by Sarah Clarke Stuart | November 23, 2017

The Secret Life of Santa Claus

Who knew that he has a condo in Margate, builds luxury yachts and starts growing out his beard in August?

In the Truman Capote story “One Christmas,” the character Miss Sook says, “Of course there is a Santa Claus. It’s just that no single somebody could do all he has to do. So the Lord has spread the task among us all.” The bearded Floridians in this story would likely agree. They have each found their calling in Santahood, bringing joy to others, especially children. Every time they don the red suit, they demonstrate the spirit of generosity and goodwill that comes with being a real Santa Claus. Through this portrait series created by photographer Mary Beth Koeth, we also unwrap a secret side of these Sandy Clauses, with glimpses into how they spend their time in the off-season.

Santa Joe; Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

SANTA JOE

Hometown: Margate
Age: 80
Santa Since: 2010

Joe Corcoran is a Florida snowbird who works full-time as the Bloomingdale’s Santa in Manhattan during the holiday season. A Bronx native, he now splits his time between Long Island, New York, and Florida. Many of his childhood friends from the Bronx also moved to the same retirement community in Margate. His friends take up 80 of the units, and they all plan to grow old together there. “Coming down to Florida, with all my friends around me, it puts me in a happy mood, a jubilant mood,” and that makes for a right jolly old elf.

Joe takes his charge very seriously, and from the moment he starts growing a beard in August, he’s mentally preparing for the holiday job.

Joe Corcoran with his friends in the pool at their condos in Margate. Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

“The most important part of being Santa is the love of the children,” he says. They can tell if you’re not into it. “If you can’t be the real Santa, don’t be Santa. I make every effort to do that. You have to
believe that.”

Joe says he’s “always played Santa,” but, up until about five years ago, he used a fake beard. Now, he allows the children to tug on his real whiskers if they are having any doubts about his authenticity. Joe challenges the older children, about 8 years and older, to help him spread the spirit of giving. He asks them to think of someone special and give an anonymous gift with a note saying it’s from Santa. He tries to show kids that the spirit of Santa is what’s important, not the actual man in the suit.


Santa Gregg; Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

SANTA GREGG

Hometown: North Lauderdale
Age: 68
Santa Since: 1992

Gregg Henry debuted as Santa Claus during a holiday boat parade in San Diego Bay. There was no official theme for the event, so he came up with his own: ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.

“I took the boat, and I made it look like a living room,” says Gregg, who works as a carpenter building 120-foot yachts at Dennis Boatworks in Fort Lauderdale. “And I took the mast and I made it into a huge Christmas tree.” He recruited friends and family to dress up in old-fashioned pajamas, and they loaded up the vessel with teddy bears and presents. Gregg suited up in a Santa costume for the first time that Christmas, and his water-sleigh float won first place in its category. “I enjoyed the heck out of it,” he says. The following year, he entered the parade again. The theme this time was Santa’s workshop. Gregg wielded his hand plane to craft a magical floating Christmas scene, and once again, he starred as the leading man.

Gregg Henry photographed at Michael Rybovich & Sons Boat Works in Palm Beach Gardens. Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

He was hooked. The blue-eyed boat builder, who briefly worked as an exotic dancer after a nasty divorce, knew that being Santa Claus was a special gift. “It’s hard to explain the transformation that happens when I put on a Santa Claus outfit,” he says with a jolly-eyed grin.


Santa Ernie; Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

SANTA ERNIE

Hometown: Fort Lauderdale
Age: 63
Santa Since: 2010

Originally from Baltimore, Ernie Tedrow works as a condo and homeowner association manager in Tamarac, where he lives with his partner of 23 years. Even as a young kid, Ernie was always asked to play Santa because of his size. But, as an adult, it wasn’t until after he moved to the Sunshine State in 2001 that he began to take it seriously.

When the human resources department of the hotel company he worked for at the time called him into the office, Ernie didn’t anticipate their question: “Would you play Santa for our Christmas party this year?” They were a little concerned he might be offended by the proposal, but Ernie accepted the task with glee. He recalls how the company’s owner, Rebecca, first responded when she saw him all dressed up as Saint Nick. “I came around the corner and did my ‘ho, ho, ho!’” he says. Apparently, she lit up. “It was amazing. I could see this little child. She cried, and we hugged.”

