The Mall Santa Who Wears Birkenstocks and Kneepads

"I can put a smile on anyone’s face – young, old," says
“A lot of people think I’m a therapist or a teacher. I’m not,” says Santa Sid. “I’m also not a stuffy old man with a beard. I’m a kid.” (Above: during one of two pet nights at the mall.)

The hardest part about being Santa Claus is making two-year-olds smile for photographs. But after 42 years in the business, one of the most experienced Santas in the United States has it down to a science. No coat or hat – the fur makes kids cry. He doesn’t scream at kids to sit still – he crawls onto the padded floor surrounding his chair to make eye contact.

And it works. He’s only had a handful of criers. “I thrive on winning kids,” says Santa “Sid,” which stands for “Santa in disguise.”

Santa Sid headlines The Santa Experience at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. It’s not your average shopping mall: Seven Yankee Stadiums could fit into the complex’s 4.2 million square feet. But then again, Santa Sid isn’t your average Santa. The license plate on his red Hyundai reads Santa S; his spare bedroom is filled with Christmas knickknacks, including a tree that stays up year-round; and kids frequent the pool in his backyard (duh, it’s Santa’s summer home).

Age: Santa is 1,500 years old. But I’m 58.
Graduated from: Santa Claus University, with a Master’s degree in Santa Claus.
Based in: I admit to having a summer home in Eden Prairie, Minn. Otherwise, Santa lives in the North Pole. I’ll retire somewhere warmer, but I wouldn’t know how to act in a place that never snows.
Years as Santa: 42. I’ve been in the Mall of America for 16 years now.

How do you spend time on your off months, from January through October? I work at a company that makes aircraft parts called Hitchcock Industries in Bloomington, Minn. I just tell people that I make “big people toys.”

Previous jobs: I’ve always been in the kid business. I lost my 3-and-a-half-year-old brother to leukemia, so I started visiting cancer patients at hospitals dressed up as Santa. I spent two years as the Santa at a mall in Kalamazoo, Mich., before getting this job [at the Mall of America].

TK
Although his hair and beard are 100% natural, Santa admits to bleaching his facial hair for “the workshop look.”

Was it a tough job interview? You needed a background check – local and federal. I showed them photos from my past, like one of me taking a nap with a baby on my chest. [See right for a similar photo from this year.]

I read that visits are by appointment only. My line used to be three or four hours long every day. Then someone came up with the idea to put me in a private room and book appointments. This year, before even opening for the season, I had 400 appointments. By December 1, I had 5,800 appointments.

Number of kids on your lap per day: I see 15,000 to 17,000 kids each season, which consists of 45 days.

Walk me through a typical workday. I work from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., take a one-hour break, work from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., take a one-hour break, and work from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. I sit on the floor 99.9% of the day to get on eye level with the kids; I give them high-fives to get communication going. Then I go home, eat dinner, and go to sleep.

Do you use any props? I have a really cool kid rocking chair that’s all cushioned up, and I have a stool behind it. That way, kids don’t know I’m there, and we get lots of great pictures. I also have a floor built with kid padding for playing on the floor, and a stethoscope for taking photos with pregnant moms.

Where do you suit up? At home, before driving to the mall at 7:30 a.m. I own 80 different shirts, so I never wear the same one twice. I wear pants, suspenders, slip-on Birkenstocks, and knitted green, white, and red socks. I don’t wear a jacket; the fur makes kids scream. But I do wear kneepads, since I’m constantly on my knees with the kids.

A hat? Nope. I get my hair done at the hair salon at the mall, so I have hot rollers in my hair every day. Then I go to Starbucks [at the mall] to get my coffee.

Funniest “kids say the darndest things” moment: Maybe, “I want bacon.” Kids are simple – they usually want electronics and remote-controlled toys, or dolls. Sometimes they come with lists that are three to four pages long, though. I take the lists and say, “I’ll see what I can do.” I never promise anything.

Photo: activerain.com
Photo: activerain.com

Kids ask for different toys each year. What larger shifts have you seen in gift requests throughout your years as Santa? Things have gone very digital. I hear hundreds of requests for cell phones, iPads, tablets, Nooks. Once, a 3-year-old asked me for an iPhone 5. I tell kids that I have a toy factory – I want to talk about toys. Parents give me a thumbs-up for that one.

