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CALLING ALL SANTAS : Local businessman is searching for volunteers to help answer wayward calls for the Jolly Old Elf

A good Claus: John Dickson with his 71-page phone bill. Last year he received thousands of calls from children trying to dial 1-800-SANTACLAUS; instead, they reached his number, which was one digit off.


I was careful to approach each phone call as a very important phone call . . . It may be the 500th call I received, but it was the first call they made.--John Dickson, seen being interviewed last year on NBC News


Last year, John Dickson was bombarded with calls to his business line, which is one digit off from 1-800-SANTACLAUS. This holiday season, he won't constantly have to be on the phone (although, by choice, he will be). He's set up a call center to handle the volume. Below, a vintage postcard showing Santa on the phone.



John Dickson received nationwide media attention last year for taking phone calls from children across the country hoping to talk to Santa. Instead of dialing 1- 800-SANTACLAUS, they accidentally called his business line, 1-800-SANTABARBARA, just one digit off. And so as not to diminish the hopes of the little ones, he cheerfully played along.

But this holiday season, the "Accidental Santa" won't be answering his phone.

That's because he's setting up a Santa Claus Call Center to handle the hundreds if not thousands of potential calls.

Now if a little boy or girl mistakenly gets his number, the call will be routed to one of five lines at the center, located in the administrative office of the downtown Montecito Bank & Trust.

Mr. Dickson is hoping to find about 100 volunteers to answer the phones.

The qualifications?

Thick white beard, rosy cheeks, big belly, predisposition to "Ho-ho-hos"?

"You don't have to look like Santa and you don't have to look like Mrs. Claus," Mr. Dickson insists. "This is over the telephone only, so come as you are."

Some potential volunteers have expressed concern over their voice being too high.

"I said, 'You can be an elf!' " chuckles Mr. Dickson.

"We can find a place for anybody."

But won't kids be disappointed if they don't reach Santa?

"Not at all," said Mr. Dickson, 44, by phone from his Goleta home. "The kids, they're so anxious and ready to say their wish list they really don't care who answers the phone."

So far, 70 people have signed up. Owner of www.santabarbara.com, an informational site about Santa Barbara, Mr. Dickson has set up a page at www.santabarbara.com/santa for volunteers to block out two-hour shifts. The center will operate 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 17 through Dec. 23 and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 24.

"I had one person sign up for four different shifts," says Mr. Dickson. "I didn't even know who they are."

You'd think the fact that he's getting others to do the work for him this year could knock Mr. Dickson off Santa's "nice list" onto the "naughty" list. But he's not concerned.

"So many people wanted to help out from all over town, this was the best way I could figure to do it," he insists. "It's definitely not the case that I'm getting volunteers because I don't want to do anything."

In fact, even though he'll have Wrong-Number Santa's helpers, he'll still going to answer the phone.

"I'll be talking more than anybody!" says Mr. Dickson, who has blocked out one whole line for himself and will work the entire shift each day.

"These kids are amazing to talk to. They're so full of love and hope," he says. "Once you talk to a couple of kids, you just can't put the phone down."

He ought to know. He listened to wish lists from the time he woke up to the time he went to bed last year. The first call came in on Dec. 12.

"The phone rang and this little boy says, 'Hello, Santa Claus!' " recalls Mr. Dickson. "I decided rather than play Scrooge, I would play along. I listened and the kid said, 'I would like a blue truck, a pony and a spider.' "

"After I hung up, I looked at the phone. I knew my phone number was 1-800-SANTABARBARA. I wondered if my phone number was close to 1-800-SANTACLAUS," he adds. "I realized the only difference was the last digit."

The boy had simply misdialed.

"I thought, 'How cute,' " says Mr. Dickson. "Then 15 minutes later, another call comes in -- a little girl. I played along with it. Then another call comes in. And another."

"Then they just started coming."

It didn't seem to matter that he answered the phone, "Santabarbara.com. This is John. How can I help you?" Or that his voice mail said, "Hello. You've reached santabarbara.com."

"They tune out the whole fact that they've dialed the wrong number and reached this business line," says Mr. Dickson. "They're kids. They're on a mission. And nothing's going to stop them from talking to Santa or leaving a message for Santa."

