Ty Stover is not your average mall Santa. From his real beard to his jolly laugh and rosy pink cheeks, he is a living, breathing
version of St. Nick.
The Indiana State University theater graduate has taken on many characters over the years as a member of the Actors' Equity Association, but he found his calling when he started playing Santa--filling in for the big guy while he preps for his annual trip around the world.
Stover landed the part in the Beef & Boards Christmas program 13 years ago and has been perfecting it ever since. But doing 10 shows a week is not necessarily a recipe for holiday cheer, so Stover started IndySanta.com in 2003 to offer Santa services on a free-lance basis.
Business is good.
"I have the freedom of being my own boss," said Stover, 43. "I'm not under any contracts like a show, so I have the freedom to pick and choose events."
Stover portrays Santa at 25-30 engagements a year--including the Circle of Lights celebration on Monument Circle--but only Mrs. Claus knows how much he makes each season. All he'll say is that six weeks of Santa gigs take care of his finances from January through March each year.
Over the years, the business has become more than just a way for Stover to make extra income. It's a part of his holiday tradition.
"I have this sort of connection with this story, this amalgamation of different myths that ... have been turned into this character," he said. "We continue to reinvent [Santa Claus]. The one thing that remains the same is the unconditional love that the children have for him and that he has for the children."
Children have always been the focus for Stover's performances at Oak Hill Mansion in Carmel, where he entertains families at weekly "Breakfast with Santa" events each December.
There, Stover walks through a large banquet room of about 80 people, bellowing "Jingle Bells" and tossing candy canes he pulls from his oversized red robe. But before he settles down into the jumbo chair adorned with red velvet for pictures, he shows there's more to Santa than just reading Christmas lists.
With the help of some eager volunteers, he performs magic tricks--turning a few scraps of fabric into a large Christmas banner and multiplying his candy cane wand. Stover also reads "The Night Before Christmas" to the children, but oddly enough, he doesn't show the pictures. Stover feels that exposing children to different types of Santas ruins the legend.
"A lot of it has to do with how I'm presenting the myth ... and I feel really firmly that a parent needs to choose the experience for their child and stand by it," he said. "So you don't take your kid to see Santa at Oak Hill and then take your kid in the mall--it starts diluting the myth. Even a 3-year-old can tell that I'm not that guy you saw at the mall."
Presentation is something Stover feels passionately about, as is shown by his attention to detail. He takes two hours to get ready before each event, which includes dying his mostly brown beard white. (He's looking forward to the day when the natural gray patches take over.)
"I try to create as authentic of a representation as possible, which is really why I chose to create this business," he said. "I got tired of being other people's interpretation of 'The Claus' because there's so much more to it than just 'Ho, Ho, Ho' and a red suit. There's history."
Which isn't to say Stover's Santa is rooted in the past. At IndySanta.com, visitors can tune into IndySanta Radio--a collection of St. Nick's favorite holiday music, in MP3 format--or click a link to his MySpace page, which has more than 125 "friends."
Stover has fun with technology, but he's also serious about his craft. He starts growing his beard in May and shaves it off after Christmas, which keeps him from being recognized in the "off season." This year, he might not get rid of it immediately; his 6-month-old daughter, Estelle, is used to the facial hair.
"With the new baby and everything--Christmas is just taking on all new meaning for [my wife and me] this year," Stover said.
His wife, Carol Baker, is director of education for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Despite Stover's best efforts, he hasn't been able to talk her into moonlighting as Mrs. Claus, though his sister played the part for a couple of years at Beef & Boards.
But there's more to Stover's life than sugar cookies and flying reindeer. In August, he became associate artistic director for the Children's Theater Institute--an Indianapolis theater, music and dance center for kids. The full-time position demands more time than his previous job as a free-lance actor, director and writer.
Despite his filling schedule, he doesn't see himself giving up Indy Santa anytime soon.
"Even the reindeer have two jobs," he said at the breakfast. "No one knew that Comet cleans sinks."