real Santa.”
Any advice for any St. Nick wannabes?

“You got to really want to do it,” advised Dumond. “It’s a commitment. It’s gonna take time, and you always have to have a jolly disposition.”

Santa and Mrs. Claus
Fritz Boehm, from Manistee, began his Santa career four years ago when the local Elks Club asked him to star in an event.

“I’m a member, and they asked me to play Santa,” said the 75-year-old retired chiropractor. “I enjoyed it so much, so then I was asked to appear at a few schools in Manistee.”

Boehm, who already sported a short white beard, let his chin whiskers grow. Since then, he’s appeared at Crystal Mountain Resort events and made several school visits, private house calls, and Manistee’s Sleighbell Parade, where he appears as “the Old St. Nick.”

Last October he became a certified St. Nick by attending the Charles Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, the longest running Santa School in the world. It’s been active since 1937. Fritz’s wife, Judi Boehm, went along as Mrs. Claus and thoroughly enjoyed the three-day session. 

The school offers students lessons on how to behave as Santa, media interview tips, presentation skills, and much more. It gave the Boehms a chance to meet like-minded Santas and to share stories and tips. They also had an opportunity to spend time with live reindeer and ride The Polar Express train.

“We met a young Santa from Jerusalem,” said Fritz. “He sees 9,000 kids a year in Jerusalem. He’s a Christian and arrives at events on a camel. His real job is working security for the Israeli government.”

“It was such fun, a really neat experience” she said. “The school was all about the heart. Everyone there had a special photo of a kid who had touched their heart. Everyone involved has a real passion for it. And it was really fun to dress up as Mrs. Claus."

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