He’s making a list, checking it twice
Caretaker to world’s largest Santa prepares for holidays
by Susan Hart Hellman, Correspondent
Many of us make holiday “to-do” lists: Unpack decorations, hang lights, mail party invitations, prepare for guests. Nyeland Acres resident Michael Barber’s list also includes this unusual entry: “Thoroughly clean world’s largest Santa.” Actually, even though Barber’s charge, which is visible along Highway 101 near Rice Avenue in Oxnard, is just a head and torso, it weighs 6 tons and is 22 feet tall.
Barber became chief elf to the supersize Santa when the big guy moved to Oxnard in January 2003. But Barber was already acquainted, having taken his daughters, 25 years earlier, to visit Santa’s original beachside home near Carpinteria.
Santa was “born” there in 1948 after juice stand owner Patrick McKeon developed the giant Santa to entice travelers to stop. McKeon told a customer his idea, not knowing he was a sculptor. Soon the man had built a lumber frame; prodded yards of diamond lathe mesh into the shape of chubby cheeks and tangly beard; added gallons of plaster; and painted Santa from hat to belt. The rooftop Santa saluted thousands of Highway 1 passers-by.
But times changed and, when Highway 1 was moved, widened and renamed Highway 101, an unnamed half-mile cutoff was built to serve the juice stand.
Santa Claus Lane
McKeon named the cutoff “Santa Claus Lane,” then watched his site flourish with the addition of reindeer, snowmen and a miniature train.
Santa’s Kitchen, the Reindeer Room, Santa’s Date Shop and Toyland overflowed with visitors year-round.
As the year 2000 was ushered in, Santa’s reign grew tenuous: His rooftop leaked and was caving in; some businesses wanted a fishing village theme; and several business owners feared travelers’ interest in Santa would die. Believers could not keep Santa up on the rooftop. Radio broadcasts, petitions and the attempts of preservationists to obtain historical monument status didn’t work.
In early 2002, Santa was removed, and his “elves” were told they had until Jan. 31, 2003, to find a suitable new home.
Elves step in
Santa’s elves created a list of requirements for the move. Santa, they declared, had to be always visible; accessible; off a major highway, preferably Highway 101; on a roof; and in Santa Barbara County.
Taking a personal interest was Robert Maxim, then president of the Pearl Chase Society, a nonprofit conservancy committed to preserving sites of enduring community value in and around Santa Barbara.
Maxim began making calls. He soon learned that finding a taker for a 6-ton Santa was a monumental task, and many calls went unreturned.
But he had the help of many volunteers, including a number with childhood memories of Santa Claus Lane. “At that point,” Maxim said, “historic preservation was no longer an issue. With the volume of concerned people, this became a mission about saving the spirit of the Santa.”
Location offers came in, too. One involved storage, bringing Santa out only for parades. A new-age group wanted him for its church. Others proposed boating him to the Santa Monica Pier. None of the offers met the requirements and, after 11 months, just days before Christmas, it appeared that Santa would be destroyed.
A small miracle
At that point, Maxim called the Santa Barbara News-Press. The editor wrote a large piece, and the Dec. 21 article focused on Maxim’s words: “We need to find Santa a home. Christmas is a wonderful time of love and giving. There is a special spirit no matter what your beliefs, and I know small miracles happen at Christmas. I know that Santa is going to be saved, and we’ll be hearing about it soon.”
By the night before Christmas, three potentially good offers had arrived, but they didn’t meet the requirements, either.
Luckily, Michael Barber read the News-Press and presided over a private Oxnard water company, which owned a highly visible, accessible, vacant lot on a frontage road along Highway 101.
The site lacked a building, but the rooftop requirement had been abandoned because of California’s earthquake-related laws. The small lot was in Ventura County, but everyone agreed, it would do just fine.
The long haul
Santa Barbara Specialty Crane volunteered a flatbed truck, a crane and manpower. But there was even a larger problem: Would Santa survive?
“Santa is amazingly thin,” Barber explained. Although he’s heavy, the plaster is only inches thick, and the diamond lathe wire had rusted.
Again, it was Specialty Crane to the rescue, “gift wrapping” Santa in thousands of feet of shrink-wrap and duct tape “ribbon.” Then, Barber, Maxim and Mike Dawson, vice president of Specialty Crane, scouted out Santa’s prospective route. “We had to measure every sign and every single wire,” Barber recalled.
