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CRANKY OR NICE? OH, THE STORIES SANTAS CAN TELL.

Byline: Carol Rock Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA - He's the most popular guy of the season, slipping down chimneys and holding court in shopping malls around the world.

To accommodate a growing number of children, he's outsourced a little of his fieldwork to white-bearded men willing to don the bright red suit and furry hat.

And these Santa Clause wannabees are.

What's it like to play the jolly old elf? Some of the hardest-working clones shared their innermost thoughts about this seasonal job.

``It's a kick in the pants,'' Bill Lyons said. ``By and large, it's a positive experience, but there's an interesting contrast depending on your audience. When you've got a bunch of preschoolers, it's hugs and high fives; when it's an adult party, it's a little more ribald and humorous. You have to be two different people.''

Lyons said that kids and their wish lists always make him smile, especially when they include toys a little bigger than those found under the tree.

``I had a 5-year-old boy on my lap and asked him what he wanted for Christmas,'' Lyons said. ``He was very specific, he wanted a Harley-Davidson Soft Tail. I think he'd been talking to his daddy.''

Lyons and his wife, Darleen, take special care to make sure no child is left behind, hiding candy canes in their costumes so every little one gets something from Santa.

``I'm a little older, so it's been a long time since I've been around kids,'' he said. ``Here, I get to visit with every age, from newborns to teens. It's nice renewing my acquaintance with little kids. It puts a little perspective in my life.''

Van Lee, who has spent more than a decade of Christmas seasons in the red velvet suit, not only has a dependable list of answers to kids' questions - ``How do the reindeer fly?'' ``Pegasus taught them.'' ``I don't have a chimney, how do you get into my house?'' ``Every house has a pipe somewhere and with my magic bag...'' - but also uses cutting edge technology to preserve the magic.

``My wife, Mrs. Claus and I have Bluetooth headsets, which fit under the wigs. She's off talking with the child's parents and the kids don't see her. She always asks for a good thing the child's done in the last week and a bad thing, so I can be very specific. They are always amazed what I know about them.''

His favorite age is the 12-13 range, when most children stop believing but still visit Santa ``just in case.''

``I was talking with a 12-year old boy just last week,'' Lee said. ``I told him that I was very proud of him making 12 points at the basketball game, but wasn't very happy about him talking bad about the other players after the game. He stared at me and I could see he was asking himself, 'Is he or isn't he?'''

``It's a really cool gig to do,'' said sometimes Mrs. Claus Linda Storli who arrives at house calls driving red-suited husband Dennis Koontz in her fire engine-red Corvette convertible. ``Kids get so excited, even adults get into it. I've had to stop and ask for help to get the top up and they stand there, mesmerized because he's Santa.''

The depth of some believers' faith is evident by some of their questions. Koontz said the toughest requests are when children ask for mothers to come home or for Santa to get Dad out of jail or to bring back a sibling or grandparent who has died.

``It's really tough to do,'' he said. ``We tell them we know they're sad and that we'll try and work on it and let them know we understand they're dealing with something very tough.''

``People have asked us to bring grandparents back. We ask where Grandma or Grandpa went, thinking they're in Canada or somewhere and they say they're in heaven,'' Storli said. ``It just breaks your heart.''

``Kids don't ask for a lot these days; they're wondering and thinking and don't seem to be as greedy as they used to be. We go to million-dollar homes and homes that aren't anywhere close and there's no difference in the children. There's that wonder and amazement.''

Sheldon Allen, who has lost count of the years he's been the designated jolly elf for community events such as the annual Community Christmas Tree Lighting in Valencia and company parties as well as individual families, said that his most memorable lap sitter was a young boy who only wanted a job for his father.

``It really makes you think how the family problems have sifted down that far, from the parents to the children,'' he said.

Carol Rock, (661) 257-5252

carol.rock(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

A curious boy sneaks a peak at Santa from behind the slats of a bench.

John Lazar/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 25, 2005
Words:815
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