The “right jolly old elf” is everywhere at Christmastime, with the familiar beard as white as snow and the round belly “that shook when he laughed like bowlful of jelly.’’ But it isn’t just a matter of the mall, department store, and parade Santas putting on a red suit and reading ’Twas the Night Before Christmas to get in the mood.
For nearly three decades, Jenny Zink of Cody, Wyo., (pop. 8,835) has been teaching the ins and outs of playing Santa Claus to stand-ins around the country.
When Zink moved from Great Britain to the United States in 1972, she worked as office manager for a temporary employment agency in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“At Christmas, I got a call for a Santa, so I set out to understand what I would need,” Zink says. “I put an ad in the Colorado Springs newspaper for Santas and got responses from some fat and jolly, some thin and jolly men. Some guys weren’t jolly. They were kind of frumpish, but I said they would be trained.”
The Santa program was so successful its first year, twice as many clients signed up for the second year. The following year, Zink took over Santa training for all the Denver malls, and by 1977, she was training Santas on a national level. Clients have included Sears, J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Dayton Hudson, Marshall Field’s, Bon Marche, Kmart, Old Navy, and Mervyn’s.
“My goal was that all our clients would say our Santas were the best,” Zink says.
Kimeri Opacic, marketing director with the Sunvalley Mall in Concord, Calif., a satisfied client for 11 years, agrees that Zink’s Santas are the best.
“Jenny leaves no stones unturned with her Santa training,” Opacic says. “She tells them little things like, ‘You’re not going to chew gum; pop a breath mint before you go out.’
“She is very detail-oriented and teaches them how to put the beard on, how to wear the glasses, how to respond to different situations and questions. She really tries to impress upon each one that they ARE Santa,” Opacic says.
Zink sees each Santa stint as a great performance. “It’s like theater—the curtain goes up and the show must go on,’’ she says.
Zink moved to Cody from Vallejo, Calif., in 1991 when her husband, Larry, fell in love with the town while covering the area as a representative for a drug company. She still travels the country as a Santa trainer and estimates she’s trained “thousands and thousands” of Santas over the years. She has appeared on The Dinah Shore Show, the Today Show, and Good Morning America.
Zink has trained bilingual Santas, Asian, and African-American Santas.
Peter Logue of Maywood, Ill., (pop. 26,987) was trained by Zink and has portrayed Santa at Marshall Field’s on State Street in Chicago since 1990.
As an African-American portraying a character traditionally thought of as white, Logue has encountered some interesting situations not addressed by Zink’s instructions.
“I remember one kid looked around and saw a nearby picture of white Santa,” Logue says. “He looked at me, then looked at the picture, then looked back at me. I said, ‘That was Santa in his younger days.’
“In the years I’ve been Santa, I’ve come up with better answers than I would have if I was in my civilian clothes,” he says.
Like most Zink-trained Santas, Logue sees Santa as more than just a job.
“When I was a kid, my mother and I went to Marshall Field’s on State Street to see Santa, and I remember those as being good times,” he says. “I want to give those kids some of those memories.”
Zink agrees. “Children deserve to have a great time at the holiday season, and when they go see Santa, it should be a wonderful experience.”