Best part of your job: I truly see the magic. I sit on the floor and look into children’s eyes – I see the sparkle, the smiles on their faces. I’m helping to be a part of that. 

Most challenging part of your job: Too many 2-year-olds.

What would people be surprised to learn about you? I organized a Santa Club in Minnesota with 115 Santas. I help out a lot of guys.

I envision you guys swapping stories about bratty kids. We have three get-togethers a year: A pool party at my house in July, for Santas and Mrs. Clauses; a Christmas kickoff in early November; and a Blues Party when it’s all over, in February, at a hotel. All the Mrs. Clauses are great at making food – your Santas are plump for a reason.

At what age do you think children stop believing in Santa Claus? The magical age for believing starts around 3 – the 2-year-olds are more fearsome – and can go to around 10 or 11. When kids ask whether I am the real Santa, I tell them to pull on my beard and my hair. That way, I’m not really answering, but they walk away saying, he’s the one.

Do you hate Christmas music yet? No. I have it on all the time in my car, and in my back room during breaks. I especially love Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

Have kids ever recognized you as Santa during the off-season? All the time. My wife and I go out to dinner, and kids pass me notes, telling me they’ve been good or what they want for Christmas. On vacation in Mexico, kids wanted pictures. When you look like this, you live it.

Any children of your own? One, and he’s 30. He’s my No. 1 elf, out of my 860 elves. I also have three dogs, named Dasher, Blitzen, and Allof. That stands for “all of” the other reindeer.

Retirement plans: I’ll be doing this ‘til I’m dead. Right now, I’m working on a five-year contract.

Salary for the season: Many Santas start out at around $10,000 for the season. Salaries can reach $45,000 for the season, but that’s very rare.

Umpteen years ago, a psychic told me that I was going to do something wonderful with kids," Santa Sid recalls. "[This job] might be draining...but I can put a smile on anyone's face."
Umpteen years ago, a psychic told me that I was going to do something wonderful with kids,” Santa Sid recalls. “[This job] might be draining…but I can put a smile on anyone’s face.”
If you could put one celebrity on your naughty list, who would it be? I don’t look at the bad in people.

Even Kim Kardashian? I don’t know [the Kardashians] or watch their show. That’s their lifestyle.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Become a child and learn to play. People sometimes tell me, You’re silly, Santa. That’s the biggest compliment in the world.

2. Learn to answer things as quickly as you can. Once, a little girl asked me Mrs. Claus’ first name. I told her I’d have to get out the marriage certificate to check.

3. An important part of the job is clean living. It’s an honor to be Santa. I don’t drink, smoke, or eat garlic. There’s never onion on my breath.

Unless otherwise specified, all photos are courtesy of Professor Bellows.

The Magician Who Lives in the Waldorf Astoria

Steve Cohen, also known as the Millionaire's Magician, has performed his show at the Waldorf 3,000 times — for 250,000 people.
Steve Cohen, also known as the Millionaires’ Magician, has performed his show at the Waldorf Towers 3,000 times — for 250,000 people.

A cluster of of well-to-do couples huddle in the lobby of the Waldorf Towers in New York City, buzzing with anticipation. At the stroke of 8:45 p.m. on Saturday evening, a tall man in a tailored suit ushers everyone into a gold-plated elevator – the same one that the President of the United States rides when he stays in New York. Primping and fidgeting, the group lines up at a suite at the end of a hallway on the 35th floor. 58 people file in for tonight’s magic show in Steve Cohen’s living room, run solely by word-of-mouth.

Cohen’s “Chamber Magic” shows inspire an intimate, old-timey parlor feel. Attendees, many of whom have purchased tickets months in advance, are expected to dress well. He doesn’t bother with hats, rabbits, or sleight-of-hand tricks; instead, he uses one gleaming tea kettle to produce five different drinks at the audience’s request.

At age 10, Cohen worked the elementary school circuit, appearing at kids’ birthday parties and Cub Scout meetings. Now, he brings in about 300 viewers each weekend – including high-profile guests like Martha Stewart, Barry Diller, and David Rockefeller  – and a seven-figure annual income. “I put people in an environment where anything can happen,” Cohen says, pausing to sip Kombucha tea (the ginger helps his throat). “People start thinking, Maybe there’s another force in the world, and this guy has control over it.

