A Hollywood set decorator and Santa-for-hire says it all

“Santa Claus!!! I know him!”

Nearly 20 years since “Elf” became a Christmas classic, it’s almost impossible not to see a Santa, any Santa, and not enact or at least think of Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf who completely freaks out because he has a Santa Claus looks out of a department store. Or Buddy’s horrified gasp of “You’re not Santa” when he realizes this isn’t the real deal.

So, for example, when you’re asked to be Santa at a fundraiser where Ferrell takes photos with you and a multitude of guests, there has to be some pressure, right? Some worry you could be accused of “sitting on a throne of lies” and smelling like “beef and cheese”?

“Not at all,” says Stephen Paul Fackrell, 58. He recently donned the big red suit for a Good Deeds Corps voter registration fundraiser at the Pico Union Project, which included a screening of “Elf” and photos with Ferrell and Santa. “[Ferrell] was nice. Halfway through, he leaned over to tell me that he’d once been Santa Claus in Pasadena and figured I’d be pretty hot in my suit. But it wasn’t me. I never feel anything but joy in this suit.”

Fackrell is an Emmy-winning set designer currently working for The Talk, but he’s also represented Santa for more than 30 years; “that suit” is his own, a gift from Nordstrom, where he welcomed children for 16 years.

His journey as Santa Claus began in 1988 when he was hired as a decorator at the Nordstrom store at Horton Plaza in San Diego; His exuberant personality made him an obvious candidate for the role of Kris Kringle. “I did the windows,” he says, “and one of the managers said, ‘Stephen Paul, you must be Santa,’ so I started filling in on the weekends and it was magical.”

That was back when department stores ruled the holiday season, and many offered the kind of ornate winter wonderlands seen in “Eleven.” As a decorator, Frackell arrived the day before Thanksgiving and worked until the store was decorated for Black Friday. “One day it’s normal, the next day it’s Christmas,” he says.

Most stores also had their own Santa Claus, and Nordstrom took his presence very seriously. “A year ago, I came into the store in a horse-drawn carriage,” says Fackrell.

He worked at various Nordstroms from San Diego to San Francisco and heard hundreds of children’s Christmas wishes. “It’s important never to promise anything,” he says. “Because sometimes you have kids asking for things, like having their dad back in their lives, or very expensive things, and, you know, Santa can only do so much.”

An elderly man sits on the rear bumper of a red VW Beetle car with boxes wrapped on it.

“When I first started doing television, I knew I was home,” says Frackell, pictured in civilian clothes. “I love my job more than anything.” But he never stopped being Santa Claus.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

When he left Nordstrom, he ran a horse ranch for a year—”My first love is horses.” Then a freelance job led him to work with Dr. Phil (Dr. Phillip C. McGraw), who in turn launched a career in television, including stints on American Grit, Hell’s Kitchen, and The Talk, where he’s been for six years.

“When I started watching TV, I knew I was home,” he says. “I love my job more than anything.”

But he never stopped being Santa Claus. At Nordstrom, he says, parents would ask if he did private events, so one year he brought Santa to Lionel Richie’s Christmas party and another to a Christmas episode of Kenny Loggins’ The Marilu Henner Show, with a row from parties, fundraisers, and corporate events in between.

“I arrived in the backseat of a Mia at a party in Hollywood Hills,” he says. “And in 2020 I visited Tig Notaro’s house in the back of the truck. And then I drove through the district, everyone liked it.”

He’s also kept up another tradition from his Nordstrom years. “Santa used to call Nordstrom employees’ kids with ‘Jingle Bells’ music and their Christmas list, and it was just amazing. So now I – I mean, Santa Claus – am going to call my friends’ kids and the wonder in their voices is such a gift. “

Without the suit, Fackrell doesn’t look much like Santa, although his enthusiasm is definitely contagious. A native of San Diego, he has had a career only possible in Southern California. Before joining Nordstrom, he worked at Sea World cleaning up what was then the new habitat of the emperor penguins. “I’d be cleaning the windows in my wetsuit while the penguins swam around at my feet.”

He has worked in La Mesa, California at the Grossmont Center branch of Bobby McGee’s, the diner where all the waiters played roles, and as a guide at Sunset Ranch, where he has mounted his horses over the years.

“Right under the Hollywood sign,” he said. “We took guests up and over the hills and down for a Mexican dinner.”

He knows the travails of the television industry, where he struggled to get into the union and where he struggled to support himself and stay sane as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down production. “I painted my apartment, I rearranged my furniture, it was crazy,” he says. He’s proud of his five Emmy nominations (for “Hell’s Kitchen” and “The Talk”) and his win (“The Talk”).

But he swears he will never leave Santa Claus. Which is good to know. We can’t have too many Santas among us, especially now that they often seem to be in short supply. There are far fewer department stores than there were in 1988, and most have eliminated Santa from their budgets. These days, representatives of this jolly old elf can be found in the heart of shopping malls, on Christmas tree plots and, since the COVID closures, on Zoom.

The pandemic has been tough on Santa, or at least the earthly beings who represent him in the days leading up to Christmas: In 2020, Santas were hardly ever sighted, and over the past year, many parents have continued to skip the traditional St. Nick photo op cases increased.

This year, however, the lines appear to be back to pre-pandemic length, filled with kids (and adults, and the occasional pet) best dressed for a snap with the big man in their holiday form.

Frackell understands; For him, this brief connection between child and myth is one of life’s great joys, both for Santa Claus and for the child.

“I remember the first time I met him,” he says. “I still have the photo. I was 5 years old at a McDonald’s in Utah where we were visiting relatives. I remember staring at my boots in my toughskin jeans and corduroy jacket, not believing that Santa Claus would take the time to talk to me on his busy day.

“It was magical.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-12-21/hollywood-set-decorator-and-santa-for-hire-tells-all A Hollywood set decorator and Santa-for-hire says it all

Sarah Ridley

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