With the holidays solidly upon us, the sight of bearded men donning blazing red suits in malls and departments stores has become common once again, with the nation's Santas having made their way back to work just after Thanksgiving to take toy orders and snap photos. While that tradition is an old one, one big question has yet to be answered: "Whose lap is your child sitting on?"
Luckily, that's the aim of New Jersey native Tommy Avallone's new documentary, "I Am Santa Claus," recently added to Netflix. Produced by Morgan Spurlock, the doc follows several devoted Saint Nicks - including WWE legend and Christmas fanatic Mick Foley - as they prepare for the holidays, and the eventual come down of Dec. 26. However, it's not just the Christmas season that has these guys in red garb: They're Santa 24/7.
And, what's more, it's about as diverse a cast as they come. One Santa, Jim Stevenson, a gay man, works at an antique store and regularly attends the annual Mr. Texas Bear Round Up. Frank Pascuzzi, a Long Islander who legally changes his name to Santa Claus, on the other hand, hates his day job in construction and hopes to one day open a Santa-themed BBQ joint. A third, Russell Spice, is unemployed and living in his daughter's Michigan basement.
In that sense, Avallone's Santa pulls the curly white wig off the jolly legend, setting it apart from virtually every other Christmas movie out there. Still, it is a holiday film, and as such it examines that myth with respect, both for the idea of Santa Claus and the men who portray him. As a result, we come to know the real human beings underneath the red suits a little better - whether we're glad we did, though, is another story.
Philly.com sat down with director Avallone to discuss his movie, Spike Eskin, and where in Philly Foley picked up the Norman Rockwell-esque Santa suit he wears throughout the film.
Q: How did the idea for "I Am Santa Claus" come about? Are you a big Christmas fan?
A: I'm not really into Christmas - I'm more of a Halloween guy. My wife and I were walking around the Cherry Hill mall one year, and I saw a Santa and started wondering, "What family and life does he go back to?"
Q: What about the idea of these men playing Santa is so intriguing to you?
A: One of our Santas says it: Here's this stranger in your family photos that you frame and admire and don't throw away, and no one knows who he is. At the moment, he's kind of Santa Claus, but there's a whole backstory to how he got there.
Q: After shooting so much Christmas-themed material, are you more of a Christmas fan now?
A: To see Mick, the rookie Santa, light up and the kids on his lap, I understand why people invest so much time and money into the holiday. Mick pulled that curtain back for me.
Q: What was it like working with Mick Foley, especially around a topic he loves so much?
A: I talked to him every day and texted him, and sometimes he'd be like, "We're shooting 'Raw' in Brooklyn, so I'm going to come after and we'll edit all night, is that cool?" You can't tell Mick you're not going to sacrifice.
Q: At one point in the documentary, Mick buys his signature Santa suit in Philly. Where did you end up taking him?
A: Pierre's in Old City. Mick had this image of a mixture of a Father Christmas, but sort of new age, and he worked with Bobby at Pierre's who drew it all together. Their big business is Santa stuff, and we shot their place when they were getting truckloads of Santa clothing they designed.
Q: 94WIP's Spike Eskin is listed as a producer. What was his role in bringing the Santas' stories to the screen?
A: In the very beginning, Eskin helped me find what Santas I wanted to go with. For a while, he was also helping with the interview process because he had the knack for getting stuff out of people. He was one of the first guys doing all the interviews.
Q: How did you end up picking the Santas featured in the documentary?
A: We talked to a lot of Santas, at least 30 to 50. To get them, I went to the Chiller horror convention in Jersey and Santa Frank was there. He gave me his business card, and it had his Facebook on there. So I started realizing there are all these Santas on Facebook, and we basically used that as our casting call.
Q: With so many Santas in one movie, was it tough to keep them all straight?
A: We had this whole storyline about "The Santa Wars" which was the feud between the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas and the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas. We made it into a short for the DVD.
Q: You received some online flak for including Santa Jim Stevenson, a gay man, in the documentary. What was your reaction to that?
A: Santas didn't respond well to having Jim in there. Normal people were fine. They would say we're "destroying the magic," which is code for "we don't want to be associated with this."
Q: Do you see "I Am Santa Claus" becoming a holiday classic in its own right?