Age: 41
Graduated from: Cornell University, psychology major; Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan
Based in: New York, N.Y.
Years as a full-time magician:
17
Previous jobs: After graduating from Cornell, I stayed in Tokyo for five years as an English translator. It involved sitting at a desk with lots of legal work and patents.

That seems like a pretty far stretch from your current line of work. The translation work was terribly boring, but lucrative. I was eager to do magic, so I got some part-time jobs performing in hotels, and those got more and more lucrative. I came back to New York and started from scratch as a consultant for other magicians. Then, I started doing my own shows.

Who – or what – brought you into the world of magic? My uncle. He was very talented with cards, and taught me the fundamentals of card magic that you need to become a good magician. I spent all my times at family parties with him. He gave me a book called Magic With Cards, a book from the 1890s that is very hard to find.

How did you turn a childhood hobby into a multimillion-dollar business? For two years, after moving back to America from Japan, I lied to my wife and told her we were breaking even. But we were losing money every show; I lost about $200,000 of my own money. I was about to throw in the towel when an editor from DailyCandy.com came to review the show. Overnight, the show sold out for a year in advance. Then CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on me, and by the end of the week, I had sold $1 million worth of tickets. I had to add more shows.

Is the Waldorf your permanent home? I stay here on weekends. I have another apartment on the Upper West Side with my family – my wife and two kids, ages 12 and 8 – during the week.

Do your kids love magic? They each practice one trick each year, and on Father’s Day, they perform it at my show. But my daughter is more into it than my son. She’s a ham. But there’s not that many women in magic, if you think about it.

Why do you think more men than women are into magic? I’m not sure. But I don’t really recommend becoming a magician to anyone. People are constantly making gags about it. Imagine going into your child’s school for a parent-teacher conference, and the teacher says, “Your child seems to think you’re a magician of some sort.” You always have to explain what you do.

In your grand finale, two audience members shuffle two separate decks of cards. Then, you reveal that each card in the first deck falls in the exact same order as each card in the second deck. The audience really goes wild for that one. People seriously go bananas – they have heart palpitations. They can’t sleep that night. And I’m jumping up and down like Willy Wonka.

It’s funny you mention Willy Wonka. You remind me of him — Gene Wilder’s version, at least. The character of Willy Wonka has been a role model for me. I like his transition from mysterious man to crazed maniac – peeling away layers and seeing more and more about this nutty guy.

Did he inspire your three-piece suit, too? In London, I saw Prince William wearing this exact outfit – a morning coat, a vest with a little lapel, and striped trousers. So I went to the store where the princes shop, and bought that exact outfit. I think it’s so appropriate in this environment.

Think a Drink description
Cohen uses as few props as possible in his shows; he believes they create barriers and cheapen the experience. The kettle is an exception.

It plays into the magician archetype. People want the character of a wizard or a magician to come into their lives and give them hope and possibility. Why do you think Harry Potter is so popular? I’m not doing wizardry here, but I feel like Harry Potter or Dumbledore. People squeal in delight. During my “Think a Drink” trick, a woman in the front row actually cried. [For this trick, five audience members wrote down their favorite drinks, from vodka to banana smoothie. Cohen then produced these drinks from a small kettle.]

Best part of your job: Immediate feedback. I can tell by looking at audience members’ eyes whether I have them under my thumb. When people’s eyes are glowing, I know I’ve done my job. I’ve learned what captures people’s imaginations.

Most challenging part of your job: Nobody else in the world is doing this type of performance, so I don’t have a support team. I’ve lost the camaraderie of fellow magicians; a lot of them are jealous.

Resources for new material: The Conjuring Arts Research Center in New York has a database with every secret that has ever been published in magic, from the 1500s to present-day. You have to be a member or have special access.

Any pre-show traditions? David Copperfield once told me that he brushes his teeth with a certain toothbrush before every show. I joke around and say that I floss before every show. But the fact is, no. I’m very relaxed. Everything in my show is meticulously planned. Without fail, I know the precise minute that I’ll be saying a certain line.

