Today, I’m interviewing the big man of the month himself – yes, indeed, it is the one and only George McTyre, opera singer, professor, actor, and professional Santa Claus!
I met George a few years ago, when he auditioned for my first feature film, Michael Lawrence (Narrow Street Films). Although he was auditioning for a somewhat villainous role (did he do it? I’ll never tell!), George’s good nature, and rich, deep voice shone through and we became friends.
Hailing from Texas, George had performed and taught opera and has become an accomplished actor who infuses his characters with depth, complexity, and warmth. But perhaps his best, most beloved role is that of Santa Claus. George has played Santa in a variety of movies, and has performed at Radio City Music Hall, Six Flags New England, and Essex Steam Train and Riverboat, among many other places. I got him to answer 5 questions (plus a bonus one!) – so here we ho-ho-go! (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)
1. You’ve had a wide-ranging and interesting career! Can you tell us more about what you’ve done and where you’ve been?
I always find it strange when colleagues with whom I’ve worked say “Wow, you work so much.” Do I?
I’ve been extremely lucky to have been able to perform wherever we’ve lived. My wife and I met at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and have lived in Chapel Hill, NC, Waco, TX, Iowa City, IA and most recently New Haven, CT. This has been due to my wife’s rock star career as a university music librarian. (And I am not making this up, she is a rock star music librarian.) Because of her, I have had a chance to perform for a wide range of venues. I was able to sing professionally in Texas while still at university, and expand into musical theatre, theatre, and concert work.
When we moved to North Carolina, I was able to continue performing and “upped my game” by touring with the sadly now-defunct National Opera Company out of Raleigh, NC. It was a true ‘dog and pony show” company that traveled with 9-10 singers, a tech director and a music director. The singers were double cast, in charge of set-ups and break-downs and we performed an opera almost everyday. It also was a fairly long annual contract of 9 months, with 4-5 operas in repertoire each season, a rarity in the opera world. Years later, I was pleased to learn that I was considered a “team player,” because of my willingness to do anything that was required for the daily running of the organization. It was a great learning experience for singing technique because we were singing an entire opera almost everyday.
Later we moved to Waco, were I did my masters degree for a ridiculously low figure (faculty spouse tuition remission!) and the day I graduated I wa offered two teaching positions. This also was a milestone, because nothing cements your vocal technique as having to teach university students. I was still able to perform and when we moved to Iowa, again I serendipitously fell into fabulous teaching opportunities and started work on a PhD in vocal literature at the University of Iowa will teaching full-time in the state. (Sleep? What’s that?)
In 2013, my wife was recruited to be the Director of the Irving S .Gilmore Music Library at Yale University. We moved in the late summer and there were NO teaching positions open anywhere in Connecticut for me. What to do? So I happened upon an actors studio in New Haven, and it was the start of a new career direction. I took all the class offerings and began to find work as an actor, doing some work in films, commercials, theatre, and bit of voice over work. Amazingly fun and not opera, with which I had become increasingly bored. The opera repertoire is extremely limited and one winds up performing the same roles. I simply couldn’t bring myself to do another “Marriage of Figaro,” “Barber of Saville,” or any Gilbert and Sullivan. Acting had become much more varied as a performance medium for me.
At this same time, I was cast as Santa Claus in an local production of an original musical and was contacted by a local man who was a Santa Claus, inviting me to have coffee with several local Santas, because they has seen the ads for the show, and didn’t know who I was. I began getting work per their recommendations and one man became my “Santa agent” which led me to Santa work in New England. In addition, I found that there is almost always a Christmas movie being filmed in Connecticut at any time of the year. That led to some background and small roles, and I was able to use my film and commercial training to book some commercial, print and modeling work. It has been a wild ride and it has been amazing the places I’ve gone and an amazingly diverse group of people with whom I’ve met and worked.
2. What first gave you the idea that Santa Claus might be a good fit for you?
I’ve always been on the large size (although I’ve lost 140 pounds over the last ten years!) and was blessed with a mostly white beard in my 50s. I also has studied improv with the Actors Gym in Hamden which turned out to be extremely useful when performing Santa. My vocal range also helped. I often get a response when I show up for professional work on a film, a concert, or a commercial of “Oh! You’re a real singer/musician/actor, not just a guy in a Santa suit.”
I also think you have to be able to tap into you inner-child and remember what Christmas was like for you when you believed in Santa. I always try to be the one having the most fun in the room at any Santa job.
3. Does your opera background help you with your performance as Santa? (Also: There seem to be a LOT of Santa performers. Do you have a whole Santa crew that you work with?)
Yes, “opera voice” or the ability to project one’s voice is a great asset when doing Santa jobs. Loudness helps. Also the training for opera and theatre helps to project a large personality. Improv and an ability to “read the room” helps to know when to tone things down and not frighten kids who may be a little timid or afraid. It’s not easy meeting Santa Claus for some children!
I don’t work with any set group of people, but you start running into people with whom you’ve worked before. 90% percent of the time, Santa is a solo act, so when you get that chance to work with elves, reindeer, Mrs. Claus, or any Disney princess, it is a treat!
4. You must have so many amazing and heartfelt stories from your time as Santa – can you share one of your favorites with us?
I was coming back to New Haven on MetroNorth from Radio City where I was not the Santa on stage, but the photo Santa in-between shows. I was dressed in a black turtleneck sweater, a black coat, black jeans, no Santa glasses. I sat down on the train, and a little girl's face popped up from the seat in front on me. I said hi, and asked her what she was doing on the train. She turned around, and pulled a photograph of the two of us from Radio City! She had recognized Santa!
Another great moment was one year when I saw the same family at five different events where I was Santa and the little boy in this family yelled, “You are the real Santa! I’ve seen you everywhere!”
The most difficult Santa moments were on Christmas Day at the Yale Children’s Hospital where I broke down in tears in the hallways after entering hospital rooms and various wards.
The most heart-wrenching moment came on the Essex Steam Train one year. The train employees pulled me aside before I entered a train car and told me the last family on that car had a terminally ill baby and to spend extra time with them. They didn’t speak English, I don’t speak very much Spanish, but they wanted photos of Santa holding this child. They cried, I cried, all the elves cried. It was the toughest moment because it lasted longer than many Santa interactions with younger children.
5. Alas, this year’s Christmas season is almost at it’s end. What is next for you? Do you have any big plans in the works?
I don’t have any performance jobs lined up for 2024 yet! Why won’t you write me a movie script, Killarney? I keep waiting! I’ll put you on the nice list forever!
BONUS QUESTION! Besides yourself, who is the best on-screen Santa and why?
Oh wow! This is a difficult question. I’ll give you my top three. Of course, Edmund Gwenn in “Miracle on 34th Street,” is amazing, and I would have to say might be my favorite. Although I didn’t particularly care for either of “The Christmas Chronicles” movies, I loved Kurt Russel, who looked awesome, gave a different take on the character, and sang Elvis Presley’s “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” A truly amazing performance. For a grumpier version of Santa, Ed Asner in “Elf.”
Thank you, George! Carry on with the good work!