FORBS' War of the Santas

St. Nicks across the country keep fighting for control of America's premier Santa organization

FORBS' War of the Santas
Photography: Riley Kern | Model: Bob Fitzgerald | Special Thanks: Costume Connection | Design: Dustin Ames

"Santa's real. . . . It's the stories that are fake."

—Uncle Bill, grandma's house, Christmas 1957

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Jolly ol' Saint Ric
Riley Kern
Jolly ol' Saint Ric
Real-bearded Santa Timothy Connaghan
Riley Kern
Real-bearded Santa Timothy Connaghan

Ric Erwin, "Singin' Santa," the most vibrant performing professional Santa Claus I've ever met, is also the first Santa I've ever actually . . . in person . . . seen fly. Under his own power.

I first met Santa Ric (and, yes, all performing Santas should be called by that honorific) at the April meeting of the Santas of the OC™—"The ORIGINAL Chapter of FORBS™"—at Sarducci's Depot Restaurant in San Juan Capistrano. He's vice president of the group, part of a regional association serving California, Arizona and Nevada known as Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (FORBS). My wife and I had dinner with a roomful of Santas, including Santa Ric, a burly, buoyant gent with an equally gregarious wife, Victoria (a.k.a. "Diva Claus"). The two—"Southern California's First Couple of Live Entertainment"—own Ric~N~Vic Productions, an A/V and special-events production company in Mission Viejo. As we sat at the dinner table, he treated us to his self-proclaimed "interactive event Santa" talents by singing a rapid-fire recitation of ALL the names of EVERY country in the world that Santa visits.

"[FORBS] was born in Orange County, California," explained Santa Ric. "Not that we first conceived the practice of using men with natural beards to portray Santa Claus, of course—but without a doubt, we originated the concept of the Santa fraternity."

There is no Santa Claus Vatican, no Pope Santa. Hundreds of Santa Claus organizations exist worldwide. Santa Ric, always seeing the big picture, founded his own International Order of Santas (IOS) in February 2008. Their mission: "Uniting the World's Holiday Professionals."

In September, Santa Ric and Diva Claus invited me to their Mission Viejo home to attend the FORBS Annual SoCal BBQ & Pool Party. Santas look a lot alike, but Santa doesn't clone. With all those beaming, rotund, middle-aged men sporting long white hair and whiskers, Ric and Diva's pool party resembled a scene from The Hobbit movie in which Gandalf and the dwarf clan invade Bilbo's Bag End bungalow. Throw in the uncle and the dad from Duck Dynasty, too. Also, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Merlin and Moses (Michelangelo, not Heston).

In any case, this is no country for old men who buy and wear the pricey yak-fur "designer" beards so popular with follicularly challenged and seasonal-only professional Santas. Real bearders commit to playing Santa year-round, so FORBS only accepts real beards. I stood near the backyard pool in a cluster of Santas clad in red-and-green-accented swim trunks and leisurewear exposing expansive amounts of white flesh. I had found a few black Santas on the East Coast online, but not much else. I did find some racist posts about these beloved black Santas from a site I won't name, but I will say the editor calls himself TatooedRed (a.k.a. The TattedRat).

Wearing flip-flops, shorts and a red T-shirt, Santa Ric grilled hot dogs and hamburgers while I chatted with him and some of the other Santas, including Santa Earl, a barber from Santa Ana, and Santa Greg, a school-bus driver from Fullerton. Santa Greg shared his genesis story with me: One day while transporting his charges to school, he had to hit the bus brakes harder than expected, which bounced one of the kids out of his seat (what's with no seat belts on school buses, anyway?). Later, the youngster's irate mom called the school to complain about the incident. When asked which driver was responsible, the woman replied, "That Santa Claus-looking motherfucker."

Then, I saw it: Santa Ric actually flying. I watched as Ric, his eyes watering from all the grill smoke, suddenly pulled off his red T-shirt and sprinted toward the pool, nimbly launching his ample 250-pound mass into the water. Barely making a splash, he then contentedly floated on his back in apparent peaceful contemplation of who knows what. Later, as I left the party, I could hear Santa Ric strumming his guitar and singing a sweet ballad.

So, what could cause this jovial, cherubic big guy to war with fellow Santas? Santa Ric would later lament to me how others "organized the illegal coup with which they hijacked—and ultimately murdered—our noble fraternity."

The hot Cold War of the Real Bearded Santas erupted six years ago, and the "Santa-mosity" still lingers. Santas fighting Santas is so compelling that Paramount Pictures has had a "Santa Wars" project in development with Mike White since 2009, and a documentary film is due to hit festivals in 2014.

The bare facts: the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas (AORBS), founded in Southern California in 1995, was taken over in 2007 by Santa Nicholas Trolli of Pennsylvania, following the resignation of AORBS President Santa Tim Connaghan, of Riverside, amidst accusations by Trolli against Connaghan involving conflicts of interest. Trolli himself soon faced withering criticism from group members over his own performance. A mass exodus from AORBS ensued. Santa Ric, president of the AORBS Inland Empire Chapter, was one of those critics; he resigned in 2007. Former AORBS members then formed FORBS, a California-based 501(c)7 "mutual-benefit association" registered in Orange County. FORBS later had its own internal Santa vs. Santa problems. Santa Claus endures but keeps changing his mind.

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