Bill Chaplin in costume as Santa Claus. (AFRO Archive)

By Nadine Matthews
Special to the AFRO

Remarkably, for the first time in the company’s 66 -year theme park history, Black Santa made the rounds at some Disney theme parks. 

One company that was ahead of that curve, at just over a year old, is startup Zuhoo. The company, which offers video calls with the same technology as Zoom, was founded last year due to the pandemic, and has had Santa meetings from the beginning. They also included Black Santas from the very beginning.

Black families, historically, had very limited options, and for Black Santa performers it’s not as easy to find work.  But virtual Santa visits, accelerated by the pandemic, are quickly changing things. Two of those involved on the front lines of that change are Bill and Debra Chaplin, who work for Zuhoo as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. They began performing as the iconic holiday characters by accident.

At around midnight in late in December 2016, Debra Chaplin turned to her husband sitting next to her in their car. They were in a mall parking lot after he came to pick her up from work. In a state of mild panic, she begged him if he would play Santa at her job at Toys R Us the next day.

Chaplin worked with a photography company that did Santa sets and was charged with finding the Santas. She had been unable to this time, and needed one in roughly eight hours. “I just turned to my husband and said, ‘Can you just put on the suit tomorrow and sit there and say ho ho ho and smile?’”

After getting over his shock, her husband said yes. “She needed somebody so I said I’d fill in,” recalls Bill. Her boss’ immediate response when she called to inform him was, “Put him in the chair!”

Bill went on to get a contract with the company to work permanently as a Santa with them in multiple locations. Fast forward to 2021 and they both now work as virtual Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, visiting thousands of children and their families via Zuhoo video.

The Atlanta-based start-up proudly employs a diverse cast of performers, including Black elves, Black Santa and Black Mrs. Claus, American Sign Language-fluent Santa, Spanish-speaking Santa, Faith-based Santa, military veterans and sensitive Santa performers who are specially trained for a special needs audience.  Last December, they were able to reach families in every U.S. state and in thirty-five countries globally last December.

Zuhoo Founder and CEO Walt Geer also runs the second-largest offline Santa staffing company in the US.

Of his talent for instantly connecting with kids, Bill told the AFRO, “We raised a lot of kids in our family, so it actually just felt natural. Kids gravitate toward me. I joke with them and I listen and I think that’s the trick.” Bill became so popular he ended up being the number three out of over a thousand Santas nationwide, only six of whom are Black.

The Baltimore natives are aware of the significance of Black Santas though Bill reported that people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds accept him without hesitation. “It’s not a Black thing. Everyone- the Black community, Asian community, White community, Hispanic community- seemed to be satisfied.”

Being able to do virtual Santa visits has opened new doors on the Santa experience for many Black, other families of color, and underserved communities. Stated Mrs. Chaplin, “The virtual world has given so much more access. Now we can give access also to special needs children, autistic children, those who can’t leave their house and just go to a mall. But for these children it’s just Santa. The diversity is there, but to them, he’s just Santa.

The focal point of the virtual visits, like it would be with physical visits, is storytime. States Chaplin, “As Santa is telling the story, these very colorful pictures on the screen and they can watch as Santa is telling the story.”

There is a benefit to virtual visits in that they can be more personalized. Stated Bill, “I get information about the age of the child, their teacher’s name, their school name, the things they like, so it’s like I already know them when I meet them.”

The visits last anywhere between four and nine minutes and additional family and friends are allowed to visit at the same time. In addition, Zuhoo also offers faith-based visits for religious families who want to emphasize that aspect of the holiday. “It’s a lot more personal than mall visits where sometimes it could feel like a photo op,” added Debra. “Seeing their faces the moment they see Santa come on the screen, I did not get to see a lot of that in the malls and it is so fulfilling.”

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