On an unseasonably warm early December morning, veteran mountain-man entertainer Randall McKinnon rose at his home in the foothills above Fairplay, still feeling the fatigue of an intense, three-hour performance for about 500 eager fans in Silverthorne the night before.
He piled his gear into his car at about 7 a.m. and wound down U.S. 285 to make a matinee appearance for a real estate company Christmas party in Denver. Midafternoon, he packed up again, snarfed down a sandwich in his car and did a hair-and-make-up check in the rear view mirror before heading to an evening performance at the Lone Tree branch of the Douglas County libraries.
“It’s a new thing for this Santa,” he says while preparing for the next wave of goggle-eyed kids caught up in the holiday season. “I’ve never had to worry about my hair color.”
McKinnon, 62, has made his way as a seasonal musician and singer playing high country gigs for more than 30 years, and the only character he had to play was himself — his long hair and beard graying naturally beneath a signature cowboy hat. But this year he decided to try something new.
He enrolled at Susen Mesco’s renowned and long-running Professional Santa Claus School in Denver and, already blessed with a musician’s finely tuned instincts, took a different show on the road. He joined the market at a time when Santas at least seem in short supply — though the truth probably lies somewhere between a diminished supply and a sudden increase in demand as many customers resumed in-person gatherings, though with precautions, due to the lingering risk of the coronavirus.
McKinnon’s reasons for trading flannel and vests for Santa’s fur-trimmed red ranged from the practical to the profound. COVID had put a crimp in his performance schedule, yes. He played 20 gigs all last winter when normally he’d do that inside three weeks.
But he also took into account the angst-ridden state of the world. The fact that he had a premier Santa school close by made it an easy decision.
“I just felt like it was time to do it,” McKinnon says. “The world has gotten pretty tough lately, with COVID and meanness that underscores so much politics — and I don’t care which side of the fence you’re on. The world needs Santa right now as much as it ever has in my lifetime.”
That observation holds on multiple levels. Mesco, who runs her school and booking agency from her Lafayette home, laments the loss of many Santas to either illness, old age or just early retirement born of a reluctance to venture out into the world, health risks being what they are for the Santa demographic. She points to traffic on the private Facebook page “Santa’s Last Ride — R.I.P.” as a sad reminder and counts 74 Santas that she personally worked with among those lost.
But with COVID restricting or discouraging travel over the past two years, she’s seen a big dropoff in new candidates. She says she graduated only 28 students over that span instead of the usual 120 — though recently, amid media talk of a Santa shortage, she’s had 30 signups for her classes next fall.
“There are guys who are retiring that said, ‘I’m not going out there anymore.’ Or ‘Gee, this is a good time to hang up my suit,’” Mesco says. “I’ve had nine Santas drop their suits off with me and go, ‘Here. Give it a good home. Bye!’”
She also has fielded dozens of inquiries from people wanting to purchase a Santa suit. While she’s sure they probably mean well, she declines.
Last year, Mesco shifted gears as bookings dried up due to the early waves of the virus. She reimagined the Santa business as a virtual proposition and trained her charges accordingly. But this year, the severe caution that once canceled events mellowed into cautious optimism for event planners.
“And then by about September, they all went nuts and decided to have a Christmas party,” Mesco says. “And now some are backing down and going virtual, you know? So it’s insane. I’m getting one booking every eight minutes on the average. I can’t even keep up with the paperwork.”
She estimates that her bookings this year run about 25% virtual, compared to the vast majority from a year ago when pandemic shutdown was in full force. Still, she notes that the holiday season isn’t over, and recent mask mandates have prompted some customers to convert to virtual or socially distanced options. To meet that demand, she developed more than a half-dozen “COVID friendly” sets that employ staging techniques like Santa behind a desk, where kids can deliver their letters to him directly. Or facing a family seated on a couch.
Mesco sums up the Santa situation like this: Fewer Santas graduating, more Santas retiring, an additional number of Santas “taking their last sleigh ride” and more people getting together. She blames the whole environment of COVID. The same supply-demand issues that made her wait six weeks to get her car fixed for lack of parts also created the Santa crunch.
“It’s not just that there’s a Santa shortage,” she explains. “There’s also way more bookings. I probably got 300 to 500 brand new clients this year. That’s kind of a good thing. But it shows me that these are people that maybe didn’t even ever have a party before. All of a sudden they’re so COVID cabin crazy, they’re having a party.”
Taking his act to a different stage
Growing up in rural Arkansas, McKinnon never had much of a mall-Santa archetype to color his experience. But he knows kids. When he first came to Colorado 36 years ago, he worked in child protection services in Park County.
He quit to play music as an independent contractor and work the resort market, primarily in Eagle, Park and Grand counties. He plays dude ranches in the summertime — he’s been a fixture at a few for more than a decade — which he calls “a very stable and easy way to fill a calendar,” he says.
