Larry Bennett knows when to ho, ho, hold back after nearly a half-century of coaxing little ones who get intimidated by their big moment with Santa.
“They want to — they’re afraid,” Bennett said, recalling countless urchins who really want to approach him but fall victim to the enormity of the situation.
Having portrayed Santa since 1970, the Longview man knows how to bide his time and wait for young souls to get comfortable with the bearded man in the official uniform of Christmas.
“I’ll watch them and start using my fingers to get them to come to me,” he said, demonstrating deft come-hither flicks of the hand he knows from experience will coax a timid child. “They’ll touch your fingers, and they’ll just lighten up. You try to get the parents to let them have some time. I’ll be here.”
It didn’t hurt Saturday that Barbara Scott was there to be Mrs. Claus to his Santa when both suited up for Breakfast with Santa at the Longview Museum of Fine Arts.
“All I have to put on is my little bonnet,” Scott said.
The museum’s administrative assistant, Scott understands her crucial role as second fiddle.
“Santa Claus is the star, and Mrs. Claus is there to support him,” she said. “And sometimes, she’s a little less intimidating and the kids come to her easier. And by the time they sit a while, they’re ready to go to Santa. Grandmas aren’t intimidating.”
Bennett, who first donned the red suit while working at Sears, knows a good Mrs. Claus when he encounters one.
“She’s very good at it,” he said of Scott. “This particular job here is the only one where I have Mrs. Claus.”
Bennett said “job,” but his work as the Jolly Old Elf is a Christmas present he gives to local gatherings like the one Saturday.
Thursday night, he was Santa at Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center-Marshall. He’s also played Santa at Hiway 80 Rescue Mission and its companion Women and Children’s Shelter; for the House of Hope women’s shelter; and for friends, his own children and grandchildren. And he was the annual Santa at the venerable Reo Palm Isle before the dance hall that once welcomed Elvis shut down.
Age has aided the 71-year-old’s masquerade. His blond hair is now snowy except for the tufts on the crown of his head hidden by his elvish hat. His beard obediently goes from goatee to full face this time each year.
Time has not been kind, though, in one sense. Santa’s moving in a very complex gift world these days.
“Used to, in the old days when things were simpler, I’d study the Sears catalog to find out what’s popular,” he said.
The best part of playing Santa, he said, is the very nature of the role.
“The best thing is interacting with the kids in a positive way,” he said. “Santa’s always positive.”
For Scott, the best part is convincing those reluctant tots to relax and enjoy childhood memories in the making.
“The really best part is when you have one walk up and is crying and is a little afraid of Santa and doesn’t want to leave Mommy, and the next thing he’s waving and wanting to have his picture made with Santa,” she said, after noting she’ll play Mrs. Claus “I guess as long as I can.”
Forty-eight years in the red suit have blessed Bennett, but he acknowledged there’s been some pain along with the pleasure.
“The worst part is you’ve got this gorgeous little girl and, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ ‘I want my Daddy to come home,’ ” he said, adding the father in question could be in the military stationed overseas or in a less honorable situation. “There’s so much hurt out there for some of these kids.”
Then there’s the awkward moments. Last year, he said, a dad ran up to make sure he’d correctly heard his son ask for a pink bicycle.
“Obviously, that wasn’t acceptable to Dad,” Bennett said. “I said, ‘You need to talk to him about that.’ ”
Then there are those know-it-all older brothers and sisters spouting some nonsense about Santa not being real.
“I’ll appeal to brothers and sisters a lot,” Bennett said. “ ‘If that’s your brother, let him make up his mind for himself. What if you’re wrong?’ ”
The children sometimes ask Santa how old he is, but the savvy old elf knows what’s at the root of such questions.
“They’re either testing you to see if you’ll panic,” he said, “or, you throw it out, and they’ll accept it. Because the truth is, they want to believe.”