Bill Wiatrak used do a killer Santa. He didn’t go for Santa realness, growing his own beard and the like. No, he was a funny Santa, with a magical Christmas show, and a hugely popular one, so we hear. There was just one problem. “I hated wearing that beard,” he says—the fake one. “As much as I loved playing the character, I’ll wait until I get old and fat to do it again.”
For years after Wiatrak hung up his beard, people begged him to bring Santa back. The answer was always no—“unless they pay me one trillion dollars,” the 53-year-old says in his best Doctor Evil voice, taking a swig of Guinness at West Alabama Ice House.
Which is not to say that Wiatrak, who’s been in the entertainment and event biz for around three decades, has dumped Christmas altogether. Far from it. Incredible Events, his Pearland-based company, keeps a roster of 20-plus real-bearded Santas on hand for holiday happenings—along with some elves, Mrs. Clauses, reindeer, snowmen, even a Grinch with “an incredible custom nose.” Want real snow? An ice rink? Animals for your nativity scene? No problem. But be warned: “There’s only like three camels in Houston,” he says, and they’re booked weekends through the end of the month.
We ask Wiatrak who makes a good Santa. “Do you know how I find most of my Santas? I say, ‘Oh my God, that guy looks like Santa Claus!’” he tells us, motioning to an imagined Santa at an empty picnic table nearby. Then he approaches, introducing himself as a “Santa pimp” with gigs that pay good money at country clubs, parties, neighborhood events, schools, churches, and the occasional department store. If the recruit comes on board, Wiatrak will teach him the dos and don’ts of Santahood.
Santas should be funny, for instance. If a kid tells Santa her name is Eileen, Santa should say, “Oh, you might try corrective shoes.” That sort of thing. Santa should also have a backstory. “He should know where he comes from,” says Wiatrak, as well as “who he’s married to, what his reindeers’ names are, his longitude and latitude, what he eats and drinks, does during his spare time, what kind of cookies he likes. Kids will ask you. He needs to know everything there is to know.” That includes the songs. “He needs to know ‘Rudolph,’ ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘Frosty the Snowman.’ Nobody knows ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ but learn it.”
“Santa needs to have some stories,” Wiatrak explains, still not done. “‘Let me tell you what happened with Rudolph,’” he says, going into character. “‘It was a crazy thing. We were in Vegas, and—’”
Oh, he has to know magic too. “Santa is magical,” he reminds us. “There’s no way you can do the stuff he does without magic. And everybody loves magic.” He pauses. “Except ex-girlfriends of magicians. They hate magic.”
Santa needs nice teeth, professionally bleached if necessary—who knew?—the right glasses, a clean suit, and “a real nice belt—not a crappy one.” He can have either a natural belly or a good prosthetic, but pillow use is verboten. (Even a thin Santa is better than a pillow, apparently.)
What else? Oh, right: the beard. “That’s the first thing kids are going to go for,” Wiatrak says, “especially teenagers.” You’re not real, they’ll announce, and yank the thing off. After a few years of playing Santa, he swears you can tell on sight whether a kid is going to go for it.
In the end, people just want a Santa as real as the real thing. Hence the preference for the classic look. “Today I had a little person over,” Wiatrak says, pulling out his phone and showing us a photo of the guy. “His name is Roger, and he has a great little white beard. He does a good Santa’s elf. But Roger wants to be Santa Claus. The thing I told him is, some people want an elf Santa, but it’s not a big market.”