Holiday Cheer: Ott reflects on playing Santa Claus
Bill Ott is the kind of person who loves to get into character, whether he’s acting in a play or dressing up as old St. Nick.
“Yes, I am weird. I like to do characters and theater, and playing Santa gave me the opportunity to put on a different persona,” Ott said. “I don’t mind entertaining in a different character. Santa allowed me to do that.”
An expected fixture at the end of the Eureka Springs Christmas Parade of Lights, Ott first put on the Santa suit in 2009. The city needed someone to play Santa Claus, Ott said, so he portrayed the jolly character at the Christmas parade, Santa in the Park and several events at the Crescent and Basin Park hotels, where he worked until retiring last year.
“It was a delight. I loved it,” Ott said.
He remembered being a child and watching his father dress up as Santa Claus, saying he never planned to follow suit. He first played Santa entirely by happenstance, Ott said.
“But still, I guess the acorn’s not falling too far from the tree,” Ott said.
Playing Santa in 2009 was so fun, Ott said, that he vowed to suit up every 10 years. His next turn as Santa came sooner than he expected. In July 2018, Ott said, the city needed someone to step up and play Santa.
“I started growing out my beard. It wasn’t quite as long as it was the first year, but I did it again for them in the parade and that was wonderful,” Ott said.
Then he played Santa in 2019, and he planned to suit up for the 2020 Christmas season before the COVID-19 pandemic left holiday plans in limbo.
“So I had no beard and no place to go,” Ott said. “The Crescent Hotel asked me to be Santa for Santa’s brunch, but since I didn’t have a beard, I had to wear a fake one, plus a mask. I almost suffocated with that beard and mask.”
At that event, Ott said, he posed behind a tree so children could still get their picture taken with Santa while social distancing. Ott said he was happy to return to a more normal Christmas season this year, making an appearance at three Santa in the Park events. He had plenty of time to grow out his beard, Ott said, which helps convince kids that Santa is real.
“Eureka needed a Santa and I felt like my personality is conducive to that, because I love kids and I love making people smile and laugh,” Ott said. “Being Santa gave me the opportunity to spread that Christmas cheer, because not enough people in this world smile and laugh.”
What’s really neat, Ott said, is how the whole family gets into the charade during Santa in the Park. Ott said he invites the parents to take their photo with Santa, and many take him up on the offer.
“For some of them, the last time they got their picture taken with Santa was when they were 3 or 4 or 5 years old,” Ott said. “They’re a little reluctant at first, but once they see the picture of them with Santa, they love it. It’s something I really enjoy.”
In his first parade, Ott rode in an antique four-door Ford convertible. He expected to have a horse-drawn carriage in 2018, Ott said, but was presented with a chariot instead. Ott remembered holding tight to the chain with one hand and waving at the crowd with the other.
“I had to put a death grip on that so I wouldn’t fall in the back of the chariot,” Ott said.
In 2019, Ott said, he asked his friend Lynn Berry if she knew anyone who could help him find a ride. Berry suggested a woman who owns a red Mustang convertible, Ott said, and he quickly became friends with her. She and another friend joined him in the 2021 parade dressed as elves, Ott said.
“That was wonderful,” Ott said. “It feels good to play Santa again, because I do like to spread that cheer. I do like to make people smile, to make people laugh.”
Playing Santa in Eureka Springs is especially fun, Ott said, because he interacts with local children and vacationing families in Basin Park.
“The people who live out of town might not know about Santa in the Park, but they’re walking through Basin Park and Santa encourages them to get their picture taken,” Ott said. “It’s good for them to have a great memory chip of Eureka Springs that they came and unbeknownst to them, there was Santa who took a picture with them.”
Ott shared some of his favorite memories from playing Santa over the years. One year, Ott said, he saw two special needs children passing by and got out of his chair to greet them.
“Obviously, they couldn’t get out of their chairs. They couldn’t come up to Santa, but they saw Santa,” Ott said. “So I got up and went over to them, and although they couldn’t communicate with me, I could see the twinkle in their eyes and it made me cry that I could spread cheer to those kids who probably need as much cheer in their life as they can get.”
Another treasured memory, Ott said, is the time a young girl gave him cookies on a nice glass plate. Ott offered to take the cookies and give the plate back, but the girl told him to keep it.
“It’s such a wonderful piece of memorabilia from being Santa,” Ott said. “It’s those kinds of things that’s the cherry on top of the sundae … having those moments with people.”