Enter the food court at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City and youâ€™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 didnâ€™t ask Santa for anything because he canâ€™t form words. â€śHe doesnâ€™t even know who Santa is,â€ť Butler says. Adds Iazzetta, â€śHe was just captivated by the beard.â€ť
Donâ€™t sweat it, Clyde: I donâ€™t know who Santa is, either. Iâ€™m not allowed. The Noerr Programsâ€”the corporation that employs Pentagon Cityâ€™s Father Christmas and his bevy of facilitatorsâ€”wonâ€™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 â€śNaturally Bearded Santasâ€ť 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 â€śNoerr Pole.â€ť 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 andâ€”allegedlyâ€”punching her in the head. I also know that, bad bunny aside, the Noerr Programs is in the serious business of Santa management, and itâ€™s damn good at it.
â€śThe name is something that we donâ€™t provide because the Santas arenâ€™t to be identified as private individuals,â€ť explains Irene Neofotistos, spokesperson for the Noerr Programs. â€śIf a child were to read something in the media that indicated that Santa Claus was really someone else, it would ruin the experience. Thatâ€™s our policy, across the board.â€ť
The policy is one of many that the Noerr Programs employs to ensure that each childâ€™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 mallâ€”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 canâ€™t be authorized. Hereâ€™s what Noerr can authorize: â€śThe key to a great Santa is a big heart.â€ť
Also authorized is the Noerr Programsâ€™ top ten things santa needs to know!â€”a list of hard-and-fast rules for potential St. Nicks. What makes the Top 10? The list ranges from the practical No. 3: â€śNever promise a child anything you canâ€™t deliverâ€ť to the fussy No. 6: â€śEvery Santa has an obligation to manicure his beard daily and have it professionally bleached.â€ť Santa himself recommends Clairol Shimmer Lights every other day to maintain â€śthat snowy white appearance.â€ť
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. Itâ€™s all part of Rule No. 1: â€śYou must be physically and mentally ready when the first child is in your lap until the very last child leaves that night,â€ť and if Santa takes a break, I didnâ€™t see it. His beard, which heâ€™s grown out for about a year and a half, is genuine, in accordance with Rule No. 6: â€śFolks love Santaâ€™s natural beard!â€ť â€śParents,â€ť the Noerr Programs insists, â€świll go to great lengths to seek out a naturally bearded Santa.â€ť
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 â€śmuch more than a Santa suit.â€ť Look into his face and youâ€™ll also encounter strange Rule No. 8: â€śAnd his eyes are the magical portal where all children will enter.â€ť
Santaâ€™s also schooled in Rule No. 7: â€śSanta must always stay in character when in the public eye.â€ť 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 heâ€™s from, and heâ€™ll say the North Pole; ask him about his significant other, and heâ€™ll name Mrs. Claus. But even these campy disclosures might land Santa on Noerrâ€™s naughty list: Heâ€™s not even supposed to be talking to me. Take a look at Rule 7â€™s fine print: â€śSanta must make sure that his Mall Marketing Director and The Noerr Programs are aware of every interview request from a reporter.â€ť
â€śSanta shouldnâ€™t have been speaking with you without first clearing it through us,â€ť says Neofotistos. â€śYouâ€™re not going to get Santa in trouble,â€ť she says, â€śbut I will have to let him know that he should clear all interview requests before speaking with the press.â€ť
Thatâ€™s where Rule No. 9 comes in: â€śSanta plays the lead role in a well-orchestrated cast.â€ť At Pentagon City, this cast includes a headset-wearing set manager, a photographer, and a child wrangler trained in the trade of the â€śfunny face.â€ť After I throw Santa some snowballsâ€”Whatâ€™s your favorite wish? How long did it take to grow the beard?â€”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 Experienceâ€™s set manager. I ask him if he works for the Noerr Programs. â€śAre you authorized to refer to the Noerr Programs?â€ť 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 â€śis not a spokesperson for the Noerr Programs, and therefore is not someone you should speak with.â€ť The Santa Experience ends here. In an e-mail, Neofotistos informs me: â€śI have provided you with all the information that I am cleared to as a spokesperson for The Noerr Programs.â€ť
So who besides the Noerr Programs is behind Santaâ€™s beard? Clyde, for one, doesnâ€™t seem to care. Neither do his parents. â€śOf course, your worst nightmare would be that Santa was a pervert,â€ť says Iazzetta. â€śBut itâ€™s just not likely that that element would present itself,â€ť says Butler. â€śThere are so many people right there watching him.â€ť
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