Once a Santa, always a Santa | Lifestyle

Once a Santa, always a Santa | Lifestyle

LOS ANGELES — “Santaaaaaa!!! I know him!”

Almost 20 years since “Elf” became a holiday classic, it is almost impossible to see a Santa, any Santa, and not reenact, or at least think of, Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf utterly freaking out over seeing a department store Santa. Or Buddy’s horrified gasp of “You’re not Santa” when he realizes this is not the real deal.

So if, say, you’re asked to be Santa at a fundraiser that involves Ferrell taking pictures with you and a variety of guests, there has to be some pressure, right? Some concern that you might be accused of “sitting on a throne of lies” and smelling like “beef and cheese”?

“Not at all,” says Stephen Paul Fackrell, 58. He recently donned the big red suit for a Good Deeds Corps voter-registration fundraiser at the Pico Union Project, which included a screening of “Elf” and photos with Ferrell and Santa. “Ferrell was lovely. In the middle of it, he leaned over to tell me that he had once been Santa in Pasadena and that he imagined I was pretty hot in my suit. But I wasn’t. I never feel anything but joy in that suit.”

Fackrell is an Emmy-winning set decorator currently working for “The Talk,” but he has also been representing Santa for more than 30 years; “that suit” is his own, gifted to him by Nordstrom, where he greeted children for 16 years.

His Santa journey began in 1988, when he was hired as a decorator by the Nordstrom store at San Diego’s Horton Plaza; his ebullient personality made him an obvious candidate for the Kris Kringle gig. “I was doing the windows,” he says, “and one of the managers said, ‘Stephen Paul, you need to be Santa,’ so I started filling in on the weekends, and it was magical.”

That was back when department stores ruled the holiday season and many offered the kind of ornate winter wonderlands seen in “Elf.” As a decorator, Frackell would come in the day before Thanksgiving and work until the store was transformed for Black Friday. “One day it’s normal, the next day it’s Christmas,” he says.

Most stores also had their own Santa, and Nordstrom took his presence very seriously. “One year, I arrived at the store in a horse-drawn carriage,” Fackrell says.

Working at various Nordstroms from San Diego to San Francisco, he heard hundreds of children’s Christmas wishes. “It’s important to never promise anything,” he says. “Because sometimes you’d have kids asking for things like to have their father back in their lives or very expensive things and, you know, there’s only so much Santa can do.”

When he left Nordstrom, he took a year to run a horse ranch — “my first love is horses.” Then a freelance gig led him to working with Dr. Phil (Dr. Phillip C. McGraw), which in turn launched a career in television, including stints on “American Grit,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and “The Talk,” where he’s been for six years.

“Once I started in television, I knew I was home,” he says. “I absolutely love my job.”

But he never stopped being Santa. At Nordstrom, he says, parents would ask if he did private events, which is how he found himself bringing Santa to Lionel Richie’s holiday bash one year and a Kenny Loggins Christmas episode of “The Marilu Henner Show” another, with a stream of parties, fundraisers and corporate events in between.

“I’ve arrived at a Hollywood Hills party in the back of a Mia,” he says. “And in 2020, I visited Tig Notaro’s house in the back of the truck. And then I drove through the neighborhood, which everyone loved.”

He’s also kept up another tradition from his Nordstrom years. “Santa used to call the children of Nordstrom employees, with ‘Jingle Bells’ music and their Christmas list, and it was just amazing. So now I’ll — I mean Santa will — call my friends’ children, and the wonder in their voices is such a gift. “

Without the suit, Fackrell doesn’t look much like Santa, though his enthusiasm is definitely infectious. A San Diego native, he’s had the kind of career that can happen only in Southern California. Before joining Nordstrom, he worked at Sea World, cleaning the then-new emperor penguin habitat. “There I’d be, in my wet suit, washing the windows while the penguins swam around at my feet.”

He worked in La Mesa, California, at the Grossmont Center branch of Bobby McGee’s, the diner where all the waiters played characters, and as a guide at Sunset Ranch, where he has boarded his horses over the years.

“Right below the Hollywood sign,” he said. “We’d take guests up and over the hills and down for a Mexican dinner.”

He knows the travails of the television industry, where he fought to get into the union, and where he struggled to support himself and stay sane when the COVID-19 pandemic shut production down. “I painted my apartment, I rearranged my furniture, it was crazy,” he says. He’s proud of his five Emmy nominations (for “Hell’s Kitchen” and “The Talk”) and win (“The Talk”).

But he swears he will never quit Santa. Which is nice to know. We cannot have too many Santas walking among us, especially now that they often seem in short supply. There are far fewer department stores than there were in 1988, and most have cut Santa from their budgets. Nowadays, the representatives of that jolly old elf are to be found in the center of shopping malls, on Christmas tree lots and, since COVID closures, on Zoom.

The pandemic has been tough on Santa, or at least those earthly beings who represent him in the days leading up to Christmas: In 2020, Santa sightings were scarce, and last year, many parents continued to skip the traditional St. Nick photo op as coronavirus cases surged.

This year, however, the lines seem back to pre-pandemic lengths, filled with kids (and adults and, occasionally, pets) dressed in their holiday best for a snap with the big man.

Frackell understands; for him, that brief connection between child and myth is one of life’s great joys, for both Santa and child.

“I remember the first time I met him,” he says. “I still have the photo. I was 5 years old at a McDonald’s in Utah, where we were visiting relatives. I remember staring at my boots, in my Toughskin jeans and corduroy jacket, and not believing that Santa would take time out of his busy day to talk to me.

“It was magical.”

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