On Jan. 28, Santa was hoisted onto the flatbed and, guided at 25 mph by officers in patrol cars flashing their lights, made his way to Oxnard.
Barber, a retired ironworker, planned for a single-handed Santa restoration. “But it was an amazing thing; people started coming out of the woodwork,” he said.
Many visitors offered help and for each of his to-do items, an expert came along: Bricklayers built a new chimney with stucco “snow”; a plasterer repaired Santa’s damaged arm; a concrete patio appeared around his fireplace; Santa received a plaster face-lift; and with 40 gallons of donated paint, his smile was restored. And the new twinkle in his eye? Some say Santa produced that on his own.
In Santa’s small park, electrician elves installed lighting; scouts planted donated trees; and sprinklers were installed to keep the park ever green.
But Barber has been Chief Elf. Santa’s home is just a block away from Barber’s own Nyeland Acres backyard. This holiday season Santa is busy, saluting passers-by from behind the fence Barber designed for him, complete with the initials “S.C.”
Barber’s busy too, adding to his holiday to-do list: Make sure Santa is neat, clean and ready for an annual toy giveaway. Remind police to close off frontage road so the kids at the giveaway can run around.
Why would Barber undertake this monumental task?
His “practical” reply is, “I figured it had to be done, and somebody had to do it.” But with a twinkle in his eye, he admits it could be because, at heart, he’s still just a kid.
Barber vows to continue the work.
“Santa Claus and Christmas — it’s like a spirit thing to me, and that spirit has got to stay alive.”
This Santa Claus, which used to sit on a roof on Santa Claus Lane near Carpinteria, now greets drivers along Highway 101 in El Rio. When the season warms, Santa dons sunglasses.
The care of Santa
• As caretaker, Michael Barber prepares Santa for the holidays by scrubbing down every inch of his 22-foot-tall head and torso (using a hose and clear water).
• Other seasonal tasks include hanging the lights and decorations on Santa’s wire-frame spiral Christmas tree, putting lights on the other trees and bushes in Santa’s parklike setting, and tidying up the park area around Santa.
• Year-round tasks include hosing Santa off once a month. (“Santa gets dusty!” Barber said, laughing.)
• Barber also touches up Santa’s paint as needed. This year, the paint on Santa’s face was touched up, as was all of the gold on Santa. In 2008, Barber plans to redo all of the red paint, a task he has to do about every other year as the red tends to fade.
• One visionary task Barber feels is very important: Since moving to Oxnard, Santa has acquired a pair of sunglasses in addition to his regular glasses. When daylight saving time begins each year, Barber removes Santa’s regular glasses and puts on his sunglasses. When daylight saving time ends, he reverses the process.
• To keep Santa’s surroundings tidy all year, at least once a week Barber visits the park to check on the trees and bushes, making sure they are healthy and adequately pruned. He makes sure the sprinkler system is working and removes any trash that has blown in. He also changes all the park lights at least twice a year.
• Barber arranges for new plants and trees as needed. In the spring, a donated redwood tree — a memorial — will be planted in Santa’s park.
Other Santa facts
• The official name of the water company that adopted Santa is the Garden Acres Water Co. It was established in 1929, and the original well was there, right under where Santa now sits. In the 1990s drought, the well dried up, and another was drilled in nearby Nyeland Acres.
• It took about five hours to shrink-wrap Santa for his move to Oxnard.
• Santa is hollow; he is built from diamond lathe wiring on a frame of 2-by-4 boards. (Even hollow, he still weighs 6 tons.)
• Some of the people and companies donating to Santa since he arrived in Oxnard are Dunn Edwards, which gave 40 gallons of paint; Penny Sebastian, a Santa Barbara artist who painted the face and other details; Ventura Electrician’s Union apprentices, who installed the electrical wiring for the lighting; Home Depot, which donated $5,000 worth of trees and shrubs for Santa’s park; Coastal Pipco of Oxnard, which provided and installed the sprinkler system; and Team Concrete, which provided and poured the concrete walkways.
If on Saturday you’re in the Nyeland Acres area of Oxnard and you notice a little commotion, it will be Santa doing what he does: giving. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Santa’s park near Rice Avenue and Highway 101, the Oxnard police will close off the frontage road for a toy giveaway to the children of Nyeland Acres. The event is not open to the public.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Cole Michael Barber of El Rio is the heart and soul behind the six-ton, 22-foot-tall Santa figure that made its way from Carpinteria to Oxnard, thanks in large part to Barber’s efforts.