Santa Claus: The Rhapsody Interview
Every two weeks, genius-level Q&A artist Rob Trucks, whose work has appeared everywhere from McSweeney's to the Village Voice to Deadspin, will interview a public person of interest -- an author, actor, athlete, political wonk, etc. -- about his or her relationship with music. Today, we've got actor, author and overall jolly fellow Sal Lizard, who looks so much like Santa Claus he wrote a whole book about looking like Santa Claus. He also made us a playlist, conveniently titled Santa's Rhapsody Playlist, which you should check out. Enjoy.
It should not come as a surprise that Sal Lizard, author (with cowriter Jonathan Lane) of Being Santa Claus, looks good in red. Or that his laugh begins as a low-rumbling chuckle that rolls and rolls until it emerges as a definitive ho-ho-ho. It should not come as a surprise that conversation with Santa Sal covers fireplaces and his favorite Christmas song and cookies and milk and kids and kids and kids. But you may not know that Santa Sal is also a Trekkie who has read Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land multiple times. And that space-based expertise may well play a part in explaining how he can cover so much December ground in so very little time. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
When you were a little boy, at an age where you might worry about naughty and nice lists, what was Christmas like for you?
Well, I came from a very modest household. I had a single mother who struggled. It was very difficult for her to make ends meet, and we even had a fairly limited diet as a result. So Christmas always was a very special time, because it meant that a lot of other members of the family reached out, the neighbors reached out, and, you know, even though we didn't have a whole lot growing up, we always managed to have a toy or two that arrived Christmas Eve while we were asleep. So we really looked forward to Christmas when I was a child.
Is there a particular Christmas that stands out in your memory?
I probably was about five years old or so, and my mother took me and my brother, and we rode a bus downtown, and there was a store downtown -- it was a department store -- and all of the windows had Christmas animations in them. And so, you know, we were able to watch the little animated statues going through their paces as trains rolled by or airplanes on strings came by, and I just remember that more than anything else. And all the Christmas lights. I grew up in Indianapolis, and on the Circle Monument, they used to string lights from the base to the top to form a Christmas tree.
You've had white hair from a relatively early age. Is that what triggered your career choice?
My hair and beard started turning white earlier in life, and I used to think that was kind of a curse, because everybody told me I looked much older than I truly was. And that included when I was trying to date young ladies in my age group. They thought that I was much older than them, and they were reluctant.
It wasn't until later, when I was married and living in Charleston, S.C., that a radio station actually asked me to don the red suit. And at that point, I thought, "Okay. I can see it. I'm portly, you know, and I've got white hair and I've got a white beard." You know, I thought, "Okay, I can pull this off." And then years later, when people would call and ask for me, I thought, "Well, this is great. I can actually make a little extra money doing this. And it's nice to visit with the children." But it wasn't until a few years back, actually, that I saw a picture of myself sitting down and looking at a toy, in my Santa suit, scratching my head, that I went, "Oh, my Gosh, I really do look like Santa."
You mentioned growing up in a single-parent home. I don't know how much you saw of other family members, but did any older relative look like Santa Claus, or did this kind of come out of nowhere?
Well now, that's a very interesting question, because in the past I've always told folks that I don't know my dad. My mother left him when I was about a year and a half old. I grew up not knowing my father, and then, recently, last year, my mother passed on, and when she did her sister came to the funeral and informed me that she was working at a nursing home where my dad lived. And, of course, I wound up going to see him. And it turns out he's had white hair and a white beard all of his life, but he never played Santa. His nickname in town was Frosty, and he was born on Christmas Day.
And I just met him last year [laughs].
That's got to be nerve-wracking, meeting your father for the first time after so many years. But I assume that now that you've done it, now that you've met him, it's been a good experience.
