OCEAN PARK — Dozens of people looked up at the sound of the oncoming sirens as three fire engines, several police vehicles and an array of motorcycle cops made their way down Ocean Park Boulevard Saturday, emergency lights flashing.
Expressions of trepidation melted into wide smiles when they saw the flotilla’s precious cargo: Santa Claus, perched on top of the back seat of a black Ford Mustang convertible.
“Just watch their faces,” instructed Lauralee Asch as the Mustang purred along. “It’s one of my favorite parts.”
On a normal day, Asch is the Crime Prevention coordinator for the Santa Monica Police Department, working with the neighborhood resource officers to address crimes in Santa Monica before they happen.
Saturday, she and many off-duty firefighters and police officers were on Santa detail, escorting Mr. Claus himself through the parade route of the 19th annual Candy Cane Drive, a fun holiday parade to bring Santa to Santa Monica’s children, funded entirely by the police and firefighter unions.
Asch corrals volunteers for the day with a simple promise: you’ll smile so much your face hurts.
It’s what inspires the man settled on top of the convertible to step into his plush red suit and bring the image to life.
For Don Skipworth, being Santa Claus is not a part-time job used to pad the retirement fund around the holidays.
In fact, he refuses to accept money from the police and fire unions that bankroll the Candy Cane Drive, nor was he paid by the Main Street Business Improvement Association, which also used his services over the weekend.
The purity of emotion elicited by the idea of Santa is too dear to profit from, Skipworth said.
“For the believers, or those who were once believers, being that image opens the door to such warmth, excitement and love,” Skipworth said.
Skipworth, a Santa Barbara native, began playing Santa for the police department in 2002. A friend and Santa Monica resident Jim Grancich introduced him to Asch, who is responsible for coordinating the Candy Cane Drive.
Grancich had observed the caliber of Santa offered up by the police department, and decided to intervene.
“What happened is we were using reluctant Santas,” Asch admitted.
Traditionally, the role of Santa in the Candy Cane Drive was played by a police officer, either a willing volunteer or a coerced recruit. Neither brand fit the description of a portly man with rosy cheeks and a full, white beard.
Skipworth, with his uncanny resemblance to the icon, stepped into the job with relish. Within a few years he had been co-opted by the fire department for its hospital visits and holiday party and by Main Street for its holiday walk.
It’s a whirlwind weekend. He drives down from Santa Barbara on a Friday in his Town and Country van and stays through the weekend, never far from his big, red suit and trusty elves, Carlos Garcia and Grancich.
“Main Street pays for his hotel room, and he doesn’t even stay at a fancy hotel,” Asch said. “He does it because he loves it. He’s so joyful.”
Skipworth’s first foray into the world of Santa came long before he was physically fit to play the part. He was a young junior high teacher, and as such, at the mercy of his tenured colleagues.
“They asked me because I was the low man on the totem pole,” he said. “It was a stretch to be Santa.”
He dutifully put on the suit and a fake beard, but as he “Ho ho ho’ed” his way through the students’ holiday party, Skipworth noticed the excitement that the appearance of Santa brought to children who thought of Santa Claus as the embodiment of Christmas magic.
“When I put on that uniform for the first time and I saw a child look at me — it was a little girl — the intensity with which she looked at me struck me,” Skipworth said. “This is the innocence of a true, believing child.”
Now, he starts letting his beard grow out in July, just to the point where he begins to feel like a “big English sheepdog.”
The red sweaters appear just after Thanksgiving.
“As soon as people see me on the street, I get wonderful responses from folks,” Skipworth said. “Even the very elderly become like little children again. They’re transported back to a time that’s very special.”
Margie Delano, a 52-year resident of Santa Monica, felt that power when she attended the first Candy Cane Drive, and has only become more enchanted by the event with the arrival of Santa Skip.
Every year, Delano waits at the Christine Reed Park across the street from St. Monica’s Catholic Church with her family members in tow. They’d driven from Camarillo early Saturday morning to make sure they didn’t miss Santa’s arrival at the park.
“This is my most exciting day of the year,” Delano said. “More than Christmas, and I love Christmas.”
Skipworth attributes the success and popularity of the Candy Cane Drive to Asch’s organizational skills and the unique culture of Santa Monica’s public service agencies. Although he’s tried, he can’t get Santa Barbara to set up anything similar to the event.
“What Lauralee and her staff managed to do is a program that could be replicated in every city, everywhere if people could get beyond the politics and egos that seem to rear their ugly heads,” Skipworth said.
Questions about insurance and union buy-in hampered Skipworth’s efforts to get a similar program launched in Santa Barbara, as well as a run-in with city officials over what Skipworth considered an example of institutional racism.
“They told me ‘We’re color blind, here,’” Skipworth said. “I told them, ‘That’s the same thing the rednecks told me in the Civil Rights era.’ I’ll never be Santa in Santa Barbara.”
Santa Monica, however, is unique.
“What I saw immediately was the coming together of a lot of different components — political, nonprofit, all of these entities working together to present a program for the community that’s virtually no expense … it’s unlike anything I’ve ever been involved with before,” Skipworth said.