Jack Williams was 19 years old the first time he played Santa Claus. It was a one-time thing, but it wouldn't be the last. At 82 years old, the acclaimed photographer has been donning a Santa Claus suit during the holidays for more than 30 years. Although the Wood River Valley resident isn't a religious person, Williams is quite spiritual and he fully embraces his belief that the jolly old elf is whatever children--and adults--need him to be.
Tell me about how you became a photographer.
I took my first picture when I was 7 or 8 years old with a little dollar camera. When I was 16 years old, I made my first movie ... and I did my first darkroom work. After graduating high school in Reno in 1949, I went to Oregon State, got a degree in forestry and then went into the Army. I met my first wife and had two children, and I asked her if it would be OK if I went to photography school. And bless her heart, she said yes.
Are you still a photographer?
No. Not as such. Ever since I saw Sun Valley Serenade, as a boy in San Francisco, I thought, "I'd like to be there." And I did know about Ansel Adams and actually stood next to him one time in Yosemite. I wanted to be like Ansel Adams was to Yosemite, and in 1977, I found Sun Valley. Like my dad used to say, every dog has its day, and I ended up having a gallery for about 10 years. Then I hit my late 70s, and it was time to fold up my tent. The timing was good: Everything was going from film to digital, and it was very tough on film photographers. ... It's a whole different paradigm. But I'd never go back now. I'll take the canoe out on Redfish in the morning while the sun is coming up, take a picture with the camera [on my cellphone] and send it right to my children. I don't resist the change in photography--If you're given a gift of creativity, you can't give it up.
If I ask, "When was the first time you played Santa?" will you say, "What do you mean 'play' Santa? I am Santa."
I never claim I'm Santa--that's the secret. Santa is more than a person squeezing down a chimney. Where's the line between fact and fable? And does it matter? In the '20s, Coca-Cola came out with that drawing of Santa. That's where our image of Santa comes from. When children ask, "Are you really Santa?" that's the real key. I never say I am Santa, I say, "What do you think?" If I open the door so they can believe, that's all they want and that's all I want to give them. When children don't believe in Santa anymore and say, "Well, my big brother says Santa's not real," I say, "What do you think?" Without belief, Santa doesn't exist. If you believe in me, that makes me real. At the St. Thomas Episcopal Church a couple years ago, they had me run through the church and act like I lost the reindeer. You have to see the parents: they have the biggest smiles. The kids all wave and holler at me. You see, I've come a long way. I was 50 when I first started, full of piss and vinegar. It was quite a trip from the young man doing Santa. I've learned a lot through the years--what it means and how important it is.
When did you first put on a Santa suit?
The first time I put the suit on I was 19 years old. All I remember is that I was [in college] when I did it. Up here, the first time was on the mountain [Baldy] in 1979 or so.
So how did you come to wear the suit for 30 years?
When Christmas time came around, they needed somebody to be Santa so they could take pictures with him. After two years of doing that ... I started at Carol's Toy Store downtown. They had a sleigh that would take children on a ride with two little elves--one of my daughters and her friend. Then I did Santa for places like the Atkinsons' [grocery] store--I've been doing that for many, many years. And Bruce Willis has a house here and Clint Eastwood has a house here and they were the main ones on Christmas Eve that Santa had a picture taken with.
Someone told me you had a sweet story about a little Jewish girl.
I was at this very nice party with people like Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood and Steve Wynn. Several had their little children and they were all dressed up for Christmas. One little girl kept coming up and sitting in my lap and I said, "Do you want to say something to Santa?" And she said, "Oh, Santa. This is the happiest moment of my life!"
There was another girl who was walking around. She finally came up and sat in my lap and said, "I just wanted to sit in your lap and tell you I am Jewish." I said, "That's fine. Santa has love for everybody."