Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Yes, Virginia, there was a Santa Claus. He was making $175 an hour greeting children at Tysons Corner Center before he was suddenly fired.

He did what any self-respecting 21st-century Santa would do: He lawyered up and hired a public relations firm to mount a campaign to get his job back.

In an attempt to keep his lucrative 18-year gig, veteran elf Michael Graham hired an attorney, Pamela Deese of Arent Fox in the District, and a public relations firm, Brotman Winter Fried Communications of Falls Church.

Tysons Corner has a new contract with World Wide Photography, which will supply a new Santa for the shopping center.

The Cypress, Texas, company respects Mr. Graham for his Santa skills but did not think his asking price was fair.

“I have nothing but positive things to say about him,” said Steve Hardin, senior partner with World Wide Photography. “He’s a wonderful person and a wonderful Santa, but $175 an hour to play Santa?”

That sum is about 10 times the going rate, he said.

“I’ve seen probably 12 or 14 different photographers so it was never an issue that I would be leaving any time soon,” Mr. Graham said. “In 2006, they approached me to extend my contract until 2012, so I thought I was set.”

Mr. Graham, who in real life is a carpenter from Tennessee, thinks Tysons Corner shoppers have a lot to lose from this personnel change.

“After 18 years of visiting with them, people start to know who you are,” said Mr. Graham. “You feel like a part of their family. People come as far away as California so the pictures look the same and there is consistency to show the children growing up.”

Mr. Graham said he is losing much more than the money.

“The emotional portion of it is such a big benefit to me because there is such a magical time in having a child walk toward you in awe and want to sit on your lap,” Mr. Graham said. “It makes me keep wanting to come back year after year.”

Other Santas expressed solidarity with their fellow elf.

“It’s not very nice, naughty actually, that photo companies are basically forcing people out and just saying goodbye,” said Nicholas Trolli, president of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. “There may be families who will be very disappointed, who bring children back year after year and now find a different person playing that role.”

Not only does Mr. Graham want his job back, but he also is demanding a down payment that was due Oct. 1 — before he was so unceremoniously dumped. But his attorney called the termination more of a moral breach than anything else.

“Given his personality, Santa is something of a trusting soul,” Miss Deese said. “He never understood that a 10-year agreement, which all agree he has performed successfully, could be terminated by the mall without cause on short notice.”

Mr. Graham is now worried that he will not be able to find other work, because most shopping centers have already booked the talent for their Christmas attractions.

The shopping mall defended its move as a business decision that did not reflect on Mr. Graham’s performance.

“We did follow normal, legal protocol in notifying Mr. Graham of our change in direction,” said Allison Fischer, spokeswoman for Tysons Corner Center. “That decision was made so we could make a better experience and a more magical experience for the children and our shoppers.”

Regardless of how this dispute is resolved, Miss Fischer said, discretion is paramount.

“It is our first priority above all else to try to keep this behind the scenes, not for our own benefit but to try to preserve the children’s belief in Santa,” Miss Fischer said. “I have a 2-year-old and when I look at the experience my child will have with Santa this year, we want to make it truly magical and do the best we can.”

Tysons is making a variety of changes to the Santa attraction this year, devoting more space to its display and creating a pager system so parents and children will not have to wait in line for hours before getting to see Santa.

So Santa Claus is still coming to town. It appears, however, that for the first time in 18 years, he will look a little different at Tysons Corner Center.

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