All we want for Christmas is the perfect Santa Claus

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As any parent can tell you, Santas are like fingerprints. No two are identical.

True, most of them wear the same red outfit trimmed with white fur (doesn't Santa ever long to slip into something a tad more up-to-date, say, Versace?). They also sport the same wire-rimmed glasses, the same proud paunch and the same haven't-shaved-since-the-1970s beard.

But if you visit enough malls and look closely, you notice this one's beard is yellowed, and that one is no taller than your average elf, and here's one that talks your kid's ear off.

Our wish list is a little different this Christmas. We wish we could build the ideal Santa. After visiting a number of malls in the area, we have a pretty good idea what he'd look like, how he'd act and where we'd find him.

Castle

He'd have a castle like the one at White Marsh Mall.

The gold spires, the elves, the animals, the snow-covered trees - it's all here. The elf figures have red noses and red cheeks, and they wave. The polar bears and reindeer wear hats, scarves and ear muffs, and they nod. Santa - Ken Sellers or Lenny Mink - does both, seated in an oversized green chair in front of his fairy-tale castle. Obviously, he's done OK for himself.

Eyebrows

He'd have eyebrows like George Watts, the Santa at Cranberry Mall in Westminster.

They're like none you've ever seen - combed upward, sculpted really, into wings. They're so long, so striking, that you can't help but stare ... until you've fallen completely under Santa's spell. These eyebrows are so steep you can imagine elves skiing off them. They give him a playful, mischievous and otherworldly appearance, and give his eyes, when he smiles, that certain twinkle.

Laugh

He'd ho-ho-ho like Bob Gump, the Santa at Hunt Valley Mall in Cockeysville.

This is one jolly fellow. When it was time for a picture with 10-year-old Katie Cheek of Baltimore, he threw an arm around her and said, "Cheese and pickles," then burst out laughing as if he'd just heard the punch line to the joke "Why did the reindeer cross the road?"

The neat thing is, he doesn't ha-ha or heh-heh. He really does ho-ho-ho. It sounds so natural, so genuine, that he seems to be having as much fun as the kids. Maybe more so.

Charm

He'd be charming like Darl Crites, the Santa at Owings Mills Mall.

When Santa spied his next visitor, 4-year-old Megan Burleigh of Ellicott City, he waved her over, swooped her onto his knee and said: "Where have you been? I'm so glad you came to see me."

Like her grandfather.

"He's the only Santa we go see," said Stephanie Burleigh, who has taken her daughter to Owings Mills Mall three years in a row. "When she first came, she was shy and she cried and he was the only one who could calm her down. That's what you want."

Toys

He'd have larger-than-life toys like the one at Eastpoint Mall.

Remember those cute little orange-size orbs filled with water, a miniature Christmas scene and fake snowflakes? The more you shake it, the more it snows? Well, here's a much larger version of that, one that's taller than Joe Frank, who plays Santa. And the snow swirls all by itself on the sleigh inside. If Santa can pull this off, anything is possible.

Patience

He'd have as much patience as Fred Rutledge, the Santa at Towson Town Center.

It never fails: Kid can't stop talking about his Christmas list. Kid can't stand still in line for Santa. When the kid finally hops on the big guy's lap, he draws a complete blank. Some Santas snap the picture, put the kid down and keep the line moving.

This Santa didn't rush the forgetters. Or the criers or the shy types. "It's hard to remember everything," he said. "If you think of anything else, make me a list and leave it somewhere I can find it."

Beard

He'd have a beard like George Hipple, the Santa at The Mall in Columbia.

Go ahead and tug. It's not coming off. It's as thick and white as a snowball. It's the real deal. Forget the dead giveaways: the lopsided mustache or the incessant "adjusting." This is the sort of beard that makes a believer out of the most skeptical 7-year-old.

Vigilance

He'd watch over kids the way that Luke Durant, the Santa at Mondawmin Mall, does.

Although the boy was a little old for Santa, at least 10 or 11, he had a favor to ask: "Will you take me back to the North Pole with you?"

Some of the kids break Santa's heart. The kids without fathers who turn to Santa. The kids who can't stay out of trouble. The kids who no longer sound like kids.

"Listen to your parents. Listen to your teachers," he tells them, often huddling in front of his red chair, just Santa and the kids - no parents allowed. "Are you being good? Are you being the best you can be?"

He wants to tell the children something positive, to give them hope. This is what he tells them: "Santa loves you. Remember, Santa loves you."

Sleigh

He'd have a sleigh like the one at Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie.

