Santa Claus took time out from his busy schedule yesterday to answer questions for the Danville Express before he headed to Sunvalley Mall to meet with fans.
The world has changed since he began making his public appearances 13 years ago, he noted. He can no longer smoke a pipe – although it was once de rigueur – and children sometimes chide him about getting into shape.
"When I started, I would sit on a chair and people would line up and come through," recalled Santa, aka Jerry Bishop, 79, who lives in Danville when he's not at the North Pole. Now malls have elaborate setups. Sunvalley sports a Snow Globe where waiting visitors actually get snowed on, and the Polar Express.
"Children used to have quite a list, sometimes a full page, sometimes for the whole family," Bishop said. "What's happened now, they will ask for one thing."
Popular this year is the GSI (a sort of handheld computer), a Wii system, or Wii games. Bishop said he goes through catalogues to keep up-to-date on toys. "And I've got grandkids," he said. "That helps."
When children ask for puppies he usually explains that they are hard to deliver in the sleigh plus there is too much excitement for a young pup during the holidays. He looks toward the parents to see if a puppy might be arriving on the scene at a later date.
Besides their requests for presents, children have other questions.
"They ask where the reindeer are, or say, 'Did you drive or come in your sleigh?'" he said.
Sometimes they ask how he manages to deliver presents to children all around the world in one night.
"You start at the time zone in London so you are hours ahead, then follow the time line around," he explained. "Then every once in awhile there's a North Pole and a South Pole Santa."
Bishop thinks someone could make a winning submission to America's Funniest Home Videos of parents trying to get their little ones to smile for a photo while they are on his lap.
"They don't like crying or kids who don't smile," he said, and the antics are a show in themselves. "Invariably they'll get a smile and it's fine."
"If they've got a child that's going to cry, I can tell immediately," he continued. "I will have the mother or dad sit next to me and they'll hold the child."
He said one problem with his young visitors at the mall is that they have to wait up to an hour and a half to visit with him. So they are not at their best. When the lines were shorter, in November, it was rare to see a child upset.
"One little girl said, 'You're not going to bite me, are you?' She said, 'I'm scared,'" he recalled. "I said, 'What are you scared of?' She finally relaxed, and I said, 'You're not scared now, are you?'"
Despite news reports about Santa fearing germs this year, Bishop said he's seen fewer sick children than usual. He does keep disinfectant on hand.
Bishop has been Santa for pet photos, too. For animals Santa has a special suit that he cannot then wear for children because of allergies. Bishop does not want to repeat that gig although he did laugh to recall holding a litter of five wiggly young dachshunds.
Bishop let his inner Santa surface after he retired from a lifetime of teaching, 38 years of students from elementary to middle to high school. This was a great background for his new career, he noted.
"I can kid with them and feel at home," he said. "I think the parents sense that."
Bishop was visiting his son in Orange County at Thanksgiving time 13 years ago when he read in the newspaper that an agency headquartered in Walnut Creek hired 3,000 people worldwide as Santas. When he returned home to Danville, he called.
"She said, 'It's kind of late but come on in anyhow,'" he recalled, adding that she wanted to meet him because he told her he had a real beard.
"At that time it was rare that anyone had a natural beard," he explained.
They had him watch a video for 20 minutes, and first thing he knew, they gave him a call to relieve the Santa at Sunvalley Mall. Since then he also has worked at Broadway Plaza, Stoneridge Shopping Center and at Diablo and Castlewood country clubs. He also was at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley for the evening of the Danville Tree-Lighting Festival this year.
He wore his Santa suit to fly to Southern California to visit his grandchildren when they were 2 or 3.
"That caused quite a bit of commotion," he said. "When we landed, the pilot said, 'We'd like to thank all of you for flying, especially Santa. And, Santa, would you remain? We'd like to give you some gifts.'"
They presented him with a penknife saying "Southwest Airlines" and took pictures out on the tarmac.
When he arrived at his grandchildren's house, they were delighted to see Santa and they opened the presents he brought. After he left and came back as Grandpa they never made the connection, he said.
A few years ago Bishop had bypass heart surgery at San Ramon Regional Medical Center. It now uses him in its ads as the poster child for its cardiac team, with a big photo and the words: "He's here because we're here."
Last week Bishop and his wife June went out to dinner at Chow's after he finished his Santa shift. Although in civilian clothes, a man came up to him and said, "My little boy thinks you're Santa Claus." The father and son ended up joining them for photos.
His Santa appearance is always an ice breaker. "My beard is a door opener for conversation with people," he said. "It's amazing the number of people who talk to you that wouldn't otherwise."
He is thinking about writing a book on his life as Santa, titled: "You Look Like the Real Santa."
But he admits he has had other ideas for books, mainly history, that have not come into fruition. Meanwhile he is enjoying his seasonal occupation.
"I look forward to it," he said. "And every year we've been able to have a vacation we wouldn't have otherwise."