Yeah, it was a great experience. You know, he was a little worried about meeting me because he thought I would be angry. And I wasn't. Because -- I'll be honest with you -- I try to live above reproach. Especially once I realized that children saw me as Santa, I tried to make sure that I didn't do a whole lot of things that would confuse children. I mean, I kind of cleaned up my own life a little bit, you know, and quit imbibing. And I got rid of other bad habits that I had. But I told him, even though I try to be as good a guy as I can be, I've offended people. I've hurt people in life. I'm sure there's a few hearts I broke when I was in college and things, and yet I've always tried to be a good guy. So I would hope those people would forgive me. And I've always been a forgiving person. So before I ever met my father, I had forgiven him for, you know, not being part of my life. So meeting him, you know, I was able to go in there knowing that he was my dad, and with no anger. And he, of course, didn't have any toward me. So since then we've been getting along wonderfully, and I go and visit him every opportunity I get.
Lizard's an unusual last name. Is that your dad's name or your mom's?
I will tell you this: I grew up with my mother, and somewhere along the line, what happened was, I shortened my last name down to Lizard. It was actually right around the time I was graduating high school.
It's just that while Santa Sal is probably the preferred nomenclature, Santa Lizard would make a pretty cool band name.
[Laughs] Well, you know, I worked a while as a substitute teacher. And a lot of times I had smaller children, and I would go in and I would write my name on the board and I would say "Mr. Lizard." And some of the children would say, you know, "You look like Santa Claus." And I would say, "Well, for all you know, I might be." And they would say, "But you wrote Mr. Lizard." And I'd say, "Well, if I wrote Mr. Claus, nobody would believe me, so I picked a fun name." And the children accepted that.
You talked about giving up certain habits, that you try to live above reproach because of the children. It sounds like being Santa Claus may have made you a better person.
I would like to think it made me a better person. The proof in the pudding of that, I think, is my own daughter. When she was a young lady, in the Brownies, we were unloading Girl Scout cookies into the garage one day, and I heard one of the other Girl Scouts ask her, "Is your dad Santa?" And my daughter said, "I think so. He has three red suits in the closet, and he's always busy at Christmas."
And then later on in life, when she was 17, she saw a picture of me in the newspaper, from a mall, where I was sitting with a little girl and a little boy on my lap, and she said to me, "Do you know what really made me angry?" And I go, "Well, honey, I didn't know you were angry." She goes, "It was when I realized you weren't the real Santa." And I said, "Well, when was that?" And she said, "Last year." And I said, "Now last year you were 16. Surely your friends told you that there was no such thing as Santa." She goes, "I know that, but they always acted really good when you were around." She goes, "And I never saw you smoke or drink or heard you cuss." And I said, "Well, actually, I've done all those things. I just tried to give it up because I didn't want to confuse children. But when you're walking through the house in the middle of the night and your little pinky toe hooks a chair leg, 'Oh, poopie' just doesn't cut it. But otherwise, I just choose not to." And then she said, "Well, I've always gotten what I wanted." And I said, "Well, you were always a good kid." And she goes, "Yes, but can you imagine the pressure I was under, thinking my dad was Santa?"
And I said, "But what about the fact that we didn't live at the North Pole or that my name isn't Kris Kringle or Santa Claus?" And she goes, "Well, I figured you and Mom moved here when I was a child, and we were going to be here until I grew up, or at least got out of high school, and then we'd move back to the North Pole. And I've seen enough TV to know if you tell people you're Santa Claus you get locked up." So she had all of the answers worked out in her head, and that's when I realized I must be doing a pretty good job of it, trying to be above reproach and setting a good example, if my own child thinks that her dad's Santa.
I love the fact that she was able to rationalize that you didn't live at the North Pole because she needed to be in a better school district [laughs].
[Laughs] Right. Right.
In your book you call being Santa Claus "the best job in the world," but no occupation is perfect. I know that children and paparazzi aren't exactly the same, but are there times you wish you could go to the movie theater or head to the convenience store for late-night ice cream without being recognized?
