In September, Paul Akert sat at the Humboldt Park Beer Garden, sipping a bourbon barrel stout. Just barely into autumn, Akert was already dreaming about Christmas, and the thrill he gets while riding in a sleigh pulled by real reindeer. In a few months he would resume his annual gig as a Santa Claus storyteller. The role comes easy to him, in part, because he looks very much like the real deal.
Akert’s Kris Kringle calling came about in 2013, shortly after he retired from his job as a Milwaukee Public Schools nurse, where he treated the minor maladies of schoolchildren. The Bay View resident was pondering what he should do in retirement when his youngest son, Raymond, suggested the Santa gig. The idea intrigued Akert. After all, he already had a flourishing white beard.
Like many career changes, this one started with some advanced education. The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Mich., is the world’s oldest Santa school and was founded in 1937 by actor Charles Howard, who portrayed Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Each October, a four-day workshop attracts Santa impersonators from as far away as Norway. Akert returns regularly to brush up on his skills with other members of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, a group that aims to be the “preeminent Santa community in the world,” with members who take oaths declaring devotion to their holiday roles. Elves make the pledge, too.
Eschewing the shopping mall in an effort to maintain more creative control – “Small and interactive,” he declares, is more his style – Akert quickly carved out a business as a Santa storyteller. For a little longer than a month each year (he refuses to don the Santa duds earlier than the day after Thanksgiving), Akert slips into a burgundy velvet two-piece suit with white fur on the collar and sleeves. He then adds midsection padding before strapping on a wide belt with a gold buckle.
Akert books appearances for private audiences at country clubs, company holiday parties, family homes and boutiques like Gift of Wings in downtown Greendale (where he arrived on a Segway) and Ruckus & Glee in Wauwatosa. “Our store ethos is all about sharing the joy and importance of play with our customers,” says Ruckus & Glee co-owner Sarah Fowles. “Kids hang on every word when Santa Paul tells stories. Maybe it’s because his beard is real and his eyes twinkle a little bit.”
If requested, Akert will arrive on a sleigh pulled by reindeer that he hires from Hartland’s Reindeer Games. And sometimes his wife, Jackie, joins him in the role of “Mrs. Claus.”
With a typical visit lasting between 20 and 40 minutes, Akert enters the scene shaking a leather strap with bells, and bellowing out “Ho, ho, ho.” Next, he dives into a story (each year he creates a new repertoire of tales) and then passes out gifts from an on-site stash. In Santa school he learned the importance of building a narrative. “You need to know, in your own mind, what the North Pole looks like,” advises Akert, who now wows kids with tales of his Arctic backyard.
He must also work in modifications to the narrative whenever it’s questioned. The most common query he gets from young skeptics: How does Santa enter homes without a fireplace? To answer the question, Akert displays a “magic key,” which, he tells them, can instantly create a faux chimney route. The imaginative tales have paid off; at one gig, a child said to another, “They brought the real Santa this year.”
“It’s about bringing the magic,” says Akert, whose month as Mr. Claus is also tied to his appreciation for Irish and Celtic folklore. Right now, he has no plans to take the sleigh beyond Wisconsin, even though he says he’s been offered national bookings. Instead, during the off-season he assumes other roles, including Alexander Mitchell at the 125-year-old Wisconsin Club and a combined storyteller-toymaker gig at Kenosha’s Bristol Renaissance Fair. Through Milwaukee Arts at Large, he’s also teaching his craft of storytelling to those on the receiving end of Santa’s tales: second-graders. After all, he says, “Part of my impetus to do Santa is to continue to be connected with children.” ◆