By Alan Prendergast
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For a time, the North Pole existed in the Colorado mountains. On a ranch in Idaho Springs, a man with a white beard and twinkling blue eyes kept twelve reindeer. There was a Dasher and a Dancer, a Prancer and a Vixen. At Christmastime, the man donned a plush red suit trimmed with fur. He wore glasses on the end of his nose and jingle bells on his boots, and he visited with children at malls, parades and festivals. Whenever he could, he brought his reindeer with him.
But this Christmas, Santa will fly solo.
Earlier this year, Clear Creek County animal-control officers seized the reindeer along with nearly one hundred other animals and slapped the man behind the suit — 63-year-old Bill Lee — with 32 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty.
"I love animals," says Lee, whose real belly is nothing like a bowl of jelly. On a recent blustery afternoon, his thin frame is clad in a dusty, well-worn Levi's jacket, and his wispy white hair is tucked underneath a baseball cap. His rosy cheeks contrast with his rough cowboy skin.
"It's a travesty this is happening to me."
The ordeal started in May 2011, when a woman who'd been to Lee's ranch reported that some of his donkeys looked thin and were losing their hair. Others had no shelter, she said, and the urine and feces in their pens had accumulated up to three feet deep. Her concerns set off a year-long chain of events that ended when the county seized all of Santa's animals — including three cats that lived in a grain shed, his prize-winning burros and a fifteen-year-old dog he'd had since it was a puppy. In addition to animal-cruelty charges, Lee was told to pay $30,000 per month — the cost, the county says, of paying various shelters and sanctuaries to care for his animals so they wouldn't be sold or given up for adoption during the court case.
Santa is known for miracles, but that was too much even for him. As a result, most of Lee's animals have already been given away. But the rest might be saved by a judge's recent finding that the law used to seize Lee's animals was unconstitutional because it didn't provide due process for animal owners. The law was so flawed, in fact, that at the same time Lee was losing his animals — and his livelihood — state legislators were amending it.
Still, the Clear Creek County District Attorney's office is appealing the judge's ruling, which means that Lee's case is on hold until the appeals court weighs in.
It also means that this Christmas will be the first in twenty years that Santa will spend without his reindeer.
Lee was working the counter at a McDonald's in southeast Missouri the first time someone told him he looked like Santa Claus. It was 1969. He'd moved to Missouri from his native Illinois to attend college and gotten a job managing the fast-food restaurant. He was a college wrestler with bushy blond mutton chops and matching hair that he kept short. He says a woman approached him and asked, "Would you be Santa Claus for us in our school play?" He agreed, wearing a cheap red suit and fake beard for the performance.
He enjoyed it, but portraying Santa — one doesn't "play" Santa, Lee and other professional Santas insist; one "becomes" him — didn't turn into a way of life. Not yet.
Lee married a local girl in 1970, and the couple moved to Denver, where Lee stuck with what he knew, managing bars and restaurants, including the 94th Aero Squadron, a now-shuttered theme restaurant by the old Stapleton airport. He was tending bar at a long-gone Glendale club called Rodeo when he had another Santa moment. "Some gal said, 'You have a twinkle in your eye. You should be Santa Claus,'" Lee remembers.
But it took another decade — and a divorce that still pains him — before Lee considered portraying Santa again. The impetus was an ad in the paper: One of the country's leading "naturally bearded" Santa photo companies was looking for a few good Clauses in Colorado.
"I came to the realization that I needed to do something different," he says. Lee bleached his beard white and got the job, portraying Santa at the now-demolished Cinderella City Mall in Englewood. Since then, he's ho-ho-ho'ed at the Tabor Center, in the Parade of Lights, at the annual Georgetown Christmas Market and at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center.
"I was a real popular Santa," he says, sitting at a small table in the front room of his handsome log cabin. The house is quiet. A row of empty dog beds lines the porch. Framed Santa art prints decorate the hallway, and holiday cookie tins are displayed in a neat row on top of the kitchen cabinets. Blue ribbons from the National Western Stock Show hang on hooks, and belt buckles he won at burro races are perched on the top sill of a large picture window. The window looks out onto his dirt driveway. From it, you can see his idle tractor, his empty trailer with the "BURROS" license plate and the wooden playground he installed for his grandchildren.