A Kissimmee man is making Christmas spirit come alive for kids across the country - one Santa Claus beard at a time.
Ron Wolek is an Osceola County resident who’s been in the hair and makeup industry for over a decade. He’s built an impressive portfolio with credits that include traveling Broadway shows, theme park productions and even the Netflix series, Stranger Things.
But the gig Wolek loves the most is using hair and make-up magic to bring Santa Claus to life.
He even wrote two books on it.
“Every kid deserves to believe in Santa,” Wolek said. “And it’s all in the details.”
Wolek, a third-generation hair stylist, grew up around Walt Disney World and its annual Christmas parade. His mother worked on the parade in various artistic roles before supervising the entire makeup team for three years – including when the production won an Emmy in 2005.
Growing up, Wolek and his sister served as guinea pigs for their mom when she tested new designs for the parade, and often enlisted her kids to help and offer ideas.
Each year, Wolek witnessed his mother and a crew of other talented designers, bring Christmas to life for thousands of park visitors and TV viewers around the world.
“It’s always made Christmas special to me,” he said.
Later, Wolek followed in his mom’s footsteps by supervising a unit for the Christmas Parade at Disneyland in California from 2007 to 2010.
Wolek’s love of Christmas and costume design led him to research Santa Claus beards. He had some experience creating faux mustaches after working on a traveling Broadway show called War Horse, and wanted to use his knowledge to give Santas across the country a more authentic look.
“A bad beard is a dead giveaway of a fake Santa,” he said. “It’s all about the beard.”
But Wolek soon realized the necessary accessories weren’t cheap. Even a chintzy beard can cost $200 and a Hollywood-quality one goes for thousands.
Apparently not many white-haired men donate locks long enough to make many faux beards. Yak hair is often used as a synthetic alternative, but it’s also expensive and scratchy.
“The cost adds up quickly for these guys, and that’s not including the costume,” Wolek said. “I wanted to help them out if I could.”
Wolek soon found himself sucked into the world of Santa Claus performers, a whole underground subculture within the hair and makeup industry complete with national conventions, conferences and even a St. Nicholas Institute in Michigan.
The nonprofit St. Nick school invited Wolek up four years ago to give the men in red tips on growing great beards.
“I’ve never felt so star-struck and intimidated then when I stood before a classroom full of Santa Clauses,” he said. “It was intense.”
The merry men Wolek met were a diverse group from all backgrounds. Each seemed to have experienced a “Christmas calling” that motivated them to invest their time and money to play Santa Claus in movies, on the small screen, or just local events in their community.
The Santas that Wolek met ranged from teachers to construction workers.
Most had friends or family who had pushed them to give it a try.
But they all shared a common goal - making the season brighter for young believers.
Still, few if any of the men Wolek met came from an entertainment background. Even though they had plenty of Christmas spirit, they sometimes lacked the know-how to pull the look together.
It can be tricky making former truckers feel comfortable applying make-up and hairpieces, but Wolek said it makes all the difference.
“It’s the little things that transform an older guy with a white beard into Santa Claus,” Wolek said. “The rosy cheeks and the beard are the details most new Santas tend to mess up.”
Wolek picked up some tricks of the trade from his mom during her Disney parade days, like blending three shades of blush together to create more natural rosy cheeks, or applying makeup near the beard line for a subtle transition.
And “a beard white as snow” may sound good in the storybooks, but Wolek said that in real life, all-white faux beards are too reflective and create easy-to-spot fakes.
So, Wolek suggests toning it down by making the beard color different from someone’s natural head hair color.
“All you need is the likeness to make it believable,” he said.
Wolek estimates he’s helped about 100 Santas since he began his journey four years ago. He hasn’t just sold them beards, he’s also given them advice and kept in touch with them over the years.
This summer, he visited the bi-annual International Santa Claus Celebration in Denver with more than 800 professional Santa Claus performers in attendance. He also stopped by the Nation Wide Santa Claus conference in Las Vegas to share tips and promote his book, “Santa Claus Makeup.”
Wolek doesn’t widely advertise his Santa Claus hobby business outside an occasional workshop or seminar.
His website, www.mustacheparlor.com, and other side jobs like working on the design team for SeaWorld Texas’ Howl-o-Scream this summer, keep him pretty busy.
But then that time of year rolls around again.
And the Santas start calling.
It’s the kind of call Wolek said he’s always happy to take.
“Kids grow up fast enough,” Wolek said. “Let them believe in Santa while they can. I’m happy I can help make that happen.”