December 23, 2012

Rangeley man gets prime gig as Santa in nation's capital

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- For decades, Rob Hoffman was literally in the pilot's seat as he flew passengers to destinations far and wide.

click image to enlarge

Santa Claus, a.k.a. Rob Hoffman, of Rangeley, gets ready to greet hundreds of children expected to visit Santa's Workshop on Friday, at President's park in Washington, D.C. Hoffman, a retired airline pilot who has moonlighted as Santa for eight years, landed the gig to sit in for Santa for most of December at the holiday display on The Ellipse, near the National Christmas Tree.

Staff photo by Kevin Miller

Nowadays, the retiree from Rangeley occupies a much different, but very important, seat -- at least to many of his wide-eyed customers -- as he travels around the country during the holiday season: Santa's seat.

For the past three weeks, Hoffman has been putting in full days as the official Santa of President's Park.

"It's fun," he said Friday afternoon in Santa's Workshop.

So how does a Santa from the mountains of western Maine land a gig next to the National Christmas Tree?

"My agent in California called me and asked if I would be interested," Hoffman said. "That's about the only way you can get the job."

That's right, Santas have agents. And unions, sort of.

The professionals at shopping malls, Christmas parties and anywhere else St. Nick is needed fall into two categories: those with real beards and those who have to improvise.

Hoffman is among the former, which is how he fell into Santa's boots about a decade ago.

After retiring, the former pilot let his beard grow. And while it once was red, his retirement beard came out white, prompting some of his friends to suggest a side job in the Santa business.

Hoffman said he bought himself an inexpensive suit and landed his first gig at Rangeley Builder's Supply. That led to a few more jobs elsewhere in Maine and, soon enough, Hoffman was a member of an organization for Santas and was working with an agency that helps place them.

He also replaced the cheap suit with a custom-made one, with deep-red velvet and real-looking faux white fur. He now has three custom-made suits.

The Santa gig has taken Hoffman around the country, often for extended periods. He spent the past two holiday seasons working for Microsoft in promotions at Chicago's Midway Airport and in downtown Chicago.

At Midway, his audience was mostly adults, and many still wanted that classic picture of themselves sitting in Santa's lap.

But the children are why he does it year after year, despite the many hours and the challenge of maintaining that jolly demeanor.

"There's a joy that you see in kids," Hoffman said Friday while sitting in his throne-like Santa chair. "It's just fun."

With his soft blue eyes, red cheeks and gentle but reassuring voice, Hoffman definitely fits the Santa mold. But any Santa is bound to see a few toddlers whose excitement turns to teary-eyed terror as they approach the icon, so Hoffman has his own tricks.

Sometimes it's just talking to them. Other times, a friendly handshake is enough to help them get past the fear.

"Sometimes that breaks the ice," he said. "Generally, I can quickly tell if it is going to work."

At President's Park, Hoffman has been posing for 500 to 1,000 pictures a day, with children and adults. The pictures are taken in Santa's Workshop, a two-room building paid for by Underwriters Laboratory -- the product testing and certification program known as UL.

Being Santa on one of the nation's bigger stages has perks. Although he didn't participate in the lighting of the National Christmas Tree with President Barack Obama (an actor took that job), Hoffman did suit up and pose for pictures with singer James Taylor and many of the other celebrities who participated in the made-for-TV event.

So how does this Santa plan to spend the holiday? After one final shift on Christmas Eve, Hoffman plans to head back to Chicago to spend time with his family.

And as for the Santa suit ...

"I take them to the cleaners and then hang them up in the closet until next year," he said.

Kevin Miller -- 317-6256

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