Yeah, I’ve known Santa for years. Well, he wasn’t always Santa to me. You see, he lives a dual life. In the off season, when he’s not “Ho, ho, hoing,” wranglin’ reindeer, keepin’ those elves in line, and slidin’ down chimneys, he hangs out in San Diego in the guise of the multi-faceted, multi-talented, musician/entertainer/agent Loren Smith. Loren’s the guy I met back in the early eighties when we were both struggling to find our niches in the bustling San Diego music scene. I had no idea he was Santa. To me he was just that upright bass player who sang.
Santa (Loren) moved to San Diego from the North Pole via Minnesota in 1977 (obviously tired of all that cold weather). His first non-Santa gig was with the San Diego School District, playing assembly programs. It wasn’t long before he made another mark on the San Diego music scene: he got a song selected for KGB radio’s Homegrown VI album. When selected as Director of Young Audiences, Inc., growing his contact list of musicians and businesses, one group caught his attention like no other. Jackstraws! Spotted by Smith at the San Diego Renaissance Fair, the group was young, talented, musical, energetic, and not regularly employed. The “not regularly employed” part was about to change radically. They asked Loren to join them and, by 1982, Smith had fully integrated into the group.
Loren had the savvy, the drive, and business acumen to elevate Jackstraws to one of San Diego’s most employed and enjoyed acts. “Wherever you go, there we are” became their slogan, emblazoned on their famous Golden Stickers, which they hand out at every gig. Man, was it true. You couldn’t turn around without seeing one of the many versions of the group. Seaworld, the Zoo, the Wild Animal Park, the Del Mar Fair, Seaport Village, the Star of India, Legoland, and malls all around the county are just a few of the places they’d turn up regularly, year after year. With costumes and themes ranging from pirates singing sea chanteys to an Australian bush band, to a surf band to the Great Dickens caroling ensemble (a Jackstraws offshoot), Loren (AKA Santa) and Jackstraws had something for every occasion, and the public ate them up. Under Loren’s direction, the costumes improved, CDs were generated, and people came and went from the group. The one constant was guitarist/bassist/vocalist Loren Smith.
Loren was making connections and working business angles that not only put the musicians to work, but also taught him how to be a darned good agent. Now, with a reputation as a trustworthy agent, the musical community knew him as the man who knows both sides of the gig.
As if being 1) Santa, 2) the leader of one of San Diego’s most in-demand musical troupes, and 3) a full-time booking agent wasn’t enough, Loren sought out other performing opportunities. On his birthday, in the early ’90s, he found his way to an open audition at the Old Globe Theatre to understudy for The Hank Williams Story. Because he played both string bass and guitar, and knew Hank songs from his early days with Jackstraws, the Globe hired him. His time on the Old Globe stage learning blocking proved to be invaluable for “street performing,” which was making Jackstraws San Diego’s Ambassadors.
Then there was his gig as a pirate at Sea World. “At Sea World everything changed for me.” When the renovated Dolphin Show re-opened in the early ’90s it was Smith whom they trusted to host. “I learned how to entertain LARGE,” said Smith when talking of that period of time. It’s that experience of being in front of those 3,000 people, two to six times a day that made him the entertainer Loren is now.
Currently Smith performs close to 200 gigs per year, a startling enough number until you realize that in some years that figure doubled! This week alone Smith performed at Broadway Pier’s Celebration, Sea World (as Santa), and in Laguna Beach moonlighting with his favorite surf band, the Cool Rays. From summer’s “Aussie Band” at the Zoo to the run of the San Diego County Fair as Jackstraw’s own “surf band” and stints as pirates aboard the Star of India, you just never know where Loren will pop up.
Yet another hat Loren wears (when not sporting his red one with the white trim) is as producer of bi-monthly jazz concerts at San Diego International Airport. Since 2002 he has introduced international travelers to the wealth of world class jazz talent we have here in America’s finest city.
All the years at Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, Young Audiences, Inc, Legoland, and as a show host at Sea World, have molded Loren into a rare breed of musician/agent. At 61, Smith still has plenty of drive to make all these different combinations work.
But, what about this Santa thing? That’s the question! It’s one that Smith has asked himself over the years. “You gotta love it,” he says. He was born to be Santa. With the entertaining slant from so many street performances as well as a completely unique perspective on the business, when he finally revealed his alter ego to Sea World Entertainment they jumped at the chance to have him. Smith brings a Santa that is healthier, more animated, and what Sea World likes to think of as the best Santa experience ever! “Being born into this Santa thing is not something that I ever expected” says Smith. “The story behind that day I decided to become Santa is legendary in the Jackstraws’ world. That first year I made a total of eight appearances! My costume was sub-standard, my presentation was a work in progress, and I’d shaved off my beard so I had to wear a fake one.”
So, Santa season is here. Sea World has him there every day! His hours change, but afternoons are always a good bet. Seaport Village had him at the end of last month for his grand arrival, always a crowd hit. (In 2013 he eschewed the traditional sleigh and reindeer for an arrival on a jet pack). The Encinitas Parade (December 6) also includes a ride down Main Street for the red suited guy! Santa’s Breakfasts at Seaport Village (a tradition) on December 13-14 always fill up. Also, for the fourth year, Santa Loren’s Arrival (December 3) is a feature at Del Mar Highlands. In fact, right up until the Late Weather on December 24 with Dave Scott on KUSI, TV, Santa Loren is seemingly everywhere. From November 15 to December 24 Smith puts over 150 total hours into his Santa gigs. Add in the occasional performance with Great Dickens and you can see that Holiday season is a passion for him.
Not far from the eye of Hurricane Loren is his family. Smith has been happily married to the same woman Donna (Mrs. Claus) some 26 years. “She’s my right hand. Because I’m left-handed that seems to make it work even more,” he says with a smile! Because they met while she produced a Renaissance Festival and hired him as an actor their romance seems like a fairy tale! His sons Ken, Matt, and Brian all have been blessed with the music bug. And now, the grandsons, too, are included in his journey that started so many years ago. Smith says, “The fact that every one of the kids has this “music thing” in them gives me pride and a deep feeling of accomplishment. It’s a rare look at what you do as a parent that really worked with the kids. If that’s the one thing I leave them then I’m grateful! The music will be with them always.”
So, there you have it. That’s my old friend Santa, AKA Loren Smith, in a 1,300-word nutshell. He’ll be warming the hearts of parents, thrilling their children, booking acts, and entertaining as many folks as he can for many years to come. No matter where you see him, and in which guise he appears, know that he was born to be an entertainer, as well as “a right jolly old elf.”