'Tis a month before Christmas, and on SouthTrust’s fourth floor, a man emerges, looking different from before.
His name is Black — though he’s all dressed in red — and he’s got visions of kids smiling inside his white head.
From New Year’s to Thanksgiving, he’s a regular Joe, but from now until Christmas he’s the star of the show.
Throughout North Carolina, his task is quite clear: to spend the holiday season spreading good cheer.
Even without the red suit, Larry Black is the spitting image of Santa Claus. He’s got the full white (mostly) beard and sweeping mustache, the fringe of white hair on a balding pate, the ruddy complexion, the perfect round glasses, and a belly which one can imagine could “shake like a bowl full of jelly” at any moment.
Black provides facilities support for SouthTrust Bank’s Charlotte properties most of the year, but every Thanksgiving he shuts the office door and puts on his Santa suit. For the next four weeks, he’ll travel over 2,000 miles visiting nursing homes, assisted living centers, child care centers, and Christmas parties. Anywhere a child or senior citizen needs to find Santa, Black will try to make him appear.
“Santa works for us eleven months of the year,” says Bradley Thompson, CEO of SouthTrust Bank, “then he takes care of the children for the other month.”
Black bought his first Santa suit in the 1980s. He enjoyed playing Santa for friends and for the town of Telluride, Colorado, where he lived for three years during the early ‘90s. There, Santa came to town in a hot air balloon and landed on the main street.
Black recalls one of his earliest experiences there. “A little boy, about seven or eight, kept staring at me. ‘You want to pull my beard, don’t you?’, I asked him. He nodded and I said ‘come on.’ He pulled it, but not too hard. I told him to pull harder and he really yanked on it. Then he turned to his mother and said, ‘Mom, it’s him!’”
Black first grew that beard in 1968 when he played the sheriff in a production of “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” at the Mint Museum. It’s become whiter, he says, as the years have gone by. Every May he begins letting it grow out, shaping it once or twice, and every December 24th, he trims it back.
“My wife says I look like Sean Connery without the long beard,” says Black.
Actually, Linda Black likes the Santa look fine, too. When she was a child she told her mother she wanted to grow up and marry Santa Claus. Her mother told her Santa already had a wife. When she married Black ten years ago, she was able to say, “See, I really did marry Santa.”
Thompson met Black after he wrote a complaint letter to SouthTrust. Thompson was impressed with the eloquence of the letter and arranged a meeting. He immediately recognized Black’s potential.
“The next year, I tried to hire Larry to play Santa for us for two weeks,” says Thompson. “At the time he was working as a department manager at Wal-Mart and they wouldn’t let him off. Even so Larry took a couple of days vacation and helped us out.”
In 1998 Thompson solved the problem by hiring Black full-time. Now Black works 40 hours a week for SouthTrust most of the year and 120 hours as Santa at Christmas.
“It helps us create some fun in the workplace,” says Thompson. “Larry is part of the fun.”
SouthTrust bought Black a second Santa suit. Since he puts it on every day for thirty days in a row, it’s nice to have a back-up.
“You have to see him in full regalia,” says Harriet Penninger, branch manager of the Mint Hill office. “He’s a wonderful Santa Claus.”
Together with the Mint Hill Business Association, SouthTrust sponsors a Senior Citizen’s Christmas Party. This annual event draws about 500 people. Black appears as Santa and has his picture taken with anyone who wants it.
“He speaks to everyone and has something nice to say to everyone,” says Penninger.
In Cary, North Carolina, Black visits a day care center and interacts with over 200 children.
“He’s wonderful,” says Anna Booth, branch manager of the Walnut-Maynard office. “We look forward to him coming every year. He’s very personable and very patient. We take a picture of each child with Santa and send it home with the parents. It’s a great way for us to show support for the community.”
In Rutherford County, Black puts in an appearance at the annual “Breakfast with Santa,” a benefit for a new children’s museum, to be called KidSense. Last year, about 1,000 children showed up to have their pictures taken with Santa.
“Larry is real good with the children,” says Debbie Martin, vice president and branch manager of the Spindale office. “He’s very gentle, and especially good with those who are afraid. He doesn’t want anyone to miss out on having his picture taken.”
While it might not suit everyone to hold 1,000 squirming children in their lap or to listen to 1,000 Christmas wishes, it suits Larry Black to a tee.
“I have a ball,” says Black. “It is a personal delight to portray Santa and experience all that adoration. You feel such a sense of responsibility to make every child feel positive about Christmas.”
The hard part comes when a child asks for something Black knows is probably out of Santa’s reach to provide.
“Kids figure they can ask for the moon,” he says. “When they want something I suspect is out of the parental ability to provide, I just say ‘I’ll do my best.’ I try not to make any promises which can’t be kept.”
When children ask for pets, Black tells them Santa can’t bring live animals in his sled, but says he’ll talk to their parents and see if they think the child is old enough to handle the responsibility. Black also brings pleasure to the many adults he visits at nursing homes and senior citizen centers as well.
“At one nursing home, a 92-year old woman said this would probably be her last Christmas,” says Black, “when I left, I told her ‘See you next year.’”
In addition to playing Santa for SouthTrust, Black does private parties. For the last five years, he’s also been Santa at the two games before Christmas for the Charlotte Hornets. When Black does a party, he takes the time to get to know something about everyone who’ll be there. He delights in a child’s surprise when he asks something like, “Why did you name your goldfish Brooklyn?”
You won’t ever see Santa in a bar or behaving inappropriately, as long as Black is portraying him. Black learned that lesson one year in the late ’80s when he went out for a drink with a group of friends. Upon learning that one friend had to meet his sister at the airport, Black went home and put on his Santa suit before returning to the bar for another round. Then the group left for the airport.
“I was walking though the concourse when a little boy spotted me,” says Black. ‘Look Dad, there’s Santa,’ he said. His father replied, ‘I told you we might see Santa at the airport.’ That was the last time I ever took a drink while dressed as Santa.”
While Black has been an actor, a lawyer, and a judge, he feels he has found his true calling in playing Santa Claus.
“I have a gift God gave me and I’ll do the best I can to repay it,” he says. “I believe Christmas is important year round.”
Black has a dream, too. He would like to find a way to recognize people for the good things they do throughout the year. If he could, he would design a pin in the shape of a holly branch and engrave it with the words “I keep Christmas in my heart” and present it to the doers of good deeds.
“The true spirit of Christmas, the spirit of love for others, should not be restricted to just one month a year,” says Black. “And it should not be acknowledged just once a year."