On an otherwise uneventful day in December 2006, John Dickson received a wrong number that would change his life in ways he never could have expected. In an attempt to reach Santa Claus at 1 (800) SANTACLAUS (726-8225), a young boy accidentally dialed Dickson’s business line at 1 (800) SANTABARBARA (726-8222). Instead of declaring the child had reached the wrong number, Dickson decided to play along; he listened to the boy’s Christmas-gift wish list and then let out a merry “Ho! Ho! Ho!” before the child hung up.
Dickson, who runs a tourism service that promotes our coastal community and is probably better known to Santa Barbara Independent readers as the Restaurant Guy, received nearly 50 calls each day that first week. “I personally spoke to 973 children,” said Dickson in a 2007 interview. “As soon as I hung up the phone, it would ring again.” So Dickson decided to make it an annual event — and the Santa Claus Call Center was born. Since 2007, Dickson has closed his Santa Barbara tourism office from December 20 to 24 and opened up shop at the “North Pole.” “That first call center in 2007, we answered between 10,000 and 20,000 calls from children around the country,” said Dickson. “A projected half million tried to call.”
With the deluge of calls coming in from all corners of the United States, Dickson invariably needed help. So he recruited volunteers, who signed up for two-hour shifts to answer phone calls. “We had 100-plus volunteers from all walks of life,” Dickson said.
Now in its sixth year, the Santa Claus Call Center is a fixture in Santa Barbara (if not the U.S.), and the accidental Santa is rounding up his elves once again. “We have amazing volunteers,” Dickson explained. “Cuca Acosta holds the record for clocking the most hours every year.” And with 30-plus hours under her belt (in a five-day stretch, mind you), Acosta is one of the few bilingual elves who can receive calls from Spanish-speaking children.
“Todd Buranen is definitely our most animated volunteer,” Dickson said. “With a whole repertoire of different characters, he holds the record for the single longest call.” During a terrible Santa Maria flood in 2010, Buranen took a call from 30 kids, hoping to talk to Santa to recover some of their lost possessions. “As the kids passed the phone around, Buranen spoke to each child in a different voice. By the end, he was on the phone for at least two hours.”
Through the years, Dickson has had a variety of volunteers, from former mayor Marty Blum to his own mother. However, one helper in particular made a bigger impact than the rest. “After that first week of calls in 2006, I was eating at a restaurant in Santa Monica and explaining the story to a friend of mine. A woman sitting at a nearby table overheard and wanted to get involved. She has been an elf for the last five years. We were married last May, and this year, she will be Mrs. Claus for the first time.”
So what does the Accidental Santa want for Christmas this year? “My wife said yes last May. I don’t need anything else.”