Burning Man culture is filled with secret instigators who show up time and time again to help make astonishing things happen. Our eyes may wander to the shiny humans who stand in the limelight. But just outside the frame are people like Rob Schmitt. Some call him the Invisible Man. Others say he’s Santa Zero, aka Santa Rob. SantaCon — yes the Santa rampage that happens yearly in cities around the world — is his wayward brainchild. Here’s Rob’s story.
Greetings, Santa Rob. Thanks for making time to speak with me.
I usually don’t give interviews. I usually don’t come out in the world with my real name or my face. I’ve always been kind of in the background doing things like that.
So how does it feel to be brought out into the open as Santa Zero?
An article in Harper’s Magazine brought me out in 2017. Well, nobody might notice this time too, but you never know. One day maybe it’ll catch on.
So what the hell happened? How did you get this noble title of Santa Zero?
In the early nineties, the Cacophony Society attracted me. So I went to a lot of Cacophony events and I thought of doing the Salmon Run, running the salmon upstream in the Bay to Breakers race in 1990.
You thought of that?
We didn’t get around to it until 1994. I got involved with the Cacophony Society and I mentioned it in a Cacophony meeting. Annie Coulter designed and built the salmon costumes with me. While I was making the salmon costumes, I found a postcard in her bedroom of Santas playing pool. I looked at it and I looked at her and said, “We gotta do this.”
I’d heard about the Santas in Denmark, giving away toys in the stores. And then the guards came out and ripped the toys away from the kids and beat up the Santas.
I heard about it in a dinner party with a friend of mine from the Suicide Club, and stuffed it in the back of my head. Then when I saw the postcard, which was sent by Lisa Archer from the first Santa Camp at Burning Man, I was like, “We gotta do this.”
I brought it up at a Cacophony meeting and one of the guys was like, “Oh, that’s the worst idea ever <laughs>. Think about the kids.” It was because Cacophony never did anything that would damage anybody else, never wanted to hurt anybody. He kept on telling me, “You can’t do it.” Which made me wanna do it more.
But in the back of my head, I heard the Mother Jones article that Gary Warne sent in the Suicide Club Newsletter. It was about the guys in Denmark going into the toy stores and giving toys away to kids. I loved that. Loved that idea.
So that’s how I ended up getting into this. That’s how it started for me.
Why are Burners so fascinated with Santa Claus?
I think it’s the appropriation of an image in popular culture — and that’s a big image. Everybody knows Santa Claus, everybody knows who it is. I think that may be the thing: we’re messing with a big image or a big, big thing. It probably made it take off cuz people like jumping on big popular things, I guess.
I was surprised going to Burning Man in the late nineties, seeing a ton of Santas at Burning Man <laughs>. People would dress up in a costume and be in that hot desert in the heat. But Peter Doty in 1993 did Santa Camp — all Santa all the time. Lisa Archer sent the postcard to Annie Coulter. She was Santa’s helper. I went over there and had eggnog in 100 degree weather. The Christmas carols… back then there were really no sound systems. So you can hear the Christmas carols all through the camp.
I don’t think it was the first theme camp, though it was considered the first theme camp. There were theme camps out there already. There was the Bolt Action Rifle Club that was out there the first year even. But nobody noticed they had guns then. Nobody noticed. Must have been noisy, but it was a big desert.
But they noticed Santa. At the end right after the Burn a giant storm came through the desert. Every mountain got hit by lightning all at the same time right before the Burn. And the Burn went off without a hitch. It was beautiful. It looked like you were in a 10 Commandments movie or something like that. It had a wonderful biblical feel. As soon as the Man was done and fell over, the dust storm hit and people were trying to get back to the camps where you couldn’t see anything, you couldn’t breathe. It was a really bad dust storm.
I’m walking back to my tent and I see Peter Doty dressed as Santa being pushed on a wind sailer that was built up like a horse, I think it was. He was sitting on this wind sailer, dressed as Santa being pushed back to his camp going, “On Donner! On Vixen!” So good. He stayed in character the whole time. The camp was all dressed up in tinsel and decorated for Christmas. It was beautiful.
How how many Burns did Christmas Camp last?
One, I think.
Good, okay. Otherwise all of Burning Man could have become Christmas Burning Man if we weren’t careful. Ok. Tell me all about the first SantaCon.
In fact, when I did the first SantaCon, it went very well. It was a beautiful event. I had so much help. I couldn’t have done it without everybody. I had so much help. Back in the day with Cacophony, everybody joined in and did everything they could to make it work.
And I think that’s why Burning Man works <laughs>. Because back in the day, in the early days with Cacophony, everybody helped. Everybody jumped in. If you had to lift something or move something, a truck showed up. If somebody needed to get equipment, equipment showed up. It was a magical time where people were able to survive here in San Francisco without too much money and then be able to do stuff and be able to have time off to do the events.
