FORBS' War of the Santas

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

After AORBS was incorporated, Connaghan asked Nash to create two separate contracts, one for him personally and one for the association. Should the movie ever get made, Connaghan would also be a paid consultant working with the writers in the development and during production, advising on the events as they'd be re-created.

"I wouldn't have received any residuals or profits from the movie, television or merchandise," said Connaghan, who confirmed he did receive an "industry standard," non-refundable $1,500 "starter option" retainer fee—the only money he received from the proposed movie deal.

"People need to remember that the story was about a Santa convention I personally produced and about my personal life," Santa Tim emphasized. He said that the newly incorporated association would have received an estimated $100,000, plus residuals from ticket sales and television broadcasts, percentages of the sales of any merchandise, and more.

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

But it was not to be. Arguments about Connaghan's movie deal roiled AORBS board meetings. Tom Hartsfield and Connaghan agreed that one way to reduce the turmoil was to have Santa Tim step down. "So I decided to resign in the hopes that with the conflicts removed, the focus could get back to supporting the Santa community," he said.

Despite a vote of confidence from the AORBS board, Connaghan resigned his position as AORBS president, saying it was because of the infighting and not because he thought he had done anything wrong. Three of the six members of the board at the time also resigned.

This sudden power vacuum left Santa Nick Trolli as the official president of AORBS. Along with him came an NFL lineman-sized ally: Santa Jeff Germann of Springfield, Missouri, 6 feet, 4 inches and 300 pounds of sometimes-not-so-jolly intimidation.

Trolli and Germann almost immediately began "ruling with an iron fist in a white glove," critics alleged. After failed attempts to force Trolli to resign, other AORBS members simply left, demanding national elections. Trolli outflanked the old guard, dissolving the AORBS charter in Minnesota and registering the group as AORBS Inc. in Kentucky, with only himself and Santus Gigantus Germann—now a group vice president—as company officers.

AORBS was dead. Long live AORBS Inc.

Santa Ric said he was among the first of the AORBS members to "sound the alarm" for fellow Santas about what Trolli and Germann were doing. And playing Santa had once been about the fun.

In 2002, Ric's wife, Victoria, was helping to arrange holiday food baskets for needy families when someone suggested having Santa deliver them to the families with kids. Someone else recalled having an old Santa suit in his attic.

"My fate was sealed when my wife added, 'Well, I know where there's a fat guy with nothing better to do on Saturday.'" Oh, ho, ho, no.

Erwin was gifted that thin, pajama-style suit. "But it wasn't until 2011 that I finally bellied up to the bar and ordered a Santa suit from Adele's of Hollywood—for around $1,000," he said. "I now have three Santa suits—not including the original pajama suit."

Santas Trolli and Germann showed Santa Ric a thing or two about believing in Santa Claus.

"Trolli and Germann trumped any possibility of legal action when they surreptitiously canceled AORBS' nonprofit charter in Minnesota and used our name and logo to register a for-profit corporation in Kentucky," Erwin said. "Having pulled off that slick trick, neither Minnesota nor Kentucky could touch them . . . although both attorneys general looked into it in response to a flood of complaints from members."

Trolli's board stripped Santas of their membership for offenses such as "maligning" fellow Santas on Elf Net, an AORBS chat room. In November 2007, Trolli got the remaining board to approve confidentiality agreements concerning board discussions. Hartsfield, who didn't agree with the new rules, complained on Elf Net. As the message board's administrator, Germann said Hartsfield "broke the rules" and temporarily banned him. In January 2008, the AORBS board removed Hartsfield as a director. And it stripped Connaghan of his group membership for "dissemination of half-truths and disinformation" against AORBS on rival message-board sites, according to an email sent to Hartsfield by Germann.

Things got physical that month when Santa Ric tried to crash an AORBS board meeting at Knott's Berry Farm Resort Hotel in Buena Park. Erwin says he planned to videotape the private meeting for Santas who couldn't attend. He pushed past Trolli and ended up face-to-beard with Germann near the Santa-filled meeting room. Erwin says Germann "used his elbow to bounce me off the wall." Germann denied touching Erwin. Trolli claimed Erwin "headed into [Germann] like a linebacker." Erwin was escorted out of the building by security guards.

Santa Ric felt betrayed. An AORBS lodge director and loyalist, he'd served as the group's PR coordinator, media liaison, official videographer and archivist. "Ric~N~Vic Productions had donated thousands of dollars' worth of free services each year to AORBS and its members," he asserted.

So, Erwin helped set up SantaTalk on—an online "refugee camp" for the hundreds of fellow diaspora AORBS Santas who were quitting or being "kicked out."

"I advocated against continued attempts to wrest back control of AORBS due mainly to the overwhelming civil—and possibly criminal—liabilities they were accumulating in its name," he said.

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