That first week or so, he received about 50 calls per day. Then, on Dec. 20, the story appeared in the News-Press. Within hours, Mr. Dickson was contacted by various local radio and television media. The next day, the story made the Associated Press. Newspapers across the country picked it up and Mr. Dickson was contacted by national news outlets, including ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC and FOX News, to do live interviews. On Christmas Eve, CNN showed up with its satellite truck to do a live spot. "BUSINESSMAN MISTAKEN FOR SANTA CLAUS . . . LITERALLY," "MISDIALING FOR SANTA," "ACCIDENTAL SANTA CLAUS" read the words under him on the screen.

"It was all about misdialing until it hit the national news. Once it hit the national news, then it was direct dialing because the phone number went everywhere."

At peak moments, 100 calls would come in -- per minute .

"I personally spoke to 973 children. About 5,000 to 6,000 voice mails were left, and then an estimated thousand if not tens of thousands of calls didn't even get to the voice mail because it was so jammed," says Mr. Dickson. "As soon as I hung up the phone, it would ring again."

He ended up shutting down his business during that time, switching from his normal greeting to a deep, booming, "Merrrrry Christmas ! This is Santa Claus! What's your name and where are you from?" And occasionally they'd be a customer. (At which point Mr. Dickson would switch back to his regular voice.)

"I was careful to approach each phone call as a very important phone call," says Mr. Dickson. "It may be the 500th call I received, but it was the first call they made."

He'd gently ask the kids what they want for Christmas.

"They want to list off everything they want . . . I want this this this and this. A lot of times they'd ask for one gift at a time.

'Is there anything else?'

'Yes, I'd like this.'

'Is there anything else?'

'Yes, I'd like this.'

'Is there anything else?'

'Yes, I'd like this.' "

But the kids who kept him on the phone the longest were the ones who passed it around to friends.

"After talking to the fifth kid during the same call, I thought, 'I have to let others in . . .' " said Mr. Dickson. The Wrong-Number Santa's excuses to end a phone call? "I've got to pack the sleigh right now." Or "I've got to go feed Rudolph." Even "I've got to shovel some snow."

Eventually, Mr. Dickson received his phone bill. All 71 pages of it.

"That's two fine-typed columns," he said. "It was $1,200."

He paid for it all himself.

As Christmas neared, he continued to answer the phone.

"I still had Christmas shopping to do through all this. Guys, you know, we wait until the last moment," he chuckles. "People around town would recognize me and help out (on the phone). I was shopping at Macy's and some employees there would play Mr. and Mrs. Claus for me while I shopped."

The volunteer gift wrappers at Borders in Santa Barbara even asked if they could get in on the action.

"My voice was starting to get a little hoarse, so I just let some people talk for a while," says Mr. Dickson.

His mom even took a turn as Mrs. Claus.

Mr. Dickson had no shortage of volunteers willing to assist. Even after Christmas, people were already approaching him about the next one, asking if he was planning to answer the phone and wondering if they can help out.

When Janet Garufis, president and CEO of Montecito Bank & Trust, heard about Mr. Dickson's efforts, she too offered her support. So when Mr. Dickson saw Ms. Garufis and his friend Melissa McEacheron, vice president and manager at the downtown branch, this fall at a fundraiser, he mentioned his idea to set up a center. They quickly offered up the location.

"It just touched my heart, his generosity and the fact that he wanted to be so involved in helping kids," says Ms. McEacheron. "It was a wonderful opportunity for us to help make a contribution to the children in the community -- and the world."

Some bank employees will even be helping out, says Ms. McEacheron.

Still, you have to wonder why the Wrong-Number Santa didn't just say, "Wrong number."

"Hearing about it sounds overwhelming and tiring, but when you actually hear a little kid's voice, it's an amazing thing," said Mr. Dickson. "It melts your heart."

Which is why you'll find the Wrong-Number Santa and his helpers fielding calls for the Big Guy at the center in the days leading up to Christmas (and, in the case of Mr. Dickson, on Christmas -- he'll reroute everything back to his phone).

But what happens if this year they don't get any calls?

"That's a very real possibility," says Mr. Dickson. "But, either way, we're going to be there.

"I do know a lot of people have my phone number," he adds. "A lot of people."

e-mail: cboechler@newspress.com