Dec. 23—ALBANY — When former Albany resident Don Fisher took on the role of the Jolly Old Elf from the North Pole, the suit didn't quite fit.
Thirty-seven years later, he has grown into his role as one of Santa's helpers. Even his phone name pops up as "Santa Claus," and he has people note his resemblance while just out shopping at stores in normal dress.
In addition to making appearances throughout the holidays, Fisher has over the years collected thousands of Santa figures, dolls and other Christmas-related memorabilia sufficient to fill the science museum at the Thronateeska Heritage Center.
After a long-time Santa actor passed away, Fisher was enlisted to fill in and hasn't looked back.
"My church asked me to be Santa Claus," he said. "Somebody mentioned 'You are so good with the kids. Will you consider being Santa Claus?'
"When I played Santa Claus for the church, they had given me his suit that was 27 years old from Sears. It was the wrong size."
That suit was stolen from Fisher's car early in his Santa career on a night he had a scheduled appearance.
"Since then, I have another (two) suits," he said. "Nobody makes them anymore. One's usually in the cleaners."
After the COVID-19 pandemic reduced his number of appearances in 2020, the demand for his talents has rebounded this year. Fisher spent about 85 hours "in the chair" at outdoor events last year and was on pace to double that time in 2021.
He mainly works with several photographers who arrange events, and this year he has appeared as chef Santa and Santa at the beach.
"It's been nine weeks I have had something every night or every day," he said. "A lot of people were anxious to get back with Santa because they couldn't last year. It was my best year ever, and I was so blessed to share my, I guess, talent and love.
For the first time, Fisher this year made appearances as a sensory Santa for children with autism and special needs, conducted in a quiet room with low music.
"I got to interact one-on-one with the parents in the room," he said. "They said it was a great success. It was touching to me. It was one of the highlights of my 37 years."
Even as the pre-Christmas season was winding down, Fisher was filling in slots for 2022. And he promised some new twists on an old character are in store.
"I have had so much encouragement over the years from people saying 'You are the best Santa I've ever seen. You are the real deal,'" he said. "That warms my heart. It just brings back good memories."
Fisher's thousands of Santas picked up over the years also date back decades when he began collecting the items. Estate sales and yard sales, where people often sell Santa-related items rather than store them for next year, are among the biggest sources of the treasures.
The collection was initially displayed at Bobs Candy for more than 20 years and has been a yearly event at Thronateeska for another 15 years.
Another 325 or so of his treasures are at the Lee County Library, and Fisher has hundreds more at his residence in Florida.