By Cecilla Chan, GSN Staff Writer
A married couple is ho-ho-hoping to get children of all ages excited about Christmas and at holiday parties and other events.
Wesley and Eileen Turner of Gilbert enjoy playing Santa and Mrs. Claus at house parties, HOA bashes, corporate events and other gatherings throughout the East Valley through their company East Valley Santa Claus.
With a naturally white beard, it is not hard for Wesley, 71, a retired electrical engineer, to play the role of Santa. Eileen, 66, a retired teacher, is a natural with children, accompanying Wesley on holiday gigs and portraying Mrs. Claus with other Santas at schools.
The pair recently entertained children and adults at an HOA block party in Chandler, where they posed for photos and spread holiday cheer.
Wesley and Eileen have taken many classes and belong to various organizations to continuously hone their performances, including Arizona Santas and the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.
Wesley and Eileen are also members of the Santa Claus Conservatory – which bills itself as “the most comprehensive, most convenient and least expensive school for professional Santas & Mrs. Clauses in the world.”
Wesley explained the “set routine” to playing the jolly man in red:
“You come in and talk to all the children, ask what they want for Christmas, get all the photos they want. You guarantee every child is on the nice list, then tell them to work hard and stay on the nice list, make jokes with parents that that’s a surprise.”
He shows up at gigs in a regular car and when children ask where the reindeer are, he tells them they only fly on Christmas Eve. He adds that he flew on an airplane to his destination from the North Pole.
He has held newborns and mingled with elderly residents at memory care units and other senior living homes. Wesley often jokes with grandfathers about how they did not get the motorcycles they requested at the previous Christmas.
“We listen,” Wesley said. “We never promise anything at all, even if parents say ‘yes.’ We always just tell them, ‘Yeah, we’ll see what we can do.
“We do promise you you’ll have some nice presents, really great surprises. You never tell them, ‘no, you can’t have that,’ unless it’s a pet or big electronics things. We tell them, ‘What do my elves make?’”
He tells kids his elves “only make toys” and don’t deliver dogs, horses or other animals.
Wesley carries a big, red bag in which he places presents that the hosts are going to give the children at the parties. He passes them out to the children and then tells them to wait, and then open the gifts all at the same time.
In between posing for photos and handing out gifts, Mrs. Claus will engage guests in activities including giving them temporary stencil glitter tattoos and reading books to them including “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Wesley also performs magic tricks, like waving a special key over a padlock and opening it up to show how the unusual key will allow Santa to get into any house without a fireplace.
Wesley puts in more than 100 hours into his Santa gigs, accompanied by his wife a quarter of the time.
Eileen said she brings in fake fur that “feels like reindeer fur,” as well as real antlers, and recently wore her North Pole garb during a turkey drive at a Bashas’ grocery store in Chandler.
“It’s real easy for me to do having been a teacher,” she said.
Eileen and Wesley have gone through extensive training to perfect their performances.
Wesley said that at his first class in Denver, he and other budding St. Nicks practiced saying “ho, ho, ho” and learned how to get children onto their laps “so they’re not crying.”
He said babies usually stay calm until they reach 6 to 18 months, because by that time many are starting to fear strangers. Wesley said Santas are also taught to make sure both their hands are showing in photos. They learn when asked how reindeer fly to tell kids “it’s a red fairy dust,” he said.
Wesley said he and Eileen got into the Santa business after their grandson, Jacen Campbell, who was about 18 months old at the time, got scared of a Santa Claus he saw. The boy was “trying to escape from Santa,” he said.
“My wife found a (Santa) suit on sale for half price,” Wesley said. “She said, ‘If you dress up, you can get some good pictures.’ Then I got to reading about Santa Clauses and saw it’s really a big business.”
When Jacen, now 6, visits, Wesley said tells him he is dressing up like Santa to help kids “not be afraid of the real one.”
Eileen said she even participated in a school for female performers in Ohio, learning to do many different types of activities on their own without just being Santa’s “arm candy.”
“Many Mrs. Clauses are going out on their own, doing cookie decorating, storytelling,” she said.
Gladys Rosas, who organized a recent block party, said Wesley and Eileen visited in their North Pole roles.
“He’s extremely great with kids and he spends time with them as he’s talking with them,” Rosas said. “The kids get excited. He brings Mrs. Claus. They’re very cute together.”
“The community really enjoys it because it’s the one time we can all see each other and have a good time,” Rosas said. “The adults really look forward to having Santa in our neighborhood and they love taking pictures as a family with Santa and Mrs. Claus.”
She said Wesley’s suit is “awesome and he’s got a real beard.”
“They’re just a great couple and we look forward to having them for many years, keeping the tradition going,” Rosas said.
The cost for Wesley’s Santa visits in December, Mondays through Thursdays is $100 per half hour and $200 per hour. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in December, he charges $125 per half hour visit and $250 per hour.
To book Wesley through East Valley Santa Claus on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, the fee is $400 per hour.
Mrs. Claus receives half of Santa’s rate for her work. Santa also poses for photo shoots only, at $50 plus $125 per hour with a two-hour minimum.