You’d be mailed the Rough Draft and you called each other on the phone and stuff like that beforehand. But people really didn’t have voicemail back then. You got an answering machine. So you had to be really on top of your game. And I think that has remained in Burning Man culture. In order to make things happen, you still have to pay attention. You still have to connect with people in person and be on top of your game. I don’t think that’s gone completely.
So when SantaCon began, Stuart Mangrum made this business card. Kris Kringle Institute, I think it said. I can’t remember if that was the first year or the second year. The original idea was getting out of a Santa school with a bunch of Santas and going out drinking.
My idea back then, because I did events and parties — to this day, I do events and trade shows — and I knew where all the Christmas parties were.
So you crashed big holiday parties?
I knew where the debutante ball was, so I crashed the debutante ball. The Smothers Brothers were giving a performance to the debutante ball when the Santas came in through the back door. We knew how to go into the back rooms and the back ways, through hotel rooms or through the hotels. So I dropped ’em off at one part of the hotel. I told them, “Go into the back door this way and go.” So they ran in from the backstage area, crashed the debutante ball, danced with the ladies and then we got out and went straight to the Tonga Room.
We got there on a cable car, got in the Fairmont and the bus was going to meet the Santas down by Fisherman’s Wharf. So I had to run and then get the bus to come up to pick them up at the front of the Fairmont. It was just a mess. Trying to get people together, herd cats like that, the typical. I kind of missed all the exciting stuff. So I hear stories about how they crashed the Tonga [Room at the Fairmont].
We went to two bars that night. We went to Vesuvio’s and Paradise Lounge. I knew the owner of the bar. I called him up and I said, “Look, we have 38 Santas, we’re in the neighborhood, we’d like to drop into your bar. Is that okay?” “Yeah, sure. Bring them in.” I actually wasn’t able to go into the bar because I was waiting on the bus protecting the bus <laughs>. They parked in the back; there were bad parts down around the neighborhood. I was on the bus so the driver of the bus could actually go in and experience part of the event. So I sat on the bus in the doorway waiting for people to come back and they were in there for about half an hour doing stuff.
How do you feel about what has emerged from that one event in San Francisco?
I really don’t think about it that much. When I still do SantaCon once in a while… When I walk into the bar, all of the bartenders give me the finger, both fingers and then mouth, “Thank you.”
At first when I was doing this, I thought, “I’m destroying Christmas for the kids.” Well [at the first SantaCon in 1994] we hit the Emporium, which is a shopping center downtown San Francisco where they used to have a kiddie carnival, including a Ferris wheel on the roof. The first year we were there, we had 38 Santas and we were able to get all the Santas on the Ferris wheel. We all walked into the Emporium, all dressed as Santa. We rode the escalators, all went to the roof. And when people were asking, “What do you do? What’s happening?” We’re like, “We’re here. You asked for Santas?”
Getting on the roof of the kiddie carnival, I was expecting to see more kids. But luckily there were only two little girls up on the roof when they saw all the Santas. The little girl was like, “Santas more Santas, more Santas.” All they can think about is more Santas.
They’ll never be the same.
And they followed the Santas around. When they saw the kids, the Santas were nice. And when the Santas were on the Ferris wheel, the kids were watching, it looked like the Santas were riding a sleigh. The visual is in my head like indelible link, Santas on the Ferris wheel, riding a sleigh
Then I realized it was not going to destroy Christmas.
How do I feel about it? The size amazes me. In New York City they had 40,000 Santas. I was out there. And it boggles the mind: everywhere you look, red people. It was so nice getting in a cab from Brooklyn going across the Queensboro Bridge and heading south at the tip of Manhattan — every single block had 20 or 30 Santas on it. We’re driving through Brooklyn or driving through Manhattan from halfway down Manhattan, Santas everywhere.
I feel kind of good about it, but at the same time <laughs>, I’m not scared of it cause it’s interesting to amass so much fun, I guess. I don’t know. When I stepped out my door on the day of SantaCon, I walked down to Washington Square Park and it was a hundred percent full of Santas. You couldn’t move. Throughout the whole park was shoulder-to-shoulder to Santas.
And nobody knew that Santa Zero was in their presence at that moment.
A couple people there. A couple people found me.
I’m kind of glad it keeps on going. I’m glad that the new guys that are doing it are doing it because it gives them ideas. Cause when I’m going to the event, these guys are, “What are we going to do next?” And they talk about what they can do. Which is kind of how this thing got started. If people are out there and they see a bunch of Santas, maybe it’s going to tilt them in a way that gives them an idea to do something.
Cover image: Montage of early San Francisco SantaCon photos, 1994 and 1995 (Photos by Peter Field)