The last time you got nervous: When Woody Allen came in and sat in the front row. I had cotton balls in my mouth, but he was the greatest audience. He laughed at all the right times.

On the Late Show with David Letterman, Steve Cohen performed his favorite trick, involving a lemon, an egg, a walnut, and a ring.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? You can buy and sell secrets. I once licensed a trick from another magician for my show, but after the terms of the legal contract expired, he wanted the trick back. So I had to create my own version of the trick.

Your most expensive trick: I spent $10,000 for a trick that only lasts two or three minutes, but it’s a really good trick. I fill a flower vase with all different flowers and cover them with a handkerchief. Then, I ask an audience member to name her favorite flower. Say she responds with yellow tulip. I take the handkerchief away, and all the flowers have transformed into yellow tulips.

How do you deal with uncooperative audience members? People have predispositions toward magic shows. Those who give me problems – maybe they got embarrassed at a magic show when they were little. I handle them the same way I would handle kids, and try to diffuse the challenge by making my show lively and interactive.

In addition to performing for Warren Buffet (pictured above), Cohen's star audience members include the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the Queen of Morocco.
One weekend, Warren Buffet paid Cohen to cancel all his shows and fly to Omaha (pictured above).

Your website boasts some of your more famous clients, like Warren Buffet. I still get people coming in here all the time, like, Warren sent me. I always carry with me a card that he signed.

Physical parameters of your show: I need to be inside of a room with no other distractions. People must be completely riveted on just me. I can’t have people thinking about what they’re going to make for dinner. 

Your required reading: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. It’s about how and why to persuade people to see things your way.

You never leave home without: My deck of cards. I rarely do magic outside of a venue, but it makes me feel good that I could, if I needed to.

Have you ever pulled a rabbit out of a hat? Yes, and it’s wonderful. I don’t do it regularly, though, because then you have to keep a rabbit as a pet.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Find a venue that is appropriate to your vision of magic, and become the person best suited for that venue. If you’re really good at performing at Bar Mitzvah parties, for example, become the very best Bar Mitzvah magician out there, and work tons of them.

 

Tickets for Chamber Magic range from $75 to $100; priced separately for private company events. Follow Steve on Twitter and on his Facebook page. All photos courtesy of Steve Cohen. 

The Naked Cowboy Reads Nietzsche

“Everyone in the world knows me, and if they don’t, they will. It’ll be Buddha, Jesus, Naked Cowboy,” Burck says matter-of-factly. Photo: facebook.com/nkdcowboy

In a dimly-lit Times Square parking lot, Robert Burck, a fair-haired man with bulging biceps and tired eyes, lounges in the driver’s seat of his pristine Cadillac Escalade. There, he remains incognito, clad in cargo shorts and a black t-shirt. Most don’t recognize him without his signature underwear and guitar strapped across his chest.

Burck — more commonly known as the Naked Cowboy — has always been one for showy displays of attention. Each morning, he drives the 20 minute commute from his motel in Secaucus, NJ, to the Icon parking lot in Times Square. By noon, he’s working the crowds, serenading tourists and posing in photos for thousands of passers-by wearing nothing but a hat, cowboy boots, briefs, and a strategically placed guitar.

Particularly prone to exaggeration and contradiction, Burck expresses an impatience for people and their faulty cameras; minutes later, he proclaims himself a “social genius.” After reading Tony Robbins’ Unlimited Power, he says, he grew obsessed with writing self-affirmations and personal goals. He reveals a stack of college-ruled papers, perhaps several hundred sheets thick, held together by a large binder clip. The papers are clearly worn: the edges fray and the dark circles and underlines on each page bleed together.

This summer, Burck’s manager sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Naked Indian, who recently started showing up in Times Square. Burck believes he is stealing his act.

The 41-year-old climbs out of his Escalade, takes off his t-shirt and shorts, and slithers into a pair of tighty-whities. They’re a boys’ size 12. “No undies when I’m not working,” he explains. A few swipes of deodorant and a quick guitar tune-up later, he swaggers out of the parking lot into more familiar territory, strumming a tune: I have tons of fun, just shaking my buns, all day long, out here in the sun. Within minutes, a crowd surges around him. Two girls giggle and point: “Oh my God, it’s that guy.” Another couple, struggling with a subway map: “This is so New York.”

