Santa Firing Nets Lump Of Coal for Mall, Apology

Many families are outraged about the dismissal of Mike Graham, Tysons Corner Center's Santa.
Many families are outraged about the dismissal of Mike Graham, Tysons Corner Center's Santa. (By Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)
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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tysons Corner Center officials apologized yesterday for leaving Santa Claus out in the cold this holiday season.

Responding to hundreds of calls, an online petition and threats to boycott the mall for giving its longtime Santa the heave-ho with little notice, a spokeswoman said company officials were working with Michael Graham to reach a financial settlement and find a chair for him in a Santaland -- somewhere.

"We offer a deep apology to Mr. Graham and to our shoppers," said Allison Fischer, a spokeswoman for Macerich, which operates the mall. "We hope that Mr. Graham, our shoppers and everyone across the country who has been affected by this situation will understand."

It was not clear whether there was a possibility that Graham could continue working at the Fairfax County mall, where his special touch created a following that transformed the Tennessee carpenter into a local celebrity.

But Pamela Deese, an attorney for Graham's pro bono case, said last night that no one has directly apologized to her client and that no arrangements have been made.

"I'm happy to try to broker a deal," Deese said. "Let's do something that would be a win-win situation for both."

News that the mall had given Graham a pink slip after 18 years generated an outcry.

"That's a devastating move they've done over at Tysons Corner Center," said Pat Chambers, whose daughter surrendered her pacifier to Santa when the time arrived to give it up. "We bring him cookies every year. There's no way I can go back there if it's another Santa."

People whose families went every year to see him called the mall, burned up e-mail group lists with commentary and threatened to boycott the shopping center. CBS News booked a TV appearance for this morning, a radio station in Green Bay, Wis., ran the story and, an online booking agency for Santa's helpers, wanted to track down Graham to offer him a job. Graham, with the help of a publicist and Deese, has arranged a news conference on a public sidewalk next to the mall after his television appearance.

"We're taking our lumps, and we know we made an error," Fischer said. She said officials had erred in handling the timing of the notification to Graham and were working to correct the situation by a financial arrangement and an offer of employment somewhere.

Graham had a contract at the mall through 2012. The contract paid him about $30,000 to be St. Nick seven days a week for five weeks, and it included a clause that allowed the mall to discontinue his services without cause. But Graham said he did not learn of the cancellation until he contacted the mall late last month, and by then it was too late to line up another job.

The new company that will handle photos with the new Santa at the mall also said it made a mistake.

"I'll take the hit," said Steve Hardin, senior vice president of World Wide Photography, which provides same-day professional photography for special events, including Santalands in malls. Hardin said he was not aware of Graham's stature when his company took over the contract to provide a Santa this year.

"I'm trying to rectify it," Hardin said, adding that he is trying to find another post for Graham, perhaps closer to his home in Tennessee.

Hardin said the issue was not about money, although he said Graham's contract paid him about 10 times the average of most "Santa's helpers." The average mall Santa makes about $17 an hour -- "which is very decent pay for a Santa with a good heart."

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