Ernie Tedrow reading letters in his living room in Fort Lauderdale. Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

From then on, Ernie began playing Kris Kringle for different events and organizations. He joined the Palm Tree Santas, a regional chapter of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. He read the book Behind the Red Suit and committed himself to the study of Santahood. “I read everything that I could read, I took the class, I took the oath and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll be Santa!’”


Santa Roy; Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

SANTA ROY

Hometown: Lake Worth
Age: 69
Santa Since: Early 1970s

Roy Strohacker has been playing Santa almost as long as he’s been working in law enforcement. He moved from Lorain, Ohio, to Florida in 1966 to study criminal justice. Eventually, he became a supervisor in the organized crime unit of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. He was police officer of the year in 1983. Three years later, he retired and opened his own investigative agency, which he still operates today.

Roy started appearing as Santa 40 years ago, “back when the beard wasn’t real.” He’s been doing it for so long that the kids he visited early on are now grown with kids of their own. Sometimes his wife dresses up as Mrs. Claus and joins him. He’s always amused by what the kids have to say. Some of his favorite questions address the logistics of Christmas Eve delivery: How do you get into a house with an alarm system? How do you go to the bathroom while you’re delivering presents? How does the sleigh get around if there’s no snow? When he’s out in public without the suit, sometimes Roy notices a child staring at him or overhears someone whisper, “I think that’s Santa!” He welcomes the attention, giving the child a knowing wink or a nod.

Roy Strohacker, shown here at his desk in Lake Worth, has his own investigative firm. Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

When he’s not checking his list, Roy enjoys playing the banjo and collecting political memorabilia, old flags and Japanese swords.


Santa John; Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

SANTA JOHN

Hometown: Kendall
Age: 69
Santa Since: 1984

John Snyder played Saint Nick for the first time in 1984, back when his beard was still dark. A young woman had to teach him how to bleach it white.

At the time, he worked for a phone company, and one of his colleagues had brought two young cousins to the office. “When I walked through the door with my Santa Claus suit on, their eyes got as big as silver dollars,” John recalls. The two children started nudging one another and whispering “It’s the real one!” After that, the Vietnam veteran, Purple Heart recipient and former president of a Mensa chapter in South Florida had the confidence to pursue Santahood.

Now John spreads cheer at private events and makes the rounds at nonprofit organizations and children’s hospitals near his home in Kendall. “I adjust my routine for each individual experience.” Over the years, he’s shaped his own best practices for how to be a good Santa. “One of the things you don’t do is promise a child anything specific. I always say, ‘I’ll try my best.’”

John Snyder at his home in Kendall is a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient. Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

John loves the opportunity to bring joy into people’s lives, especially for terminally ill children. “When you walk into the room for the first time and that child beams, you can see the ton of bricks coming off the mother.”

Santa John offers some guiding principles not only for being the best Santa he can be, but also for life in general: “Love everybody. Be true to yourself. And remember that children are sacred.”


Santa Don; Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

SANTA DON

Hometown: Fort Myers
Age: 63
Santa Since: 2005

Twelve years ago, Don Fasig’s wife, an interpreter for the deaf and hard of hearing, urgently needed a Santa for the hearing-impaired students at her elementary school. Mr. Claus had canceled, so she volunteered her husband. At the time, Don didn’t even own a Santa suit. He went out and bought one off the rack.

He remembers the first time the children saw him. As he walked in, he signed “Merry Christmas,” and they got very excited and started signing to one another: “Santa signs! Santa signs!” “I was pretty much hooked after that,” he says. Every year since then, even as he takes on new work, he always visits the deaf and hard of hearing at the elementary school. He has watched the kids grow up and gotten to know some of their younger siblings as well.

One thing Don has learned over the years is that adults are sometimes just as enchanted with Santa as the children. Once, at a fundraiser, three elderly sisters came up to Santa Don and asked for a picture. They explained that their mother had always taken the three of them to see Santa when they were little. As the photo was printing, they told Don that they were going to the mother’s 90th birthday party that evening and would be bringing the picture as a surprise.

Don Fasig, at home in Fort Myers, says that adults are sometimes just as enchanted with Santa as children. Photography by Mary Beth Koeth