Age: 41
Based in:
New York, NY; Secaucus, NJ
Grew up in: Cincinnati, Ohio
Graduated from: University of Cincinnati, Bachelor’s degree; Xavier University, incomplete Master’s degree
Previous jobs: Stripper; waiter at T.G.I. Friday’s; male model
Years in the business: About 13

Where did your identity as the Naked Cowboy originate? In 1998, I was in Venice Beach, California, shooting for Playgirl magazine. I took out my guitar, and the photographer suggested playing in my underwear. I made over $100 that day from tips. I did the same thing a few days later in Cincinnati, got arrested, and made the news. The next morning, I left town in my beat-up BMW and did the same thing driving across the country, getting arrested along the way. I finally landed in New York, and I’ve gotten better at not getting arrested.

How does one get better at not getting arrested? Don’t push the envelope, don’t be a jerk. For two years, before landing in Times Square, I would call the media and the police on myself.

Weather conditions that keep you inside: I don’t go out if it’s pouring rain, because people won’t interact with me. I stand outside during 90% of the winter and wear a full-length mink coat to warm up in between rounds. I don’t get sick; being sick is a state of mind.

A small opening in the top of the guitar collects cash. Burck also glued on a small mirror.

Source of income: I charge $1 for up to 100 photos with me, but most people stop at two. I probably make about $100 an hour, especially in the evenings. Then there’s the money from my three music albums [including an X-rated country album], my endorsement deal with Blue Island oysters, my merchandise, and the Naked Cowboy Bar and Grill that’s opening soon.

Ratio of adults to kids who approach you: Yesterday, I picked up at least 80 people off the ground, 60% of which were old people and grandmas. They’re not scared, because I’m strong as sh*t.

Your driving force: Reading and studying. I read six to seven hours a day, and have for 24 years. I read psychology, philosophy, Spanish. I want to be the smartest motherf*cker on the face of this Earth.

Currently reading: The Art of Seduction, for probably the third or fourth time. I’ve read Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power at least six or seven times. And Emerson’s essays, which are sitting at my hotel – I’ve read those about 100 times.

Your hotel? For the last 13 years, I’ve lived in the Royal Motel in Secaucus, New Jersey, right outside the city. It’s only $50 per night. My mailing address is still my mother’s in Cincinnati.

Burck keeps two pairs of boots in the trunk of his car at all times. He wears each pair for two or three weeks before selling them on his website.

Where do you keep your belongings? I have a suitcase in the backseat with all my underwear, my guitar, my boots, my hat, and a few other things. My hotel room has a spare guitar, my mink coat, and a suit and tie from my high school graduation. That’s all I need.

Brand of underwear: Fruit of the Loom, which is what my mother bought me when I first started. They come in packs of six, but I always keep a seventh just in case. I wear two pairs at a time: one painted with Naked Cowboy, and one unpainted. When they get old or stained, I sell them for $50 on NakedCowboy.com.

They look really tiny. They’re a size 12, which is meant for boys who are about 114 pounds. I weigh 200-something. I haven’t missed a day at the gym since I was 17 years old.

Do you stay this tan year-round? In the winter, I supplement a little bit. Right now, even with all the sun, I have a lighter spot on my leg where my guitar sits.

How do you unwind after a long day? I go to my hotel, have a glass of wine, and write in my journal for a few hours about how great I am, how my expectations are always fulfilled, how I’m a child prodigy.

Can you read me something you wrote recently? I am the most incredibly polished, spontaneous, talented, hilarious performer of all times. [I am] the most fabulously built, ripped, and determined body and mind ever created. […] [I am] an American icon, true badass, no-fear cowboy. The only Naked Cowboy.

That seems a bit arrogant. People don’t understand humility. It’s not about downplaying yourself.

Are you religious? I’m God Almighty. The God you worship is the God you are capable of becoming, in the words of Joseph Campbell. Do you know him? J.C., Jesus Christ.

Guitar go-tos: Mostly just sh*ts and giggles, except when I play full songs and pretend I don’t see people. My guitar is just an unlikely vehicle to get people’s attention. People even tell me I can’t sing very well.

