In December 1970, 20-year-old Tim Connaghan was working at a Bullock’s Department Store in Lakewood, Calif., when he was approached with a last-minute offer.
“The Santa who was supposed to start work couldn’t do it, so the HR person asked me to fill in,” Connaghan, 63, recalls.
A fresh-faced college student who’d just returned home from serving in Vietnam, he was excited about the opportunity. After all, it paid $20 an hour, which was big money in those days. But he needed a little help getting into character, so he got his mom to stitch together padding for his suit and bought a pair of wire-rimmed glasses at Woolworth.
A natural entertainer, “Santa Tim” was a hit with kids and adults alike. He peppered his routine with magic tricks and often borrowed a bike from the toy department to ride down the aisles.
He filled in at Bullock’s for the next three seasons, gaining quite a following. He began to appear as Saint Nick at community holiday events and parties, too, delivering such a convincing portrayal that his young daughter didn’t recognize him.
“She never knew,” he says.
Yet it wasn’t until many years later that he decided to become what he calls a “24-7-365 Santa” and begin to build a jolly empire of Christmas-related companies under The Kringle Group banner.
After nearly a decade on the air as a radio personality, he spent 25 years working as a development director, raising funds and running telethons for nonprofits including the March of Dimes and the American Cancer Society. He rarely was without an audience.
During these years, he continued to dust off his Santa suit every December. One season, he bumped into a fellow Santa at the mall who connected him with an informal network known as the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. Connaghan became the organization’s executive director in 2003 and helped grow the organization's membership to over a thousand in the years that followed.
His Santa star was clearly on the rise.
“I was getting so many calls for gigs that I was having to give away lots of them,” he says.
So, with a twinkle in his eye, he launched his own online booking agency, RealSantas.com, to help colleagues across the country land gigs at malls, photo studios and special events. Recognizing the need for authentic Santas, he also created the International University of Santa Claus, a traveling series of two-day workshops based on his book, Behind the Red Suit. He even sells Santa suits and year-round apparel and accessories through SantsWardrobe.com and CasualClaus.com.
Somehow, Connaghan manages to fulfill his own Santa obligations, too. He has acted in several movies, TV specials and commercials, and appears at tree lighting ceremonies, charity events, corporate parties and more. For the last 10 years, he has served as the official Santa for the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade. He'll have only a handful of days off this month.
In 2011, he was inducted into the International Santa Claus
Hall of Fame alongside such luminaries as Edmund Gwenn, star of Miracle on 34th Street, and Haddon
Sundblom, the artist who created the modern-day image of Santa Claus
for a 1931
Yet, despite his national stature, Connaghan remains humble. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Susan Lucci, the police chief or a family at the mall," he says. "I’m Santa to everyone.”
We caught up with Connaghan just before the start of this year’s holiday season for a quick chat:
It really was quite simple. I was appearing in the Hollywood Christmas Parade and doing a lot of promotions in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills community. I needed a “handle,” so to speak, to distinguish myself from the thousands of other Santas out there. Brady White in Rhode Island was “Santa to the Stars,” and other Santas had similar nicknames like “New York Santa” or “White House Santa.” So I chose “Santa Hollywood.” Sometimes I’m also known as “National Santa” because I’m the official Santa for the Marines Toys for Tots Campaign.
It’s not the beard, nor the size of the body, or even the white hair. It’s what you have in your heart. You must have a love for the children. And a sincerity of the position of Santa. Otherwise, the children will know. They are quite intelligent when it comes to Santa. Some children might be fooled once in a while, but the Santa who has the true spirit in his heart will always be real. Other keys include knowing how to talk to children of all ages and using the secret techniques to knowing their age, whether they have been good, and proving to them that you're the real Santa. Having a quality Santa suit and accessories... preferably real boots and a leather belt... and knowing how to work with children to get a good photo are important, too.
I've been blessed. And now that I'm retired, I get to do this 24-7-365. The most enjoyable moments are when you reinforce a child’s belief in Santa. They have seen Santa on TV or in films, or maybe in storybooks. But it’s that first encounter, when they meet me and they see that Santa is real, that is the most enjoyable. I also enjoy talking to children and asking them about school or about what type of giving they are doing this year.
Of course, most are requests for toys. “Can I have a dolly?” or “Will you bring me a toy truck.” But, sometimes Santa is asked other questions like, “Santa, what do you want for Christmas?” I usually tell them I want to take Mrs. Claus on a nice vacation or something like that.
I’ve been fortunate to be Santa for big media events, community events, corporate parties and home visits to families over the last 46 years. I have also flown with the Marines and Blue Angels, delivering thousands of toys to victims of Hurricane Sandy, and visited various Ronald McDonald Houses, Children’s Hospitals and Shriner’s Hospitals to meet with kids dealing with serious illnesses and physical problems. I’ve had the opportunity to experience some fantastic highs, and also be brought back down to earth dealing with the realities of life.
Probably one of the most unique experiences, that combines both the high and the low, was in 2005 when I was asked to be Santa for Dr. Phil and Robin McGraw and a special set of shows they were doing to help some families who were victims of Hurricane Katrina. I was part of a big party for hundreds of children and their parents, hosted by Dr. Phil on the back lot at Paramount Pictures. They created a winter wonderland on one of the back streets, making it look like the North Pole with real snow, an ice rink and a stage where celebrities visited and entertained the families. I met with everyone and posed for photos and listened to Christmas wishes. But, the most moving moment was during the closing of the show, when Dr. Phil and Robin surprised the children with thousands of toys, clothing and computers. The children were so excited and overjoyed. And, as I stood to the side with the parents, I saw tears of joy in their eyes as they watched their children see all of the items they were going to take home. Hurricane Katrina had deeply impacted their lives, and all of them had worries that their children’s lives would be demoralized or crushed at the holidays, as they would not be able to fulfill the Christmas wishes. But in that moment, their worries were gone and they knew that their children would have a wonderful Christmas.