The man with the red suit

The story of Vancouver’s preeminent Santa Claus actor

Carlo Javier // Managing Editor

Believe it or not, I met Santa Claus at a Blenz Coffee shop in Richmond. He looked exactly as the legends said. His beard was grey and majestic, extending past his collarbone. He had a relatively tall and imposing figure, but a mild limp that favoured his right knee impeded his gait. He took his coffee black and greeted me with a jolly reminder when I finally approached him:

“It’s the big beard, right?” he said.

Santa Claus did not have his red suit on, there were no reindeers parked at the plaza on Ackroyd and No. 3 Road and he did not walk in the café with a booming, “ho-ho-ho.” He wore a simple pair of jeans, a grey long-sleeved shirt and a jacket. Mr. Claus was on his day off, and he was simply going by Bill Marles.

It was nearly seven years ago when Marles first put on the red suit. He was in an acting class centred on typecasting when one student quickly placed him in the role that has since become his post-retirement calling. “Somebody looked at me and said, ‘you’re Santa Claus,’ he recalled. Sixtyone at the time, Marles had kept busy by browsing through Craigslist for odd jobs. His first serious attempt at getting in the Santa Claus trade came after he found a mall-Santa position that paid $25 per hour. Although he did not get that gig, it did not take long before he gained some momentum in the industry. On Christmas Eve of 2009, he was visiting houses in Cloverdale, igniting the Christmas spirit in children and adults alike.

Marles, 67, now only works on a freelance basis. He left the mall-Santa business nearly four years ago, citing their restrictive schedules as his primary reason. It does not hurt that working corporate gigs and toast parties can often pay more. The freelance business does require more auxiliary duties for Marles. He keeps an updated website, regularly communicates through social media, particularly Facebook, and keeps in touch with agencies that may come calling during the holiday season. “I mean, not everybody is as promotion or advertisingoriented as I am so they prefer the security of the mall.”

Generally, Marles’ season begins around mid-November. He worked as a courier for most of his life and his extensive experience travelling around the Lower Mainland has been a significant asset in his job. Since his services are not always called for until the weeks leading up to Christmas, he often spends his “months-off” writing performance poetry and his memoir about his experiences as a youth on Sea Island. He enjoys travelling and openly admits to “wasting a lot of time on Facebook.”

Although he concedes that his work is very much of the learn-on-the-job variety, he does have extensive experience in education via the Santa Claus industry. In 2009, he attended a “Santa School” in Calgary, Alberta where he had the opportunity to fine tune his improv skills. The school also suggested that he utilize make-up for his preparation. “I have eyebrows but I’m so fair you can’t see them, so they told me to use some make-up to bring them up a little bit,” he said. Marles also learned from Ed Taylor, a professional Santa Claus actor based in Los Angeles, California. Taylor created the “Santa Claus Conservatory” and is recognized as one of the premier Santas-for-hire in the business.

Marles knows the things he can and can’t control. He knows to reserve as much time as possible before a scheduled appearance. He knows to prepare a stock of Christmas songs in the case he gets asked to sing. He knows to avoid too much weight on his right leg because of arthritis in his knee. He also knows that no matter how well he portrays a character, he can’t always control the belief of children. He’s accepting, but bemoans the cynicism that tends to dominate society. “Kids are taught to be skeptical,” he said.

On at least one occasion, everything Marles was wary of materialized simultaneously. A major accident on the Arthur Laing Bridge had stymied his travels on the way to a pre-school in Point Grey. The crash was so debilitating that he waved off all fees for his appearance, but that was not even the worst part of Marles’ forgettable gig. The children were, as he bluntly put it, “horribly-behaved.” “You’re not the real Santa, there’s no such thing as Santa,” he remembered them chanting. Like any performer, Marles was left with just a single option: shrug it off.

On some days, Marles’ worst enemy is his own humanity. “I don’t always live up to the character,” he admitted. Like any other person, Marles battles with emotions. There are days when he will consciously try to be merry and jolly, to be easy-going and generous. Despite working as the character that personifies the very meaning of words like “joyous” or “festive”, Marles can get frustrated with the simple nuances of life, too. What does he do on days when he has to put on the red suit in the face of his own human emotions? “Look in the mirror and smile and laugh,” he said.

Fortunately, there is one inevitable factor that almost always gets Marles spirits up: the children. He describes kids, particularly those aged four or five, to be especially sweet and loving – a trait he never fails to respond to. He even cites the children he has met over the years to be a central part of some of the most profound experiences he has had on the job.

Selflessness and generosity are the very nucleus of the Christmas spirit. There is never-ending chatter about the over-materialistic culture that has seemingly tarnished the true message of Christmas. As the foremost figure of giftgiving, Marles has seen firsthand how the consumerist demands have seeped their way into children as well. Kids often wish for Xboxes or iPads, Lego even, he revealed. Yet, the wishes of one girl, back in his days as a mall-Santa, resonate with him to this day, and for many days to come.

She was older than most of the children there, around eight, Marles guessed. He asked her the routine question that he asks every kid that finds their way to him: “What do you want for Christmas?” To his surprise, all the little girl asked for was for her mother to be home for Christmas, to be able to spend Christmas with her. “It was a very non-material wish,” Marles recollected. “It just struck me, it was a very powerful moment.”

Marles has 36 gigs in the coming weeks leading up to Christmas. Over the seven years of work, he has established himself as one of Vancouver’s most sought after Santas. He does admit that he no longer has quite the energy he used to, and has been more deliberate with his selections — even turning down a chance to deliver an engagement ring due to scheduling conflicts.

As a final question, I asked him how often he would get mistaken as Santa Claus by children in public. Before he could even answer, a man to our left overheard our conversation and exclaimed, “You could be Santa Claus!” The conversation took a bit of a historical tangent, lasting a full 10 minutes about the history of Santa Claus. There I saw Marles in his natural environment, answering inquisitive questions about Christmas, jolly and all.

 

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