Well, actually, it doesn't matter what time of the day it is, it's boys and girls of all ages. I mean, you talked about going to the convenience store. You know what I hear when I walk in the door? "Oh my gosh, it's Santa Claus." Because I always have the look. It's not the suit that makes the man, it's the man that makes the suit. So people will see me, even in a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt, and they'll say, "Oh, can I get my picture taken with you?"
I was sitting at the airport in Washington, D.C., and everybody from the airport, I think, got their picture taken with me. I was sitting in my chair, but every time somebody would approach I would stand up. And there was a fellow sitting there, and he said, "It must get awfully old." And I said, "What's that?" And he said, "I've been watching you, and everybody just keeps coming up and imposing on you for a photo." And I said, "Oh, that's not a problem. It's what I do." And he goes, "Well, I think I would tell them, you know, 'Leave me alone. I'm not working right now.'" And I said, "Oh, but Santa would never say that." And then he goes, "Well, you've got a lot more patience than I do."
And the truth of the matter is, I wound up getting him to take quite a few of the pictures, when there was only one person. And I said, "You know, it's one of those things where they care enough about the Santa character that they want to make him a part of their life by taking these pictures. And it's kind of an honor to me." So at the end of it, as he was getting ready to board his plane, he said goodbye to me. But then he goes, "Can I ask a favor of you?" I said, "Sure." He goes, "Can I get my picture taken with you also?" And I said, "Of course." [Laughs]. So I never get tired of it. And the adults will call me Santa also. And they act like little children sometimes when I'm around. Which is kind of fun, because I always say that Santa brings people to a pleasant Christmas memory, and it allows them to be children for just a few minutes.
You mentioned being asked to don the suit because you were portly and had white hair. Do you ever eat a little bit extra to make sure that you can properly fill the suit?
Well, all of a sudden, I found an uptick in the intake of cookies and milk. [Laughs] You know, even to this day, I still like cookies and milk. I just grew into that.
And what is Santa Sal's favorite cookie?
Oh, the truth of the matter is that I'm just like children. I like all the cookies. You know, I think it's important for Santa to be very diplomatic, and so I just tell the children if they like the cookies I'm going to like the cookies. Feel free to get or make whatever cookies they like, because they get to eat the extras.
You've lived in New Hampshire, and you've lived in South Carolina, and of course, you're very well-traveled. Is there a difference being Santa Claus in cold New England as opposed to the warmer South?
Well, there's not a difference in how Santa appears in his business suit. I mean, if you get them custom-made you can ask for a lighter material. But most of the suits are made to keep Santa warm in a cold December parade, where he's usually elevated on a fire truck or a float and the winds are hitting him. Of course, when he makes it down to Australia, according to the Australian legends, Santa changes into his shorts, and he replaces his reindeer -- he gives them a rest -- and the sleigh is pulled by "six white boomers," which are large kangaroos. They go racing across the sky with Santa.
Well, that makes sense. The kangaroos should have a bit more spring in their step.
Oh, yeah. The reindeer can get overheated down there. You know, one of the biggest occupational hazards of Santa is when you're coming to visit someone and they want you to sit next to a roaring fireplace and read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" to the children. And I always tell them, "Please don't do that to Santa." Because while you're listening to "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," you realize that Santa's kind of roasting also. [Laughs]
And speaking of Christmas songs, do you have particular favorites?
Well, when I go to parties and households, children come up to me and they will ask what my favorite song is. And a lot of times I'll say, "Well, which song do you think is my favorite?" And occasionally a child will raise their hand and they'll say, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." And I'll go, "No, that's his favorite song. But you're on the right track. My favorite song has my name in it." And, of course, my favorite song is still "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." And I was so happy when I was in Washington, D.C., the day after the election. I was walking around, and I happened to have my Santa suit on, and I ran into a couple of groups of preschoolers. And while I was standing there, one of the children started singing "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," and then the others joined in and I joined in with them. But that has to be my favorite song. It really is.