Burck meticulously documents his meals, reading logs, and schedule into black marble notebooks. To date, he estimates he has filled about 400 journals over the past 13 years.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Standing in Times Square is hard work. If people come up to me with the wrong attitude, I double their wrong attitude, and they scurry off in fear. I don’t waste time with people who are wasting my time.

Best part of your job: Freedom.

Most challenging part of your job: Nobody’s camera is ready. Nobody knows how to shoot a picture. After a few hours, I’m kind of like, I’m never coming here again. When it’s raining, it feels like it’s never going to shine again.

Are you dating anyone? I have a girlfriend who I see once every few days. She works at the Cranberry Café, where I’ve eaten lunch every single day for the past 10 years. When my last relationship ended, I ended up with her, because she was the only girl I knew.

Do you walk naked into the café? I’ve been in many places naked, but I don’t do that anymore. I have a key to the executive bathroom here in the Icon parking lot, where I’ve parked for free for 10 years. These guys are the best.

You mention that you’re the only Naked Cowboy, but now it’s a franchise. That happened about two years ago. There are four Naked Cowboys, myself included, and four Naked Cowgirls, all part of Naked Cowboy Enterprises at different spots throughout Times Square. They just came out of the woodwork and approached me about it. The black Naked Cowboy was selling comedy tickets in Times Square.

You ran for mayor in 2009 and announced a run for the 2012 presidency as a Tea Party candidate. Those both fizzled. Any future plans to run for office? When they knock on my door and beg me to run because I’m the best man for the job.

Dream job as a kid: I wanted to be the most celebrated entertainer of all time. I did whatever I could to have all eyes on me. Everyone was always telling me what I couldn’t do.

The tattoo on Burck’s right arm depicts a devil, and the one his left depicts Jesus. “It shows I can be as evil or as good as I want,” he says.

Like getting that tattoo on your arm? When I was 16, I was on house arrest, so I got this tattoo of the devil’s head. It was the coolest picture I could get for $60. Later, I got Jesus on my other arm to balance it out.

How do you spend your time when you’re not reading or in Times Square? That’s really it. I can be the life of any party, but why spend all that enthusiasm on a few people in a room when I can spend it on thousands of people walking through Times Square?

Does your family visit you here? I send them envelopes filled with money every week. I stamp each dollar with my Naked Cowboy stamper and sign each dollar coin.

Do you want kids? Nope, not for as long as I live. And I don’t plan on dying. Ever.

Visit the No Joe Schmo Facebook page for more behind the scenes with the Naked Cowboy (and to find out how he signs his text messages).

Follow the Naked Cowboy on Twitter at @TheNakedCowboy and on his Facebook page. All photos courtesy of Megan Hess unless otherwise specified.

The Dirty Car Artist

Scott Wade was dubbed “Lord of the Dust” at an event in Istanbul, Turkey, and “the da Vinci of Dust” by the National Enquirer.

Like many others with families to support and mortgages to pay, Scott Wade works full-time in an office cubicle, glued to his computer screen for a majority of daylight hours.

But in his other life, cars are his art and dirt is his palette.

Wade began doodling in filthy car windows as a way to relieve the stresses of his 9-to-5 job as a graphical user interface designer. He discovered a new meaning of “screen time” — one that involved intricate designs on windshields and 10-foot-tall storefront windows. A hobby that began on small-town dirt roads in Texas evolved into the viral phenomenon of Dirty Car Art, bringing Wade to Lisbon, Istanbul, and London. But his toolkit remains simple: brushes and vegetable oil.

“[My artwork] challenges our perceptions of what’s beautiful,” Wade explains in earnest. “It takes what we think of as an eyesore, and flips that on its head.” But like sidewalk chalk art and sand sculptures at the beach, impermanence comes with the territory. His masterpieces only last until the next rain.

Age: 53
Graduated from: Texas State University, BFA in commercial art
In the business for: 9 years
Based in: Wimberley, Texas (about 30 minutes from Austin)
Previous jobs: Arts and crafts instructor; freelance designer; drummer

The dusty roads in Texas must make for ideal dirty car conditions. I used to live on a long dirt road, and the blend of limestone dust and gravel and clay resulted in a fine white dust that coated the rear window. My first 50 or 60 creations were on cars that got naturally dirty just from driving up and down that road, building up successive layers baked on by heat and humidity.

