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One last visit with Santa: Carl Anderson reminisces about his 32 years at NorthPark in Dallas

NorthPark Santa
Therese Powell
Whether it's his background as a psychologist or his 32 years playing the same character, Carl Anderson has captured the spirit of Santa like no other.

"One of the funniest responses I ever got was a kid that said, 'Well, no cookies, we're leaving out Cheetos and a beer.' I look up and there's Dad smiling real broadly. I know who's going to get the Cheetos and the beer."

Even though Santa's big night is just around the corner, there's still time for the little ones to climb in his lap and share their wishes at one of the area malls.

NorthPark Center in Dallas is one such mall doing visits with St. Nick before his big trip around the world. He'll be seeing kids there until 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Playing their Santa this December is Joel Lagrone. Besides his gig as Kris Kringle, Joe is also an actor/musician and an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth. He's taking over the reins for Carl Anderson, who previously held the job as NorthPark's resident Santa Claus for 32 years.

Before he put on the red suit at NorthPark all those years ago, Carl had a strong connection to the Jolly Old Elf. He started his career as a psychologist, earning a degree from the University of Texas in Austin, with a dissertation on what happens when children decide not to believe in Santa.

We caught up with Carl last summer right after he announced his retirement and asked him to share his memories about playing such an iconic character and his future plans with his alter ego.

Describe the moment when you first discovered you were Santa.

It crept up on me. It happened that I grew my hair long and had a beard right after I graduated high school--I was a child of the seventies and still have big fondness for that era -- and I was in college at the University of Texas in Austin and one day while I was walking across The Drag (Guadalupe Street) in the crosswalk and coming the other way, was a group of preschoolers walking along with their teacher and holding onto a rope. As I was walking past, one of them looked up at me and yelled, "Santa!" Well, the rope dropped and suddenly they were all hanging on me, hugging on my knees right there in the middle of the street.

Where does Carl stop, and Santa begin with you? 

[LAUGHS] That used to be a very clear distinction for me.

As a matter of fact, I did things to try to limit the degree to which Carl would become more Santa-like. I remember the second or third year of doing Santa and I wanted to be able to shake the persona of Santa by the time I got home so I could relate to my girlfriend as an adult. And so, what I would do to shake it off, is on the drive home, I would just curse like a sailor, which was very un-Santa-like, and it would bring me more into being a regular adult.

Gradually over the years, being Santa has become more natural. I'm not sure that it really changed how I was as Carl, but it sort of built on it. I think in some ways they kind of both evolved towards each other.

I guess you could say Carl and Santa met in the middle.

What's your favorite Christmas cookie? 

Well, you know, I generally always say chocolate chip with a glass of milk, but I've never met a cookie I didn't like, so any kind of cookie would be fine.

There are no bad Christmas cookies. 

No.

One of the funniest responses I ever got from that was a kid that said, "Well, no cookies. We're leaving Cheetos and a beer." I look up and there's Dad smiling real broadly. I know who's going to get the Cheetos and the beer.

Why does the world need Santa?

Wow. Well, there are a couple of different things about that.

The big one is hope.

You have to realize that when you say "the world" I tend to think of the children first. What's important about children believing in Santa Claus was partly the topic of my dissertation. And as one of the kids in my dissertation studies said, "Believing in Santa is for kids to know that somewhere there's someone who loves them, cares for them, and wants them to be happy."

I couldn't believe a kid was saying it that way because I couldn't have said it any better.

What has being Santa given you?

A lot of things.

A very concrete thing that have been given me is a career that I never expected to have--a career that branched out from my direct work of doing Santa, to becoming more of a performer, actor in children's theater and a storyteller.

Also, along the way, it's led me to writing. I did a book, which is a collection of kids letters to Santa, and I've written for the Dallas Morning News — a piece on the editorial page about some aspect of what was going on that particular Christmas. More or less just a list of funny or sweet things kids were saying.

Santa also brought me my wife.

I met her for the first time as Santa when she brought her little two-year-old to come see me in Austin. Her child was crying and like a lot of people do, she came up and got in the picture with the child and kind of helped her stay calm. And apparently whatever happened in that interaction really struck her. Then years later, she was in a play with a couple of friends of mine. I went to see them and they had told her that this friend was coming. She got all excited because she remembered me from way back when and still had the picture. And, I remember we were waiting for her in the lobby and when she rounded the corner the two of us were like — Electricity!

I've evolved in the sense that I have moved more in the direction of experiencing life sort of as Santa would. My eyes have been opened to the needs in the world and I'm more powerfully affected by some of the despair I see in the world, especially when it involves kids. Those sorts of things impact me and hit me harder and also motivate me to make efforts to do things about those situations.

I never had kids of my own, but being Santa I get exposure to that world of children and their way of perceiving things, their way of life, you know, and there's so much more innocence and wonder and magic that's kept alive and growing within me and I'm very grateful for that.

So yes, there's a whole litany of things and places Santa has taken me that I never expected to go.

Do kids wishes reflect what's going on in the world?

Yes, they do. I think from a fairly young age, kids are more aware of what's happening in the world than we might give them credit for.

Every year I get something that reflects our world that we are living in. There's always some references to the homeless, especially homeless kids. "Do homeless kids have enough to eat?" Or "Can you make sure that you bring presents to them?" I've had some kids write, "Can you take presents to the children of the terrorists so they won't hate us so much?" That reflects levels of understanding of reality and complexity in ways that many adults don't get.

What would people be surprised to know about being Santa?

Well, I'll tell you one thing that that surprised me the very first year was how powerful and literal that belief in Santa is to kids. Kids will open up to Santa and tell him about important things are going on in their lives.

The very first child who sat in my lap as Santa looked at me and said, "Our daddy left us and moved to Waco. I guess he doesn't love us anymore."

To them, Santa is like a confidant.

Now that your gig with NorthPark is over, what's next for you?

I'm not exactly sure what I'll be doing. There are a lot of possibilities floating around in my head. One thing that I'm exploring is sharing experiences in the form of a book or perhaps a theatrical performance, maybe a monologue type thing.

Santa's not done with me, and I'm not done with him.

So, it's not goodbye then?

Oh, no. It's not goodbye to Santa for me at all. I mean, it's sort of like what we were talking about earlier; the line between Carl and Santa just doesn't exist anymore.

In Good Question, we're getting to know movers and shakers in the arts a little bit better with a few quirky and thought-provoking questions. Who should we talk to next? E-mail me at tpowell@kera.org.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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