Tell Santa what you want

By Ed Brock

Josh and Kamren Katona made the best of their minute on Santa's lap.

"I asked him for some video games and a flat screen computer," Josh Katona, 7, said. "Those things are cool."

Kamren, 5, had less technical toy needs.

"I want a Thomas (& Friends) train," Kamren said.

Johnny Hammond is the Santa helper Josh and Kamren saw Tuesday at Southlake Mall, and he's no stranger, said the boy's mother Simone Katona.

"I have pictures with this same Santa (helper) since (Josh) was an infant," Katona said.

Hammond and the mall's second Santa's helper, Robert Lunsford, work for the California-based company Amuse-Matte and they've worked at the mall for several years. With just over two weeks to go before Christmas they're both very busy listening to the wishes of hundreds of children like Josh and Kamren.

"It's really surprising. We thought it would be a little slow with Macy's closed," Lunsford said.

But despite the youthful throng that comes to see them, 61-year-old Hammond and 48-year-old Lunsford say they love the job and their tiny fans.

"It's the expression on their faces when they see Santa, it's a big deal," Hammond said. "This is their time."

Well, occasionally the children aren't that happy to see Santa.

"Sometimes you have kids who have a panic attack," Lunsford said. "We do what the parents say to do and deal with it. I'd say 99 percent of the children are pretty good."

It's also a good idea to check the diapers of younger children before putting them on Santa's lap, but Lunsford said they deal with that hazard of the trade, too.

Video games top many a list, as do requests for Power Rangers and Barbie dolls.

"We're getting a lot of GI Joe stuff for some reason," Lunsford said.

The golden rule is "Never promise anything."

"If they continue on we just tell them to be content with what they get," Lunsford said.

Hammond said his daughter got him into the Santa business and his first appearance was as a volunteer Santa at a daycare. They called on him because the regular Santa fell through.

"I had a suit so I put it on," Hammond said.

Both men have naturally white beards and hair (Lunsford said he's been going gray since high school).

"I'm Santa every where I go," Hammond said, and he loves seeing the reaction he gets even on his off hours from children and grown ups, too.

"They still have the Christmas spirit," said Hammond, who works in a bank in Covington.

Lunsford said he shaves his beard in January and starts growing it back in March.

"A lot of Santas don't shave but I'm in real estate so I have to clean up a bit sometimes," Lunsford said.

Like Katona, most of the parents and children who come to see the two Santas are repeat customers and they call the mall to request one or the other, said the mall's marketing director Nicole Krajc.

"They don't know (Hammond's) name so they ask if the ?pretty Santa' is there," Krajc said.

Or, in Lunsford's case, the "Santa with a tan."

And now the mall has begun a new program that is similar to one used by restaurants to page the next customer in line. The customer simply signs up and is given a paging device that lets them know when it's their turn so, instead of standing in line, they can go to the food court or shop, Krajc said.

"Around Christmas the line can be over three hours long," Krajc said.