And now? I don’t live on that dirt road anymore, and I’m doing a lot more creations for events. So I had to figure out a way to make a car dirty that wasn’t. I ordered Fuller’s Earth substitute — the same thing that makes dust clouds in the movies — and made it stick to the windows with a thin coat of vegetable oil. But I still love working on real dirty cars; they look much more three-dimensional. I miss those old days.

Wade creates original drawings as well as representations of recognizable art, such as Girl with a Pearl Earring.

What sparked your realization that a dirty rear window makes the perfect canvas? If you’re a fairly curious person, you can’t resist playing on a dirty car window, even if it’s just a smiley face or a “wash me.” It’s an impermanent canvas, so you’re free to play with it.

It probably helped that you majored in art. I think I picked up drawing from my dad; he was a really good amateur cartoonist. Living on a mile and a half of dirt roads, we never washed our car, so I’d always doodle in the windows. Then, one day, I used my fingernail and a popsicle stick to do some cross-hatching. And then I went inside to get my brushes, and realized that I’d found a real medium.

Your toolkit: A chisel-point rubber paint shaper tool, which acts like a pencil; different-sized fan brushes; and large brushes for the background. I do lot of work in Adobe Photoshop to figure out my designs, but the dirt is forgiving.

Do you carry the brushes with you for unsuspecting dirty cars? Sometimes, actually. That would be a great candid camera TV show: I could hang out at movie theaters, and when a really dirty car pulls up, draw in their windows. Since they’re at a movie theater, you know they’ll be gone for at least an hour or so.

Your first drawing: A reproduction of the Mona Lisa with van Gogh’s Starry Night in the background. I sent it to some friends via email, and bloggers began linking to it. Then I got a call from the National Enquirer.

And then your work went viral. Did that surprise you? Who would have thought people like looking at dirty pictures on the Internet? [Laughs.] I did receive some serious flack for a portrait of my daughter, which looked like she was being abducted. It was supposed to be funny, but it turned out creepy.

Your dream dirt drawing: I want to do a portrait using someone’s cremated ashes on the windows of a hearse. It would be weird, but also compelling.


Best part of your job: Most artists are isolated in their studios, but I’m creating artwork while people look on and talk to me. It took awhile to get used to, but I really enjoy that aspect.

Most challenging part of your job: Dealing with the business side of things, which I think a lot of artists can relate to. The medium itself is also very challenging. Dirt is not uniform, and the results are never what I totally expect.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? A dirty car is typically an ugly thing. But when people see that dirt can be turned into beautiful art, it really challenges their perceptions.

Best reaction to telling a stranger about your line of work: I always get a cocked eyebrow. I can tell they’re thinking, Oh, it’s probably just some little doodles. Then I show my representation of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, and they’re totally floored.

Do you wear protective gear to avoid breathing in dirt and dust? I might wear a paper mask, depending on the wind’s direction. When drawing on storefront windows, I wear goggles and a respirator.

You mentioned the medium’s impermanence. How do you justify putting so much effort into something that the rain will wash off in seconds? It’s a lesson in letting go, in understanding that life is just a series of moments passing by. If you try to hang on to something, it causes grief and heartache. If you can just be happy you had the experience, it frees you up.

One of Wade’s most recent works: The Marx Brothers. His creations can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 hours.

Fee per job: I charge by the day, not by the car. My corporate rate is $3,500/day, especially overseas. My nonprofit rate ranges from $650/day to $1,200/day.

When you tell your daughter to clean her dirty room, does she argue it’s just “art”? I don’t think she’s ever used that argument, and I’m not going to mention it to her.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
There are a lot of people who have made careers out of doing something special in their medium, like Julian Beever’s 3D pavement drawings. Be unique in the way you do art: that’s what gets attention. This type of work can be very rewarding and enriching. Click here for a full gallery of Scott Wade’s work.

Impressed by dirty car art? For more artsy No Joe Schmos, meet the glassblower and the pop-up paper engineer. 

