Here’s How A Brooklyn Guy Gets Kringle-y
[This piece appeared in an old blog post from 2015.]
Brooklyn native Guy Zoda knows the difference between Kris Kringles and naughty red hat revelers, the kind that appear with SantaCon, New York’s Yuletide puke fest. Zoda, 47, is an expert as a professional St. Nick. He has been ho ho ho-ning his skills since 1990, donning a beard and twinkly expression from Rockefeller Center to The New York Stock Exchange, where he once rang the bell.
But during SantaCon, the annual mass gathering of jingle-jangle mayhem, Zoda, who lives in Staten Island, throws off his white gloves to show his tough side, the same one that helped him rebuild his home after Hurricane Sandy. Last Saturday’s Attack of the Red Menace resulted in five arrests and 100 Grinchy summonses ranging from disorderly conduct to public urination.
“When I see drunk Santas running around, my first gut feeling is what are they doing?” said Zoda, who has donned the white beard for 26 years. “I guess my reaction is to tell them to try acting like that in a children’s hospital. Anyone who doubts me, let them follow me to Ronald McDonald House, where children are fighting life threatening diseases in local hospitals like Sloan Kettering. I see the magic in the kids’ eyes. A kid just runs across the room to hug me. Santa Claus is as close as you can get to being a rockstar.”
Last year, Zoda spread winter cheer at 20 venues.
Yet he may be better known for his full-time job at MCU Park, where he has been affiliated with the Brooklyn Cyclones since 2003. As King Henry, whom Staten Islanders may remember from his SICTV community access show, he yucks it up with the crowd wearing red, white, and blue attire.
“I am more protective of Santa Claus than I am of King Henry,” Zoda said. But SantaCon and its vomit-soaked antics put him on edge.
“It’s not the best portrayal of Santa Claus,” he said of the pub crawl that passed over Bushwick last year because of opposition from community groups and bartenders. “But it does make people like me look so good.”
“There is a purity to Santa Claus,” said Zoda, a proud Italian-American, who joked that his father was Sicilian while his mother was just another slice. On his way to December gigs, Mr. Zoda has been known to cover his car windows so that no child discovers the fluffy suit hanging inside.
At 5’10’’ and 290 lbs, Zoda said he doesn’t need an artificial stomach, a bib that smaller actors stuff with tulle or chiffon. With white eyebrows and blushed cheeks, no one notices his youth, until they spot the un-wrinkled eyes behind his spectacles.
“When I put on that costume, I’m him,” said Zoda, who can release a stream of belly laughs faster than reindeer in flight. “My voice changes. My walk slows down. I really turn it on. I’ve had people in the industry say I’m one of the best. I truly feel when you put on the costume you owe it to the character to honor Santa Claus.”
“These were big men,” Zoda said. “I waited until we were alone in the elevator. I said, ‘Guys, you’re making fun of Santa Claus. You can’t make Santa look bad in front of the kids. I won’t allow it.’”
Zoda, a Bensonhurst native, lives with his wife, a 16-year-old daughter, and 12-year-old son. He said being a father has made him more sensitive to young people, some of whom are so immunocompromised they can only wave at him through a hospital window. “The nurses can’t provide details, but I often sense that this may be a little one’s last Christmas. I think, ‘What if that were my son, my daughter?’”
“We visited a little 4-year-old covered in raspberries from having been dragged 20 feet in a car accident,” Zoda said. “When she saw me, she smiled. Her mom, who didn’t speak English, started crying. We learned through translations that the mother wept because it was the first time her daughter showed joy since the accident. There were prominent businessmen and World War II vets delivering toys with me. One had served on the beaches in Normandy. There was even a retired New York City homicide detective. Those guys walked out of the room wiping their eyes. I can barely tell the story now, but I had to keep a straight face because I’m Santa Claus. But I could have won an Academy Award.”
During the holidays, Mr. Zoda can make up to $1,000 a day. The average appearance fee is $200 for the first hour and $150 for the second. Corporations may pay more. “If you’re Santa and you’re not working in December, you probably stink,” he said.
Zoda studied business at Kingsborough College in the late 1980s. Needing an extra income, he entered showbiz as a party clown for $25 an hour. He enjoyed the adrenaline rush so much, he continued as an entertainer.
“There truly is no greater high than playing Santa,” he said