CALLING ALL SANTAS : Local businessman is searching for
volunteers to help answer wayward calls for the Jolly Old Elf
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
MICHAEL MORIATIS / NEWS-PRESS
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
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.
Thick white beard, rosy cheeks, big belly, predisposition
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
Some bank employees will even be helping out, says Ms.
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
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."