Right out of the gate, he had the tools to create his own variation on the standard Santa. And he has used a guitar in some of his jobs. But he’s quick to add that Santa needs no extra props — it’s just that “music is really just such a huge part of my life that I incorporate it into just about anything I do.”
But the Lone Tree work is more traditional. He’s positioned in a chair in front of a fireplace tucked into a second-floor nook where adults can bring kids to perch on his lap for a brief conversation and photos. He has a clear face shield he can use when the situation calls for one, but the determining factor remains the comfort level of parents and kids.
Speaking of comfort levels, on this balmy winter afternoon, McKinnon removed the layer of padding that he wore for the earlier appearance to foster the illusion of a proverbial bowl full of jelly beneath his red suit.
“It’s so warm down here,” he laughs, “that I lost my belly between gigs.”
The days of “crazy obese” Santas that dominated the industry when she first started are long over, Mesco observes.
“I’m not saying they’re skinny ninnies,” she says, then turning to a football analogy. “They could still make a good defensive team. But we do have a few guys that could be tight ends and quarterbacks. Most of my great Santas probably porting around 240, 250, but they’re 6-foot, 6-foot-5, 6-foot-7. I wouldn’t say they’re out of shape.”
Mesco requires that all her Santas be vaccinated. McKinnon has had two jabs plus a booster, and also experienced a “minor breakthrough” case of COVID in October.
“So in theory,” he says, “I have both the vaccination and the natural antibodies floating around in my bloodstream, so I should be almost Superman. I don’t want to push that, but what I’m concerned about more than anything else is the comfort level of the families that I’m seeing.”
Although he’s no stranger to virtual performance — he’s done Facebook Live music shows during COVID — but he hasn’t developed the technical video capacity in his home, largely because the area’s Wi-Fi isn’t that fast or reliable. Besides, he was hoping that the worst of the pandemic was history, until the new variants emerged. Now he’s not sure what the next few weeks might hold.
He’s working on some marketing at the Beaver Creek resort and some other areas that would let hotels offer vacationing families the option of a personal visit. He’s also counting on some last-minute home visit work the week before Christmas, though as a rookie Santa he’s not sure how that will play out.
“So it’s going to be some late-breaking busyness,” he says, “but I’m doing everything I can to get ready for that. I’ve done gig work all my life, so the business part has been comfortable. Then I have Susen as my booking agent and mentor.”
Phone won’t stop ringing
Mesco toggles her yearly work schedule back and forth between her Santa school (Mrs. Claus candidates welcome, too) and her booking business.
“It’s like the lawn guys, you know?” she explains. “Once the leaves fall, they put the snow shovels on their trucks.”
Right now, she’s in full booking mode. So while she’s in the midst of interviews, her phone frequently clicks or beeps to announce another caller trying to break through and request.
“OK,” she says as she’s alerted to another potential customer on the line, “so that’s the fourth one since I’ve been on the phone with you.”
At this stage, when she connects with clients, she tries to persuade them to switch their event to a weeknight, Monday through Thursday, when she’s more likely to be able to schedule a Santa to make that in-person visit. But everyone can’t be that flexible.
“Here’s the reality of it,” she begins. “If they booked a location, back in August or something and they paid the caterer and they’ve hired…”
“OK, there’s another one.”
Mesco has fielded all kinds of calls seeking one of her 5,600 Santas across the country, including six in one day from Massachusetts. She figures all the agencies around the country are having trouble.
One caller was desperate enough to offer way over the going rate for a weekend gig. Mesco returned to the weeknight option, suggested lighting the fire pit and putting on a “Santa and S’mores” event, perhaps catered by Chick-fil-A and featuring Santa walking through the back gate just as the s’mores turn toasty.
“Rather than gouge them,” she says, “I’m just going to try and find alternatives.”
The Lone Tree library planned well enough ahead to be able to host its event on a Saturday evening. And some groups may choose the weeknight route. But others inevitably will get shut out, at least from retaining a certified professional Santa — though the truly desperate may just, as Mesco says, “find the chunky guy down the street and throw them in a suit.”
“It’s kind of heartbreaking,” she adds, “because we’re doing every single thing we can. I mean, I’m looking at my guys’ schedule, and a lot of these Santas on Saturdays and Sundays start at 8 a.m. and they end at 10 p.m. and they’ve got five and six events.”
She consults Google Maps to measure the distance between potential gigs, factors in traffic — is there a Broncos home game on the schedule? — calculates travel costs with the high price of gas and, for longer distances, hotels. At least in the Denver metro area, she tries to assign her Santas based on geographic quadrants defined roughly by Interstate 25 and 70.
“I mean, it’s just exhausting,” she sighs.
For McKinnon, it’s also a blessing. He’ll drive back to Fairplay after the Saturday night event, and then return to the Denver metro area the next morning for another appearance, if the client doesn’t decide to go virtual.
“For me,” he says, “it’s about the experience of the children. It’s about a child on my lap or on a bench next to me. The world needs more wonder these days.”
This story first appeared in Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members. Become a Basic+ Member to get Colorado Sunday in your inbox every week.