BY STEFANI DIAS Californian assistant lifestyles editor firstname.lastname@example.org
As we close in on Christmas, there are only a few days left for that much-needed chat with Santa. Those unable to brave the crowds at the mall may still pay a visit to the man in red at the Winter Playground this weekend at the San Joaquin Community Hospital Ice Center of Bakersfield.
And this Santa is a bit unique, being one of the few skating St. Nicks in the United States.
When: 6 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Monday
Where: San Joaquin Community Hospital Ice Center of Bakersfield, 1325 Q St.
"Somebody in North Dakota is a skating Santa, but he doesn't tell anybody," said Charles Neukom, who takes turns with Claydoh the Clown donning the red suit for the ice center's event.
"I am a balanced skater. That means I don't fall down. Seriously, I've skated all my life. I just don't do backward skating. It's so much fun. I wave to the little ones (who don't skate). I'll go up to the snow area."
That snow area takes up about a third of the rink, according to ice center attendant Nathan Grundhofer. Children can enjoy frolicking in the snow, another rarity in Bakersfield.
"This is the only place in Bakersfield that feels like 'winter.' There is ice for skating, a snow area for kids to play and throw snowballs, a skating Santa for pictures and hot chocolate for everyone," said Neukom, who noted the rink's thermostat is locked in at 45 degrees.
Most of those activities fall under the admission -- "$11 covers everything we offer besides snack bar and photos with Santa" -- with photos going for $10, said Grundhofer.
Santa spends a lot of time in front of cameras, whether it's for a professional photographer or parents and grandparents with point-and-shoots.
"We encourage them to take a picture with Santa," Neukom said, who estimates he poses for more than 100 photos a day.
Youngsters may also have their faces painted and make take-home crafts.
"The face-painting and craft room is run by volunteers from Ronald McDonald House," Grundhofer said. "They can make tiny Christmas ornaments and color pictures."
The event has run Fridays and Saturdays since Thanksgiving and Santa has laid the groundwork for the big day.
"We tell the kids that the reindeer are on top of the arena and Mrs. Claus is feeding them baby carrots from Bakersfield."
The event's last day is Christmas Eve, but there's a chance that Santa may have to start his big run early and won't be on hand.
Those looking to secure some Santa time should head out this weekend.
Neukom, who has played Santa for five years (four years at the ice center), spends the other 11 months of the year as Chuck Oh! the Clown.
"The incarnation of Chuck Oh! was the early '90s for my daughter's first birthday. I started clowning while I was a student at Long Beach State. I will date myself, but I was known as KC the Disco Clown then."
Neukom, who also performs as Santa at company parties and home visits, said he's happy to cap the year as a beloved holiday figure.
"Santa is a saint. I get treated a lot better as Santa than as a clown. It's wonderful to end the year being treated as a saintly person.
"I can just be Santa Claus and be entertaining. I channel the joy and fun of Santa because it's amazing to me. ... It's where I feel the most love. That immediate response from people."
With balloon animals and magic tricks -- "an elf taught me everything" -- Neukom said he enjoys entertaining children, especially the suspicious ones.
"I was out at a home by the Kern River. There was an 8-year-old, not sure that he believes in Santa Claus. I did some tricks --Rudolph's disappearing nose, catch a bottle. He was amazed that Santa Claus could do these tricks. He said I was the best Santa he has ever seen. That's better than money."