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Kevin Haislip

The Expressions of a Great Santa!

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Kevin Haislip

Last year, my daughter and grandson called to invite me to join them for a local Christmas parade in their town.  This town really knows how to celebrate Christmas!  Even though I am a real bearded Santa, I still went and we had a great time watching all the wonderful floats go by, decorated with lights and tinsel and all manner of design.  But when Santa and his sleigh came by, Santa just sat there, nary a wave, barely a smile.

Then recently, I was paging through a talent agency website looking at various Santas represented by that agency.  I’ve got to say, there are a quite a few of us I would not hire if I was looking for someone to appear at my party.  I’ve been a Santa now for 10 years and every year have worked hard to improve my appearance and talents.

I was a commercial photographer for 37 years before I retired.  In that job, I not only had to learn to use a camera and design a photograph, but since I also worked with models (often amateurs), I had to learn how to direct them to get the best shot. 

When I photographed someone in a shot that demanded a mood of ‘excitement’, I studied what other artists and photographers had done to show that.  I directed and worked with the models to get gestures and moods and expressions like happiness, joy, sadness, depression, anger and so on from them.  I was prepared for what looks I needed to inspire when I walked into my studio or on set.  And over time, it became second nature to me to coax various expressions from my models to even get images that were not planned but still became great shots.  I use those skills I learned as a photographer and director.

As Santas, we too need to do this.  We need to look at what photographers and models have done with expression to get such wonderful shots.  And I don’t mean just Santas photos either.

The best sources I have had through the years was Lucille Ball and Dick Van Dyke.  These two actors had rubber faces and knew how to engage their audiences.  They could instantly transform their faces and gestures from that of someone who was being sneaky to one of laughter to embarrassment. 

I encourage you to create a file of fabulous faces and practice them in the mirror yourself!  Think through the kind of engagements you have had with children and what great expression would have made the visit for them AND the picture even greater!  Of particular note, practice and learn facial expressions such as joy, surprise, a great laugh, empathy, and even sadness and compassion.  Learn them and use them regularly even in the off season.  It isn’t just about facial expression either.  Learn to use your hands and gestures to further enhance your look!  Again, watch what the great pros have done. Perhaps most important is pay close attention to your visitor and learn to give a great Santa expression that meets the situation.

I’ve learned to do that even when I am in the same chair for 5 to 8 hours visiting with hundreds of children.  I even tell my photographers to be ready to shoot because the interactions come fast.  I want those parents to leave with a picture of Santa and their child that they will really cherish and say, “That was the best Santa we ever had!”

Now I realize that facial expressions and gestures are not really the ultimate goal.  The real goal is to fully engage with the child or visitor if even for just a minute.

Several years ago, I had an 11 year old girl come to visit me.  She was a delight in every way: beautiful and bubbly and every bit engaging.  She wore an absolutely beautiful Christmas dress of red velvet and white fur.  We talked for a couple minutes.  I complimented her on her beauty and dress and she told me how she was doing and what she wanted for Christmas.  Mom took several pictures with her camera of us just talking and my reactions to what her daughter was telling me (surprise, joy and happiness and laughter…).  A few days later, Mom came back by the set to get my email so she could send me some of her pictures (she loved them!).  As I gave it to her, she was telling me more about her daughter and I learned her daughter was dying of leukemia.  I didn’t have to put on a expression at that point.  It was truly there.

A couple of days before Christmas, Mom and Dad brought their daughter to visit with me again.  I recognized her immediately.  We had a delightful time together that time as well.  But I believe what brought her back was her first visit with Santa.  I had made the first visit such a delightful time and Mom had taken so many fun pictures that this time, they wanted the whole family photographed with Santa.

This past year, I have been mentoring a man who decided to become a Santa.  He is a great fellow and our friendship has deepened significantly.  He has a truly great chuckle and very white hair and long beard.  He has spent a small fortune having a custom suit, belt, buckle, boots and such made.  All well and good.

The man who becomes Santa is all about giving of himself to bless those who come to him.  My friend will make a great Santa! 

All things considered, it isn’t the suit, it’s the man! 

aIMG_8895.jpg

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Santa Bill Reiller

Good points!!!   The face does tell a story.!!

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Felix Estridge

Excellent advice.  Try to be better at whatever you do.

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Santa Johnny Boy

Santa Kevin, I couldn't agree with you more!  There is a lot than can be studied to make a Santa appearance more memorable, beyond what you can learn at most Santa schools, such as Public Speaking, Acting and even Stand Up Comedy,  all can be accessed at your local community college.

When I do a parade, I am animated and highly interactive with the crowd, all thanks to the above classes I've mentioned.

And, yes, even smiles have to be practiced.  I am amazed to see so many Santa photos where the smile is completely hidden.

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Drosselmeyer

really great advice with personal appliacations - it is so important to be present and real for every child - the term I was taught was command presence - to be fully there and engaged and in control - it isn't always easy - sometimes it is just hard - but it makes all the difference

I am so glad you were able to bring such happiness to that little girl and her family - thank you for sharing

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