Wayne McCrea, who plays Santa along with Tony Benedetta, sits in the driver's seat of a big, gold sleigh parked across from the aromatic Pretzel Bakery, as if he swooshed into town for a snack. The wide red cushion is especially nice when entire families or small groups want to visit Santa. They climb aboard as though Santa's taking everyone for a spin. The bag of toys in the back of the sleigh is overflowing with brightly wrapped presents and, for some reason, a harp, a trumpet, a French horn and a tuba.

Guess the symphony was good this year.

Wit

He'd think on his feet like Dick Bock, the weekend Santa at Harborplace.

Nolan Warthen of Canton walked into Santa's glass house on a recent Sunday afternoon and looked around as if something wasn't quite right. "Where are your elves?" the 4-year-old asked Santa, who sat on a gold and emerald green throne.

"They're busy working at the North Pole, making all the toys. You want them to make the toys, don't you?"

"Yes. ... Where's Mrs. Claus?"

"She's cooking," Santa replied, his voice as warm and soothing as a cup of hot chocolate.

"Why did you stay here?"

"I wanted to stay so I could see you and all the other boys and girls."

Once in Santa's lap, Nolan looked through the windows and spied a boat across the harbor. "Can the elves make a ship like the one over there?"

"They can make one like it, but not one that big," Santa said.

"Why not?"

"It'd be too big for my sleigh."

"You could put it in a big bag."

"It's too big," Santa said. "We wouldn't have a way to get it here."

"But the elves and Mrs. Claus could help you."

"Oh, no. They'll be too tired for that."

Nolan paused, perhaps thinking this over. Then, he looked at Santa Claus and asked what nobody bothers to ask him, "What do you want for Christmas?"

There sat Santa Claus, face-to-face with a 4-year-old boy in a red stocking cap, and looking as though he'd already gotten his Christmas wish: someone who believed.

As Nolan left with his mother and his aunt, Santa Claus cupped his hand and whispered, "That's why I do this."

Tips for mom and dad

Santa's helpers offered the following suggestions to make your visit a pleasant one:

If at all possible, go during the week, preferably in the morning, to avoid long lines or a rushed photo.

Make sure your child is well-rested and well-fed that day.

If your child doesn't feel like waiting in line or sitting in Santa's lap or having his picture taken, don't force it. Most Santas agree: Once a child starts crying, it's a lost cause. Try again another day.

Prepare your child beforehand by telling him what to expect. Seeing Santa for the first time can be quite a shock, with his long hair, his beard and his belly. Kids may be wary of such an imposing stranger.

Let the photographer do her job. She'll tell you if she needs your help.

When it comes to that all-important photo with Santa, don't be a perfectionist. A candid shot can be quite charming.

When to find Santa Claus at the mall

Here are the times you can expect to see Santa Claus at some of the area's malls. If you have a particular Santa in mind, it's a good idea to call ahead, because times are subject to change.

Annapolis Mall

Routes 50 and 178

(410) 266-5432

Santa: name withheld

Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9- p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Cranberry Mall

400 N. Center St., Westminster

(410) 857-0300

Santa: George Watts

Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m.

Eastpoint Mall

North Point Boulevard

and Eastern Avenue

(410) 284-6697

Santa: Joe Frank

Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

Golden Ring Mall

6400 Rossville Blvd.

(410) 391-8400

Santa: Chris Hanley

Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m.

Harborplace

Light and Pratt streets

1-800-HARBOR1

Santas: Ed Bastress during the week, Dick Bock on weekends

Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday noon-6 p.m.

Hunt Valley Mall

118 Shawan Road

(410) 785-3770

Santa: Bob Gump

Dec. 16-19, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Dec. 20, 21 and 23, 9 a.m.-11 p.m.; Dec. 24, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Dec. 15 and 22, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

The Mall in Columbia

10300 Little Patuxent Parkway

(410) 730-3300

Santa: George Hipple

10 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday

Other supporting Santas, Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Marley Station Mall

7900 Ritchie Highway, Glen Burnie

(410) 760-8900

Santas: Wayne McCrea and Tony Benedetta

Dec. 9-13, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Dec. 14, 16-21 and 23, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Dec. 15, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Dec. 22, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Dec. 24, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Mondawmin Mall

2301 Liberty Heights Ave.

(410) 523-1534

Santa: Luke Durant

Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.

Owings Mills Mall

10300 Mill Run Circle

(410) 363-7000

Santa: Darl Crites

Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Towson Town Center

825 Dulaney Valley Road

(410) 494-8800

Santa: Fred Rutledge

Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m.

White Marsh Mall

8200 Perry Hall Blvd.

(410) 931-7100

Santas: Ken Sellers, Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; Lenny Mink, Monday-Saturday, 3:30 p.m.-9 p.m. The Santas switch on Sunday, noon-6 p.m.

Pub date: 12/12/96

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