Los Angeles Times December 24, 1999 Page B3

Mall Santa Claus Throws Fit Over Crying Baby

By Hilary E. MacGregor, Times Staff Writer

      Santa Claus had a meltdown at a Woodland Hills shopping mall this week, calling a mother an "evil person," she said, before angrily ripping off his beard and costume in front of wide-eyed children and being escorted out by security guards.
      According to parents, shop clerks and mall officials, the St. Nick at Westfield Shoppingtown Promenade Mall apparently balked at holding a bawling baby for the traditional Christmas photo.
      Kelley Fornatoro, 33, of Calabasas said she told Santa if he put his arm around her 19-month-old son, Brian, he would stop crying. But Santa refused, she said, telling her, "I will not imprison your child."
      Santa wasn't available to give his side of the story. The mall and the New Jersey-based Santa supplier, Cherry Hill Photo, refused to release the Santa's real name. But accounts from the scene indicated he was, at minimum, having quite a bad day.
      "When I went to pick up the baby, he said, 'Was it worth it? Was it worth it for you to torture your child for a picture? You must be an evil person,' " Fornatoro said Thursday.
      When she told Santa she planned to file a complaint, he leaped from his throne and said, "You can complain about me if you want, but I am Santa Claus. I am the best person in the world. I am good," she said.
      Fornatoro then told Santa he should not be around children.
      "With that, he got really angry," she said. "He started to rip off his clothes. He took off his beard, his wig, his coat, his belt."
      Parents and children in the long line were shocked. Some mothers and fathers covered their kids' eyes.
      The half-clad Santa ran away to a nearby shop, leaving his red suit on the mall floor, witnesses said. Security guards appeared and escorted him away.
      Karla Hubbell, general manager for the Promenade, said she had never seen anything like it.
      "This is like your worst nightmare," she said. "For the parents too."
      A replacement Santa from reserves in the Los Angeles area was brought in immediately, Hubbell said. The mall contracts for its Santa with Cherry Hill Photo, which hires and trains St. Nicks for 300 malls nationwide.
      "Although we do provide a person to be the character of Santa Claus, we cannot always be responsible for their behavior," said Jonah Sullivan, vice president of development.
      He said every Santa hired by his company is required to attend Santa school, where trainees spend a day learning how to play the jolly Christmas character.
      "You don't just put a regular Joe Blow in a Santa suit," he said. "They are all screened. We do background checks."

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