Santa lives in Southern California Off-season: In a village in the San Bernardino Mountains, Christmas decorations, amusements and the jolly one himself attract visitors nine months of the year.

December 24, 1995|By Carol Bidwell | Carol Bidwell,LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

For most of us, Santa Claus -- like Christmas -- comes but once a year.

But kids who venture with their parents into the San Bernardino Mountains can see Santa almost every day of the year.

Santa's Village is open nine months of the year, but takes on particular magic after a winter snowfall, said Rae Mullen, who has run the village's doll shop for the past six years.

"The snow piles up and the kids love to play in it," Ms. Mullen said. "The colder, the nastier, the more people like it."

That's not to say visitors need cold and snow to enjoy themselves. On a recent warm day, kids were swarming over the rides and marveling that the white North Pole -- an icicle-shaped post with a grinning elf perched on top -- really is cold year-round. (The secret's a nearby refrigeration unit.)

"Come on, come on!" one lad of about 6 urged his mother, who had stopped to get a glimpse of the park's reindeer napping in a shaded corral. "Let's go see Santa!"

Bob Smith, smiling from behind gold-rimmed spectacles and a long, white beard, helped the boy climb on his knee so his mother could take a snapshot.

"I just love this job," said Mr. Smith, who has portrayed Santa since he retired five years ago from his ceramic-tile business. "It's been great. I love the kids."

Once in a while, he encounters nonbelievers, but sometimes he can convince them that he's the real Santa, because, after all, he's got his own house, his own village and his own North Pole. If that fails, he has been known to have a private chat with the faithless ones, urging them not to spoil the myth for the younger kids.

Every year, his own seven grandchildren make a pilgrimage to see Santa. The oldest know that grandpa works there, and most make the connection at some age, he said.

"But the youngest still come to see me, not knowing I'm Santa," Mr. Smith said, laughing.

Giving Southern California kids a chance to visit Santa nearly year-round was the brainchild of developer and promoter Glen Holland in the mid-1950s; he leased the land from the Henck family, which still owns more than 200 acres in the Lake Arrowhead area, and Putnam Henck, a contractor. Mr. Henck's crews built the small village that has continued to grow over the years. Now visitors come from beyond Southern California.

"We built the place really from the architect's sketches," said Mr. Henck, who now owns the village. "The area is full of Ponderosa pines, and we used the logs to build the houses. Then we added whatever gingerbread we liked. Everybody had fun building it."

Mr. Henck's wife, Pamela, a former entertainer who toured with the USO during World War II, wrote and choreographed the village's two puppet shows and taught fledgling puppeteers their jobs.

The tiny park opened Memorial Day weekend 1955, just days before the much-larger Disneyland.

The village now has attractions that range from a burro ride along a mountain trail to a pony ride for the littlest tots to a you-control-the-altitude flying-ornament ride around a giant Christmas tree. There's a petting zoo filled with friendly goats and other small animals, toy and doll shops, a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel and a chance to ride in Cinderella's pumpkin coach, pulled by two horses.

And a bumblebee monorail and a train give visitors a view of the park from the air and the ground. There's even a tiny chapel, nearly filled by two giant decorated Christmas trees, that provides a quiet spot for a moment of meditation.

An average of 160,000 kids and their parents visit the park each year, Mr. Henck said, with 60 percent of parents and kids visiting during November and December to make sure Santa knows their Christmas gift wishes.

Actually, the park employs three or four Santas -- and even Mr. Henck has taken his turn behind the white beard in an emergency.

To kids who ask why they can find Santa year-round in the San Bernardino Mountains, Mr. Henck has a simple explanation: "This is Santa's summer home. We even brought the North Pole here to make him feel at home."

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