From his many years playing in local bands to being a mainstay at shows featuring his son Evan’s band, 8stops7, Gary Gordon Goff is no stranger to local music fans. What may come as a surprise, though, is Goff’s seasonal alter ego as none other than the big man in red.
Goff has lived in Ventura County since 1971 when he headed west from upstate New York at the urging of his friend and late local music legend Jerry Pugh. Raising a family, working full time and playing music part time, Goff never in his wildest dreams thought he would one day be a world-class Santa but it all started, as so many great things do, by accident more than 30 years ago when his son’s preschool was in need of a Santa and he volunteered.
Photos by: T Christian Gapen
“It was a cheesy suit and beard but it was a fabulous experience,” remembers Goff. “The spirt of Santa, the love you get being him, it’s really addicting.”
Addicting indeed. Goff did a few more years at the school, adding occasional appearances elsewhere, but when a friend who managed the Pacific View Mall (then known as the Buena Mall) offered him an actual gig being the mall Santa for a season, he decided to give it a try.
“I was mild-mannered, skinny as a rail and my beard was not very long, not to mention it was flaming red and when I dyed it, it was flaming orange.” laughs, Goff. “So I had my work cut out for me but I was lucky to have a mentor in Harold Deem, who taught me the ins and outs of being Santa.”
Goff was the Ventura mall’s main Santa for five years, where he even survived an earthquake, but for the previous seven years he’d been working as Universal CityWalk’s official Santa, a crème de la crème gig in the Santa milieu.
Of course, these days, the once-green mall Santa is now as real-deal as they come with a legitimate long white beard, first-rate suit and a boatload of experience, which has helped lead to some amazing opportunities, including the gig of a lifetime, appearing in a music video with one of his idols, Bob Dylan.
When Goff saw a posting looking for a Santa for a “famous musician’s upcoming video,” he jumped at the chance to audition, especially knowing that Dylan was releasing a Christmas album. After he got the part, he found out it was none other than the big D himself and Goff would be on camera with him in a video for a song appropriately titled “Must Be Santa.”
Goff gets as giddy as a kid on Santa’s lap, recalling the experience.
“You have to understand, Bob was my hero when I was a teenager. I spent hours analyzing his lyrics. It was my dream to meet him. So there I was on-set, and during a break Bob broke into a Hank Williams song, then a full-fledged jam-session, singalong for a half-hour. I was on cloud nine.”
Then when it was time to shoot his scene with Dylan, Goff exchanged actual words with his hero.
I just said, “So, how do you wanna do this? Just treat it like another day at the polka party? Bob smiled and said, ‘Exactly.’ So I played it low-key. Went awesome. When it was all done, he shakes my hand and says, ‘Nice working with you Santa.’ ”
The fact that Goff was able to work with his musical idol, and it happened not due to his decades of playing and performing but by dressing up as Santa, is almost a Christmas miracle in itself; but it was an experience filming an Expedia commercial last year, one of multiple national commercials he’s done, that he considers the highlight of his Santa career.
Not only did the commercial allow Goff to travel outside of the country for the first time in his life to places like Japan, Ireland, France and Dubai, the journey and commercial ultimately ended with him arriving at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis. There, he delivered presents to children in treatment at the facility. Viewers weren’t the only ones moved by the truly heartwarming commercial.
“I broke down crying after visiting with a kid who had brain cancer,” recalls Goff. “I couldn’t help myself. I asked the nurses, ‘How do you do this?’ They said, ‘We cry every day but we know we are helping them and that keeps you going.’ They thanked me for coming when they were the ones who deserved the thanks. It was a remarkable experience.”
With the season coming to a close, Goff is looking forward to getting back to his other love, music. Always on the go, the 67-year-old is gearing up for a busy year playing with a new project, The Otherside, that also features Brad Strickland, Saul Isaac and Dave Stewart.
Being Santa, however, remains a full-time gig with auditions to go to and several off-season Santa events to attend. For all the joy that impersonating St. Nick has brought Goff over the years, there’s one drawback that he’s quick to point out.
“Well, I haven’t seen my actual face in years,” he laughs. “Seriously though, maintaining a beard is not easy. Beards don’t necessarily grow evenly. People talk about having a bad hair day; for Santa, it’s having a bad beard day.”