• Frank Haight: Strike up the ukulele; Santa's on vacation

  • The  bearded, white-haired, rotund man wearing white cargo pants,  a red and white aloha shirt, red athletic shoes, a Panama hat and a lei around his neck was a Christmastime sensation this past year in Honolulu.

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  • The bearded, white-haired, rotund man wearing white cargo pants, a red and white aloha shirt, red athletic shoes, a Panama hat and a lei around his neck was a Christmastime sensation this past year in Honolulu.
    Hanging out at his makeshift beach shack at Ward Centers listening to Christmas wishes of hundreds of excited children and posing for photographs, was the Hawaiian Santa, also known as Blue Springs resident Rex Thompson. His wife of 27 years, Carol Thompson, was the photographer.
    Even though the jolly man with all the “ho-ho’s” showed up in Hawaiian attire, the youngsters knew who he was. The large “Santa on Vacation” sign on the beach shack said it all.
    Unlike past years, Santa didn’t come to the mammoth mall dressed in his typical red suit. That would not have been inappropriate, Rex says, since St. Nick was being portrayed as being on a Hawaiian vacation.
    Adding realism to Santa’s beach house – featuring seven decorated Christmas trees and Hawaiian Christmas music – were such seaside paraphernalia as surf boards, beach towels, beach balls and snorkels.
    So the kids would know without a doubt the jolly man in the shack was Santa, “I hung up my red suit on one of the porch poles at the beach house and brought my boots and put them under one of the Christmas trees,” Rex says. And for the skeptics he explained: “I am on vacation. But there is my suit and my boots, so I am ready to go when it’s time for Santa to make his trip.”
    And should kids question the discoloration in the center of his full 12-year-old beard, he tells them it’s that way because of all the soot and creosote from the chimneys. Then placing his index finger on the grayish spot, he tells them: “I have it all out except this (spot) right here.”
    When the Thompsons weren’t in the shack, they were roaming the mall.
    “We tried a roaming Santa Claus effect where I carried the camera and a portable printer,” Carol says, “and we would take pictures with Santa as we went from store to store. But that didn’t work very well.”
    What did work, though, was Santa’s vacation shack. Not only was it well accepted, Carol says, but people were really excited about the concept. She says it probably be repeated next year.
    Rex, who celebrated his 76th birthday on Jan. 26, is no stranger to Independence Center. While walking past the Santa Claus set being erected at the center six years ago, a worker chased Rex down.
    “You are the perfect Santa Claus, he said. “Would you consider doing it?
    After accepting the job, Rex was told to contact the Noerr Program Corp. in Arvada, Colo., which takes pictures of children with Santa. It also provides more than 300 bearded Santas and settings for 263 American malls, including the one in Independence.
    Page 2 of 2 - Before he and Carol accepted the call to spend the holidays in Hawaii as a husband and wife team, Rex worked at Independence Center for six years (2006-11).
    Carol explains Rex gets to be Santa Claus and she’s his business manager. The company, though, provides the Santas, set managers, photography equipment, photographers and set backgrounds.
    A native of Beatrice, Neb., Rex is very serious about his seasonal portrayal.
    “I would be Santa Claus all year around if I could,” he says, noting that in many ways he is Santa. “My own grandson calls me “Grandpa Ho-Ho.”
    Says Rex: “If you are just playing (Santa) and don’t believe it, then you should shave your beard off and get out of it. It’s something special.”
    Both Rex and Carol believe children come first at Christmas.
    “We want to create an experience ... centered on the children and to make sure they have a good time with Santa,” Carol says, adding: “Santa is a good experience for most kids.”
    And to assure a memorable experience for the kids, “You have to have a lot of patience,” Rex says. “You’ve got to like children and you have to be willing to listen to what they ask for Christmas ... and show interest in them.”
    Remember the red Santa suit hanging at the beach shack? Well, Rex agreed to wear it at an outdoor festival in Honolulu. However, he suffered the consequences. With the temperature in the low 80s and sky-high humidity, Rex spent a sweltering hour and a half in the extremely hot suit.
    “I was not quite prepared for the heat,” he recalls. “I sweated through the suit.”
    It was a lesson he won’t soon forget.
    As for next Christmas, the Thompsons won’t know where they will be assigned until summer. But they hope it’s Honolulu. They would like to return and wish everyone a “Mele Kalikimaka.”
    Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.

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