By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns correspondent
Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus are the season’s most popular couple. You see them so many places: downtown, in stores, at special events. Twinkling eyes, merry dimples, red plush and white fur — they’re unmistakable.
But who are the people inside that holiday garb?
In Petaluma, they’re Ron Shipley and Ruth Ragozzino. Happily married (although not to each other) Shipley and Ragozzino come up the river each year via tugboat. When the D Street Bridge rises, it’s a magic moment, Ragozzino says.
“It’s like Petaluma is opening its arms. We hear cheers and applause, we see kids running alongside, waving, trying to keep up with the boat. For a little while, parents become children again.”
Ragozzino, 78, discovered her holiday vocation years ago, courtesy of neighbors Phil and Bobby
Gervasi, the dynamic couple behind the lavishly decorated Winter Wonderland on Santa Clara Lane, the go-to destination on Petaluma’s City of Lights driving tour.
“Bobby gave me my first red robe,” she says, “and she asked if I wanted to sit outside and be Mrs. Claus on Saturdays and Sundays.”
Meanwhile, Shipley, 74, who has had a curly white beard for 30 years, was working his holiday magic at Haus Fortuna in the Mill. When Haus Fortuna moved to Theatre Square, owner Karla Schikore asked Ragozzino to join Shipley, and they’ve been together ever since.
“When you came into my life,” Shipley says, “everything happened.”
“There’s good chemistry between us,” Ragozzino adds.
Although they take their roles seriously, they’re not a bit serious when talking about the good times they share. Shipley reminisces about driving home from a party, past the home of a friend, sculptor Rosa Estebanez. He went up, rang the bell and, when she opened it, offered a candy cane.
When she next saw him, she told him about “the strange man.” He offers a Santa-sized chuckle. “I didn’t tell her.”
Later, Shipley went up to a golfing buddy “when I was in costume and asked about the new driver he wanted. He looked at me with this, ‘How the hell does Santa know that?’ expression.
“You put on the outfit, and it permeates your body,” Ragozzino says.
“We’re here for the children,” Shipley says, “but just as many adults sit on our laps.” At many of the private parties where they’re guests of honor, “adults have as much fun as the kids,” Shipley says. “It can get wild.” He estimates he’s had his photo taken with so many people for Christmas cards, “My picture is all over the world.”
Ragizzino says anyone is welcome to sit on their laps, or knees. And everyone, it seems, wants to – even uniformed policemen will succumb, she says, “although when I wanted to pose on a motorcycle with one, that was a no-no.”
“She likes to get all the boys she can on her knee,” Shipley jokes.
Although he doesn’t feel Santa is an extension of his personality, Ragozzino disagrees. “You have the kindness in your voice,” she says, “the sweetness in your face and that wonderful laugh.”
There’s no such thing as a script in their line of work: this is improvisational theater all the way. “You go with the flow,” Ragozzino says, “what the kids are saying, how they react.”
Shipley comments that, although children know who he is, “It can be intimidating. They’ll come running down a sidewalk and then suddenly panic – you can almost see their skid marks.” It’s understandable, he says, considering that children are taught to not talk to strangers, “then their parents force them to sit on Santa’s lap. It’s easier when I can walk around; they feel more comfortable.”
Sometimes, Ragozzino adds, “I’ll suggest that the child sit on my lap instead. I’m not as fearful.”
Also, Shipley says teasingly, “Your beard’s not as long.” He says he encourages children to pull his beard because, “when I was a kid, you’d look at Santa and you’d know the beard was a fake.” Real beard equals real Santa.
They try not to lie, they say. They prefer to think of it as “being creative.” One evening on Santa Clara Lane, Phil Gervasi, who was playing Santa, went into the house and a little girl asked Ragozzino where Santa was. “He had to leave early,” Ragozzino said.
“How will you get home?”
Raggozino recalled, “I saw a small airplane going over, with a red light. I pointed and said, ‘There’s Rudolph.’ But the plane kept going and she said “Oh no. He left you,’ and I said, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll come back for me.’”
“Children ask if I’m the real Santa Claus,” Shipley says, “and I’ll look at the parents to get a clue how I should respond. I won’t lie.” Depending on the signal, he’ll say, “No, I’m not. The real Santa is up north working on toys.” Otherwise, it’s “Yes, I am the real Santa.”
It’s always fun, they agree. “Very few people are humbugs,” Ragozzino says.
“People honk and wave,” Shipley says, “they’re laughing and joyful.”
Does he believe in Santa Claus? “I sure do,” Shipley says. “And the Easter Bunny. And the Great Pumpkin.” He doesn’t feel like an icon, though. “I just enjoy it. The expressions on the kids’ faces are unbelievable – they’re so excited.”