Local Santa celebrates 25 years behind the beard

Vancouver's Phillip Verry embraces his jolly alter ego

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian staff writer



If you go

• Who: Santa and Mrs. Claus, aka Phillip Verry and Dee Campbell.

• What: Santa will pose for pictures and hand out candy canes.

• When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday.

• Where: Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver.

Stocking up on Santa

• Visit the Time with Santa website or call 360-772-3834 to learn more about scheduling a Santa or Mrs. Claus.

• For information on Santa’s Pack, the Vancouver and Portland area’s “first and oldest Santa Claus Club,” go to its website.

For years, Phillip Verry kept his jolly alter ego a secret.

As an 18-year-old puppeteer in the late 1980s, Verry caught an unshakable case of "ho-ho-ho" when he began transforming into Santa Claus during birthday party gigs in Olympia.

Those shows, which involved leaping from behind his puppet stage in a $90 thrift store Santa suit made of rabbit fur, got such a reaction from the energetic audience that Verry started spending more time behind the beard. He'd even walk home from work in costume, soaking up the attention received from honking motorists.

"I had so much fun with it, I didn't want to take the costume off," said Verry, 43 and head of Time with Santa, a Vancouver talent agency with a roster of 15 Santas and three Mrs. Clauses. "You felt like a real celebrity."

A quarter-century after first becoming ol' St. Nick, the novelty might have worn off, but not the magic.

"I think it was kind of serendipitous that I was supposed to do what I was supposed to do," said Verry, who from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday in Esther Short Park will pose for pictures and hand out candy canes in his 1950s double-decker bus. He'll be joined by Dee Campbell, who has performed with him as Mrs. Claus for 21 years.

Santa's little secret

Soon after first donning the red suit, Verry took to the role, embracing the wonder he inspired in the imaginative minds of children. But in those first whirlwind seasons, few knew about his newfound affinity.

"For many years, the only people who knew I did this were the people who worked at the puppet theater with me," he said. "My family didn't know, I was really embarrassed to talk about it."

However, his unease melted away in the early 1990s after moving closer to his parents in Vancouver.

By 1996, his mom, Linda Fletcher, was driving him to gigs in her van, with Verry in the back arranging toys. Not quite, "on Comet, on Cupid," but the job got done.

Learning the ropes

The paid Santa performances, growing thanks to word of mouth and Verry's marketing savvy, came at a furious pace as that decade turned to the next. So much so that he couldn't possibly handle all the reservation requests on his own. While the fabled Santa can travel the world in one night, Verry couldn't possess that ability no matter how rosy his cheeks or jiggly his belly.

"I'm real," he said.

Thanks to connections and camaraderie with other holiday performers, Verry learned how to better navigate the sometimes-tricky business. How does a Santa respond, for example, when a child shares something deeply personal with him? This and other such questions are important to consider when portraying Santa, Verry said, especially since the audiences are trusting innocents.

Lessons gleaned from other performers helped Verry adapt. Now he's the one passing on wisdom to his team, which he holds to tough, but necessary, scrutiny. Because of kids' trust in Santa, Mrs. Claus and elves, a lack of training can cause "irrevocable damage in a child's mind."

"Having that power comes with a heavy responsibility," Verry said.

The Time with Santa business took root in the 2000s from Verry's realization that most Santa performers are tuned in more to the entertainment side of industry than the business side. By 2006, after years assisting others with bookings, he started his agency in earnest, taking commissions in exchange for setting performers up with gigs. These days a typical private Santa will earn $100 an hour, but Verry said his experience lets him nab as much as $250 an hour.

Not bad for someone who entered the field charging $35 for each several-hour event, he said.

In recent holiday seasons, Verry has been spending less time in costume and more time behind the desk, a byproduct of the considerable work it takes to run Time with Santa. Outside of his agency, Verry is an established special effects make-up artist with an appointment-only studio behind Pied Piper Pizza, 12300 N.E. Fourth Plain Road.

Santa Claus club

Verry's Kringle crew is not the only game in town. There are at least dozens of other freelance performers in Vancouver alone.

Santa's Pack prides itself on being the Portland-Vancouver region's "first and oldest Santa Claus Club."

That professional support group was an early resource for Verry, though he is no longer affiliated with them.

Vancouver's Rob Figley, former Santa's Pack co-chair and current president of The International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, said the regional association provides independent performers with connections and training to help them flourish, whether at corporate gigs or the less-lucrative mall appearances.

The nature of Santa

Verry, a Christian, believes in the spirit of Christmas — giving to others.

He did just that for years as a volunteer with the U.S. Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program. In 2008, he handed out 8,000 toys provided by Toys for Tots at an elaborate walk-through holiday attraction at the Jantzen Beach SuperCenter, which he created with Washougal native Dawn Holen.

The next year at Portland's Lloyd Center mall, Verry ran a toy drive and outreach program for families in need, giving them more than 10,000 gifts.

As an 18-year-old in a cheap Santa suit, it was children that inspired Verry. It's the same today.

"My whole life has been people telling me, 'Why don't you just get a real job,'" he said.

The typical 9-to-5 might cut it for some, but not Verry, who believes in the power his role can have on young minds.

"I want to change the world," he said.

One grinning child at a time.

Stover E. Harger III: 360-735-4530; stover.harger@columbian.com; Twitter: col_hoods.