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FORBS' War of the Santas

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

Can't you just see Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller—or Jack Black and John Goodman—starring in this mess?

*     *     *

The OC Santa Wars began with a friendly TV commercial.

Singin' Santa and Diva Claus
Riley Kern
Singin' Santa and Diva Claus

In 1994, the world's largest mail-order company—Otto Versand (now the Otto Group)—was planning its winter sales campaign and went looking for real-bearded Santas. Ten professional real-bearded Santa actors, including Tom Hartsfield, made the shoot at Universal Studios.

The original 10 Santas bonded in friendship and planned a reunion. They wanted a name, and a precedent existed. The world's first Santa Claus group—the Benevolent Order of Santa Claus—was founded in New York on Dec. 18, 1937, to promote Santa's image throughout U.S. department stores. But the new Santas wanted to keep "real beard" in the group's title, so Hartsfield proposed "Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas."

By 2003, the AORBS had 100 members . . . all with background checks. Hartsfield was looking for help, which he found in Santa Tim Connaghan—"Saint Timothy" to Ric Erwin—a man without peer in the Santa business. Of the thousands of professional Santas working today in the U.S., two stand out as super-celebs: Santa Claus Hall of Fame inductees Brady White, a.k.a. "Santa to the Stars©" (who counts Neiman Marcus and Cartier as clients and has appeared in numerous films, television commercials and ads), and Tim "Santa Hollywood" Connaghan. While White is a one-man phenom, Connaghan is a networked mega "Santa-preneur" with a chimney-deep resume. He is known as "Santa Hollywood" primarily for his role as Official Santa for the Hollywood Christmas Parade, but he also does film and TV work. He's an entertainer and event celebrity, recognizable by his distinctive chiseled hairline, curled handlebar moustache, rimless spectacles, ubiquitous red "civilian" outfits, and a mellifluous speaking voice that comes from his years as a broadcast journalist.

A 24/7/365 bicoastal (New York and SoCal) Santa, Connaghan is president of the Kringle Group LLC. He runs one of America's largest and busiest real-bearded Santa booking agencies (2,300 names in his database) for up to 4,000 events each year. The Kringle Group operates the largest professional Santa school: International University of Santa Claus (IUSC), which is built around Connaghan's own curriculum and textbook, Behind the Red Suit. In addition to annually training between 200 and 300 Santas and Mrs. Clauses, the company runs a mail-order wardrobe catalog, offering boots, coats, buckles and yak-fur designer beards.

"I make a nice living," Santa Tim told me during a recent phone conversation. "I was able to pay off my daughter's college loans. Now, I'm retired and not looking for income. I just look to cover my expenses when I travel and enjoy life."

In the fall of 2003, Hartsfield asked Connaghan, then 54, to take over as AORBS coordinator. Santa Tim made the group dues-paying to fund a bigger, more informative website, newsletters and a chat group for members. The association grew from about 200 to almost 1,300 names on the meeting list. Connaghan also put together the first Santa convention—the Discover Santa Convention, held in July 2006, in Branson, Missouri. Three hundred Santas attended. By 2007, paid membership reached approximately 700 Santas, at $20 per member annually.

In January 2007, Connaghan turned AORBS into an official nonprofit, assembling an interim board and drafting bylaws. AORBS also announced its intentions to host the 2008 Discover Santa gathering, with 800 Santas in Overland Park, Kansas. And meanwhile, all the media attention was attracting new members.

One of these men was Nick Trolli.

*     *     *

A part-time Santa from Pennsylvania, Nicholas "Nick" Trolli, then 47, discovered AORBS while doing a Google search. Intrigued by the idea of a Santa group, he quickly joined.

In the spring of 2007, Trolli attended an AORBS meeting in New Jersey and immediately volunteered to get involved. An opening in the board of directors occurred when board member Santa Joe Moore resigned. The empty seat went to Santa Nick, who volunteered to help plan the 2008 AORBS Discover Santa Convention. He was subsequently put in charge of planning the Kansas City get-together.

Within months, AORBS disintegrated.

Trolli began accusing Connaghan of ethical lapses for conducting business with member Santas, including acting as a booking agent for 200 of them for Christmas events. Trolli also accused Connaghan of using AORBS to benefit his own Kringle Group businesses. Connaghan said he kept his personal business and role as the group's director separate, but Trolli then started what came to be called a "whispering campaign" against Connaghan among the other Santas.

Matters came to a head in August 2007 when Connaghan disclosed he had signed a contract with Nash Entertainment, a Hollywood production company, for a possible movie about the 2006 Discover Santa Convention in Branson. In addition to the convention, Nash also wanted the rights to—since it would be part of the movie—Connaghan's life story, nearly 40 years spent as a Santa.

"My company produced, insured and underwrote the 2006 convention as the legal body because there was no legal AORBS corporation at that time," Santa Tim told me. "So, after I was approached about the movie deal, I also did the negotiations personally, with my company as the legal entity, because, again, at the time, there was still no board of directors or legal AORBS Santa corporation."

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