If you have had a picture taken with Santa Claus in San Antonio this holiday season, there's a good chance he was booked through a local business run by a head elf.
That head elf is Renee Davis, CEO of San Antonio-based Santa Express Central, who manages more than 50 professional Santa Clauses across the state, a business Davis said keeps her busy year-round.
“In order to get a really professional Santa, retailers get on it a good 18 months to a year in advance, because it’s that competitive to get a good Santa,” she said.
All of the Santas with Santa Express Central have real beards, Davis said. She puts them through a background check, insures them, outfits them with Santa uniforms, and enrolls them into her own Santa school. There they practice their ho-ho-ho’s and learn how to style themselves properly, speak around children, preserve the magic of Santa Claus, and strike the best poses for the camera. Her training prepares them to be the best Santas they can be, she said.
"My Santas book out very fast, and it’s because of the difference we make," she said. "They’re taking that extra moment and time, letting the child know, 'I care, I see you, and I hear you.'"
Between November and December, Davis estimates she books more than 600 events with her Santa Clauses. She has 57 Santas across Texas, though the majority live in the San Antonio and Hill Country area.
Davis started Santa Express Central 18 years ago. She loves Christmas, and used to hire Santa Clauses for Montgomery Ward department stores before the retailer stopped operating in 2001. She and husband Gene Davis, known as “Santa Gene,” started the company together as a way to support nonprofits. Every year, part of their proceeds go to nonprofit organizations, Davis said.
“We started with Boysville in Converse because it was in our backyard, so [during our first year,] for every dollar we raised, a percentage of our proceeds helped us put on a massive party for Boysville,” she said. “But every year we’ve been in business, we added another nonprofit or community event to help out. We’re supporting 18 nonprofits this year.”
On top of Santa Express Central’s nonprofit work, Davis will sometimes ask her Santa Clauses to do visits for free, depending on the situation. Fred Ekenstam, 74, has been working with Santa Express Central for seven years. He remembered one year when Davis asked him and his wife (dressed as Mrs. Claus) to deliver presents to a family in south San Antonio.
“The boy had leukemia and wasn’t expected to live very long,” he said. “We got to the house, and there were four kids. Three were calm and sedate, and [the boy] was a live wire. He passed about a month after we delivered his presents for Christmas. I read the Christmas story to the four of them, and then we were on our way.”
Ekenstam said he joined Santa Express Central because of the convenience. He found the business online and after passing a background check, Davis hired him on as a contractor.
“I really liked the idea of [Davis] doing all the scheduling of the events,” he said. “She knows so many people in San Antonio. … If there’s an event going on, she’s got a finger in it if it’s at all possible.”
Ekenstam had 31 scheduled events during the 2018 holiday season, he said.
“As long as it’s still fun and I’m physically able, I’ll still be doing it,” he said.
Santa Dan Balcar has been a lawyer, a journalist, and now works as a realtor – the perfect job with which to balance a profession as Santa Claus, he said.
“I have three [real estate] clients now," he said, "but usually it slows down after October.”
Balcar, 63, joked that he has looked like Santa Claus for much of his life. Davis and her husband spotted him at a barbecue restaurant, where she asked him if anyone had ever told him of his resemblance to St. Nick.
“I said, 'Yeah, four times last week,'” he laughed.
Balcar has worked with Santa Express Central for seven years. This year his calendar is filled not only with events scheduled by Davis, but house visits and parties that he does for friends. Though Balcar had played Santa before meeting Davis, he said he prefers having someone as well-connected as her scheduling him for appearances. In the span of five days, he was booked for 14 events, he said.
“I can see more children that way,” he said. “There can be more happy kids.”