Although Santa has all the toys made at the North Pole, his administrative operation is in Alvarado and when Santa is out in the community in his civilian clothes, he goes by the name of Mike Richardson, who owns and operates the Richardson Group Realty.

Richardson is also the founder and chief executive officer of North Pole Productions, which manages dozens of Santas in malls and other activities throughout the United States.

“I started out doing historical re-enactments, and I would dress up in an old-timey Santa suite and perform at various functions - I just did it for enjoyment,” Richardson said.

In 1995, Richardson’s good friend, a professional Santa who worked each year at the Mall of the Americas in Minneapolis, Minn. had heart bypass surgery and he called on Richardson to work for him. From that experience, he evolved into what has become a thriving Santa Claus business.

“I worked the Parks Mall in Arlington for five or six years, and before long I had several Santas working for me and my own operation started up,” Richardson said, noting that he discovered that there was a big demand all across the country for “real beard Santas.”

“I started a Santa school which is called ‘North Pole University,’ which is a two-day training course to teach men how to be proper Santas,” Richardson said. “I conduct schools in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Orlando and the Dallas/Fort Worth area.”

Richardson has strict standards for his Santas and he says he hires no Santas unless they go through his North Pole University.

Richardson oversees 35 full-time Santas and seven part-time Santas who work in malls in 18 different states. He notes that his Santas will work 42 days during the Christmas season, beginning a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving and working through Christmas Eve.

“Many of my Santas are retired or else have a small business which they operate through the year and are able to devote their time to the Christmas season,” Richardson said.

Santas who graduate from Richardson’s school must be non-smokers, non-drinkers and must adhere to a background check. The proper candidate must practice good hygiene and learns it in his school. A part of the hygiene is to have several pairs of white gloves and to put on a new pair during each break and to wash hands thoroughly with disinfectant soap and hot water. Richardson also notes that when his Santa’s get thirsty and want a soft drink, he tells them to drink through a straw so they won’t stain their mustache.

“Sometimes a mother will bring a sick child out to see Santa and, in cases like that, I instruct the Santas to take those gloves off, turn them wrong-side-out so germs won’t spread and then put on a new pair,” said Richardson, noting that during one session, a child visited him in a mall and he could tell that the child’s fever just radiated from his coat.

“I told the mother that I thought her child had fever and she told me, oh yes, he has chicken pox,” Richardson said, noting that incident called for a change of gloves.

Richardson explained that some parents are thoughtless when it comes to their children.

“I remember one night the weather was freezing - there was ice on the roads and one mother brought her child, wearing a coat, but also shorts and flip flops,” Richardson said.

Richardson also instructs his student Santas on the proper way to handle a child, what to say and that hands must be visible at all times during children’s visits.

“I tell my Santas to keep their fingers close together rather than spread out because spread fingers doesn’t make a good image especially for photo shoots.”

Richardson usually produces his own photos at malls, but, in some places, such as Ridgemar Mall in Fort Worth where they have a large following, they won’t compete with their photo operation.

“Many parents in Fort Worth have brought their children back to me for 11 consecutive years, which is the number of years I have had the operation,” Richardson said.

Asked how he teaches his student Santas concerning conversations with children, Richardson said, “We’re never to refer to ourselves as ‘I’, but as ‘Santa’ - and we never promise a child a toy unless we glance at the mother and she nods ‘yes’ that the child is getting it.”

Richardson says that many children ask for certain items, which he knows is an impossibility, so he just tells the child, “Oh yes, I’ll bet that would be a lot of fun” or some other non-committal statement.

“A lot of kids want these new Wii games, but stores are running out of them - I’m even trying to find one for my grandchild, but they’re hard to find this time of the year,” said Richardson, saying that when a child asks for one, he just acknowledges that there is such a large order for them, he just doesn’t know about it.

“Some children want a baby brother or a baby sister,” said Richardson, saying, “I just laugh and tell them that’s Mr. Stork’s job.”

Richardson told of an incident when a child came up to him and acknowledged to him that his brother dared him to pull his beard off and run away with it.

“I told him that wouldn’t be very nice and then I told him to gently tug on my beard just below my bottom lip, but the child didn’t want to,” Richardson said. “When I finally convinced him to do it, he gently pulled on it and then his eyes lit up and he screamed, ‘Santa, I love you!”

Richardson said that some children come to him with sad stories and it’s all he can do to choke back tears.

“You know, it may not be politically correct, but when a child has a real sad story or perhaps is real sick, I just tell them that Santa will say a little prayer for you,” Richardson said.

Richardson said that there are a lot of humorous encounters with children as well.

“One little boy told me what his mother wanted for Christmas and when I asked him what his dad wanted for Christmas, he said, ‘Dad has been bad - he shot a duck and ‘eat’ him.”

Richardson said one little girl told him, “I want either an iPod or a little sister.”

Richardson also appears in children’s hospitals as well.

“Sometimes these children are real sick - some have terminal illnesses,” said Richardson, saying, “I give them a little bell and tell them that whenever they feel afraid or lonely, just ring this bell and Santa will always hear you and think about you.

“When I go back to my car after those hospital visits, I have to sit in my car and gain my composure because I just lose it,” Richardson said.

Richardson does not use a typical “booming” voice like most people perceive Santa Claus, he just speaks in his natural voice.

Richardson acknowledges having fun out in public when he is out of costume, with his frosty white beard and hair drawing people toward him, especially little children.

“They’ll ask me if I am Santa and I’ll just say, I just might be - have you been a good boy?” said Richardson, noting that one time when he was not dressed in his Santa costume, a small boy asked him why he was dressed like that and Richardson whispered to him, “Don’t tell anybody, but I’m on vacation and I’m traveling in disguise.”

Richardson says that there are many Santa organizations, but as far as he knows, he has the only company that provides training before hiring Santas.

Talking to Richardson, one can readily recognize his positive attitude and outlook on life. He said, in reference to his white beard and hair, “I’ve always believed that no matter what negative things may happen in your life, it can be turned into something good.”

For further information on North Pole Productions, e-mail mrichardsongroup@sbcglobal.net.

E-mail Paul at paul.gauntt@waxahachiedailylight.com.