Les Heinemann has played Santa Claus at Baybrook Mall in Friendswood for 13 seasons now. Somebody told him that by December 25 of this year he'll have had almost 300,000 children sit on his lap and sort out their Christmas lists.
I first met Heinemann in 2001 when I worked at Baybrook part-time and we'd chat on our lunch breaks. Les discovered that I'm from Kentucky, which usually leads to a conversation about basketball, horses or bourbon. Instead, I discovered that Santa loves bluegrass.
He leads a band called The Florissant Fossils Bluegrass Band back at his home in Colorado. They're on Facebook and have a sweet ReverbNation page with a handful of songs on there. "I'd Like to Trade All My Troubles," "Barefoot Kids From Long Ago" and "Blue Virginia Blue" are about as fluent and well-recorded as anything you'll ever hear.
They've played all over the place for a long time now, both at bars and parties, but Florissant Fossils are a big festival band now, too. They even had a minor hit, something like No. 13 on the bluegrass charts, over in Europe. No, really, it's true. I've been trying to get them to play Houston for years, but it comes down to money. A six-man band that sounds this good doesn't travel light.
Heinemann hasn't seen Todd Waite play Crumpet the Elf in The Santaland Diaries at Houston's Alley Theater. He's lived it, and people ask him about it from time to time. They ask him to come to their Christmas parties after-hours, but mostly they ask him to whisper in their ear, "What does my child want for Christmas?"
By the end of most days, he's got a pile of Christmas lists handwritten in crayon. Some are typed and printed, and some come with Christmas cards, candy canes or baked goods. He's seen all the crazes go by his lap: The Furby, Tickle Me Elmo, *NSync and Dora the Explorer, to name a few.
Some things never go out of style, like Mickey Mouse or Barbie. Heinemann says kids are usually about three years old before they start making a Christmas list. The first couple of years they're afraid at first or stunned by the scene, but he's got experience, so the kids tend to calm down with him.
Les doesn't get peed on every day, but it happens and he takes it in stride. The show must go on. That's not what bothers him anyway. You don't get hugs from 300,000 kids without having a heart, and it doesn't come without heartbreak. Heinemann says he wishes he could communicate with the autistic kids and hear their wishes too. He sees them every year, and hopes things get better for them soon.
Some of those kids who were babies back when Les first came to Baybrook are in high school now. They don't always get their picture made with him as teenagers, but some do. And the ones who don't will come back eventually, either in college or afterwards with their own children.
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In 2003 Les posed for pictures with my dog, Willie, for the first time. Last year it was my niece, London, who didn't smile in her photo. In 2012, he'll pose with my baby son, Dylan, hopefully for the first of many Christmases.