It took Tommy Avallone awhile to realize Santa Claus wasn’t real. “I tend to believe things longer than most,” he tells us while promoting “I Am Santa Claus,” a new documentary about Santas, which is to say the people who pretend to be him in malls and everywhere else that will have them.
The film, which had a brief theatrical run in November and now streams on Netflix Instant, trails around a group of bearded, not always jolly men from across the country year-round. It reveals a tight-knit world few probably knew existed — one of conventions and “fraternal orders” with a broad diversity of people, from one who’s very religious to another who’s very active in the gay bear community, but says no one has ever given him a problem for his orientation — and he’s from Texas.
Avallone says he had no idea this world existed. The idea came to him while he was at a New Jersey horror convention, oddly. “One guy, who is Santa Frank in the movie, was just walking around looking the way he does,” he recalls. “It was this awkward moment where you’re like, ‘You look like Santa. Are you Santa? What’s your deal?’ He gave me his business card, I followed him on Facebook and found out all these Santas live on Facebook.”
He and his producer at one point went to a Santa convention in California. “We saw this Santa trying to use a laptop,” he says. “That’s when we knew what movie we were shooting.”
Avallone was driven by curiosity. “You wonder: what life do these guys have on the 26th?” he says. Most face some level of economic hardships; some live off social security, while others hold down other jobs and professions. One, Russell Spice, had to move into his daughter’s basement. “Russell went through this before the others did. He lives in the Detroit area, which is very much going through what Russell is going through.”
“I Am Santa Claus” is bouncy and funny, but it can be melancholic and depressing. Avallone made sure to shift to a more serious tone at times. “It was just like, let’s slow Christmas down and make these happy, jolly songs kind of depressing,” he says. “At the same time we wanted to bring humor, like showing Santa getting drunk.”
One of the more upbeat surprises was garnering the involvement of wrestler Mick Foley, who it turns out is a giant Christmas fanatic and whose house includes an actual Christmas room. In addition to becoming a producer, he even became, for the film, a Santa himself. “At first it was weird. But you slowly saw him getting into it. He got the suit, he took a class and once that first kid was on his lap, he was just sold,” Avallone remembers. “He was calling me every day. If he was nearby he’d say, ‘Cool if I come over and we’ll edit all night?’ He was interested in getting the best story possible.”
It was a new subject for Avallone in other ways. “I’m not really a Christmas fanatic. I’ve always thought the holiday was kind of stressful. I was a Halloween or Thanksgiving guy,” he says. But he warmed to it. “To see someone go through it for the first time, of being Santa and having a kid on his lap, really making that kid happy, made me get it. I understand why people are so into this holiday. It still not my favorite holiday.”