Four weeks out of the year, Bob Albert wakes up each morning and heads straight for the makeup. With help from his wife, he transforms his bleached-white hair and beard into a mass of tight curls, rosies his cheeks with a dab of powder and dons an iconic red suit. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Albert morphs into the kind of Santa Claus who spends his time in hospital rooms and nursing homes, not in a department store window. Each year, Albert hosts a toy drive for Boise Rescue Mission at his home on Hill Road, where hundreds stop to meet Claus and pay it forward.
How do you get all these gigs?
It all started as a fluke. I was in Southern California. We were staying at a little hotel and down by the continental breakfast area was an ad saying "costume shop going out of business." At that time I played a vampire type of character for Halloween, and I went down to see what they had in the way of capes. I found a great cape and my wife came walking up with a Santa suit. The next holiday season I started having a little fun with it with family and friends. It came with a real theatrical beard and wig, and I took the wig and the beard to have it cleaned and restyled at the costume shop the following year. And the owner of the costume shop says, "Are you booked for the season?"
That was 11 years ago, and it was also the first year I did Festival of Trees. Their Santa didn't show up and one of the other Santas showed up, with adult beverage on his breath. No matter what party I'm at or where I go, I always make sure that Santa doesn't even have a glass of wine because there's too many stereotype movies out there that kids see. That's not the memory I want them to see—Santa taking a drink. I want them to think of Santa like the story goes.
When did you start growing your own hair and beard?
After the second year. I started growing it out, much to the chagrin of everyone in my family. It came in handy one year, though, when I had to do the character in the middle of July for a little girl the doctors didn't give much of a chance of living. She was at the Ronald McDonald House. So we went out there. It was 102 degrees, and my old truck didn't have air conditioning. I always have a Christmas stocking around, I always have candy canes, and so everything that comes out of a stocking is definitely a Christmas gift to a child. That was four years ago, and they didn't think she was going to live three weeks so we brought Santa Claus to her because she loved Santa Claus. When the doctor told me a month later—I said how is she doing, is she still with us—he says she's doing great. Medicine doesn't always come out of a bottle.
Do you see a lot of stories like that?
I do. I may go to the hospital where a 4- or 5-year-old kid is wired up to every tube known to modern medicine. If it's a boy under 10, I give them Spiderman web blasters and tell them Santa said it's OK to shoot the nurses because they give you shots. The nurses aren't real happy with it, but they can deal with it for a kid who's terminally ill.
Is there one story in particular that sticks with you?
I'd just come home at like 9 o'clock at night and my wife said, "nope, don't get out of your costume, you got one more visit." A little girl had leukemia, and she was a stem cell transplant. So we went to Rite-Aid on 16th and State and bought a bunch of toys for her and her brother. We had trucks and dolls, and by luck I picked something pink for her and that's her favorite color. We loaded it all up and put it in my bag, got them some stockings, and we walked in and here's this lovely, sweet little girl about 4 years old, who'd lost all her hair to chemo. The amount of medical bills for this young lady was just devastating. Over the years I made a point of visiting that family to make sure they had Christmas.
You know, there's a reason why the old man upstairs has picked me to have my body the way it looks and to be able to grow my hair the way it is and to have a beard that grows and looks like this. And I love children. I'm never going to be rich, so what the heck? I'm going out the way I came in ... penniless.
How do you pay for all this?
That family I take care of out of my own pocket. I do a lot of things out of my own pocket. I have a deal in front of my house for the Rescue Mission. It's always on the second Saturday of December from 6-9. I sit out in front of my house and people come and take pictures. Pictures at the mall are expensive and this is a blue-collar community, where mom and dad both work and there's a lot of people that are in the system—a lot of people think the Rescue Mission is just guys at the breadline. It's not. It's women who have decided to leave an abusive relationship so they go to City Lights with their kids. You have other families that just need a helping hand because they're making ends meet barely and when Christmas comes, there's no money for toys. And you got a kid that's 5 or 6 years old that still believes in Santa Claus and it's like, "I've been good all year, why didn't he come?"
I ask people to please donate one toy. It's not mandatory to take pictures with Santa, but bring one toy.
What do your grandkids think?
They know I'm Santa's best friend. And I have been actually to North Pole, Alaska, to Santa's house.
In 1974 I went to go to work on the Alaska pipeline, and I was waiting for work in Fairbanks, Alaska. So I was up there and I went to Santa's house and met the gentleman who resided there, and we had a long talk. He also did letters from Santa. They come out of the North Pole stamp-marked and signed "from your friend Santa."
Do kids pull your hair and your beard?
I've had my hair pulled, I've had my beard pulled, I've had my glasses ripped off my face, but it's all part of it because every kid in the valley remembers me. We talk, I ask them how school is, what their favorite vegetable is. I tell them what mine is.
Your wife is really supportive, isn't she?
I don't look this way just rolling out of bed, it takes hours to make me this beautiful. She's created the look 100 percent. This year's gotten a little bit different. All the curls in my beard are hand rolled with a 3/8-inch curling iron, and this is not my natural color. I have to be bleached white.
Are parents into it?
If parents call me to make a visit they are true believers. And when a child is a true believer in Santa Claus, they make a better adult in life.