The SNL Cue Cards Guy

“When you’ve been holding up 22″ x 40″ cards for 22 years, you develop muscles,” says Wally Feresten. “But with that muscle comes ache.” Photo: steph-was-here.tumblr.com

Wally Feresten rolls over in bed around noon on Sunday, struggling to open his eyes. He’s had a long night; he didn’t get home until 5 a.m., and his entire upper body aches. He’ll have the next few days to recuperate, but on Thursday, it’s back to Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where he’s responsible for making sure all the actors and celebrities know exactly what to say come 11:30 p.m. EST on Saturday night.

Feresten started working as a cue cards guy on NBC’s Saturday Night Live more than 20 years ago, when he was almost fired for sloppy handwriting. But now he runs the show with precision and a sense of calm that is unusual for a job that requires rewriting cue cards for sketches just minutes before they air. Over the years, he has written episodes for a variety of sitcoms; but most of his writing still involves printing large letters exactly the right space apart on swaths of recycled cardstock, which he orders in batches of 10,000 and stashes beneath the bleachers in Studio 8H.

Sometimes, Feresten feels uncomfortable telling people what he does for a living. He explains that his company, NYC Q-Cards, handles all the cue card work on SNL and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, plus many other award shows, live specials, and commercials. Then he politely inquires about the professions of his new acquaintances. Oh, I’m an accountant, they’ll say. I can’t compete with that.

Age: 46
Graduated from: Syracuse University; studied television/radio/film and writing
In the business for: 22 years
Based in: New York City

Previous jobs: After graduation, I lived in Los Angeles for three years, writing scripts. I didn’t have much luck, so I moved to New York, where my brother had just started writing for the Late Show with David Letterman. He helped me get a job writing cue cards there.

Was handwriting a major factor in the hiring process? Actually, my handwriting was horrible. I had to do about half an hour of duping during my interview, which is the process of copying text from card to card. But [the job is] also a lot about getting along with everyone – you have to work long hours under stressful conditions. They liked my personality, and as for handwriting, said they’d seen worse.

Did your handwriting improve? During my first six weeks at SNL, my trainer Tony Mendez wouldn’t use any of my cards because they didn’t hold up to his standards. He was looking for an excuse to fire me. During one show, he threw me into a line of fire. For the first card, I had to stand on a ladder; for the second, lie on my stomach; for the third, get on my knees. I did it perfectly, which pretty much saved my job. Within three years, I was running the show at SNL.

Do you move around for a majority of the show? If the actors in a sketch are looking directly into the camera – say, for a press conference with Kofi Annan and President Obama – I’ll stand in place. For other sketches, I’m constantly adjusting my height so the actors can always see the cards. It’s like a choreographed dance.

Wally Feresten (R) with Keenan Thompson on the set of SNL.

Are you right-handed or left-handed? Right-handed, as most cue card people are. If you are left-handed, your left hand would typically smudge the printing on the card. But you have to be good with both arms. You’re holding one card steadily in the palm of one hand, and balancing the other 7 to 20 cards in your other palm. I’m pretty sore at the end of the day.

Do you have noticeable muscle strain? Over the past eight years, I’ve gone to physical therapy for tendonitis in my left elbow, right elbow, left shoulder, and right shoulder. But I’m feeling pretty good now, knock on wood.

The New Yorker called preparing and holding cue cards a “dying art,” and that was more than 10 years ago. I’m surprised the industry hasn’t digitized. Timing rules everything. If a computer goes down or gets unplugged during a live show, it’s a disaster. Producers won’t allow that.

To what extent do actors improvise during SNL? They can only improvise during rehearsal, not during the actual show. [Improvising] doesn’t make sense, anyway, since writers are rewriting up to the last minute.

Define “the last minute.” We’ll do rewrites until anywhere from 12 a.m. to 12:15 a.m., sometimes rewriting a sketch just a few minutes before it starts. [Editors’ note: SNL airs from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. EST].

That sounds very high-stress. How do you cope with the pressure? I love the adrenaline rush, and I don’t panic. I think that’s why they picked me to do the job 19 years ago.

You undoubtedly have front-row access to some of the most important moments in TV history. An especially memorable one was holding cards for Mayor Giuliani two weeks after September 11, with firemen standing behind me, when we were the first comedy show to come back on the air. It’s also pretty fun seeing pairs meet for the first time in the dressing rooms to discuss their monologues: Sarah Palin and Tina Fey, Jesse Eisenberg and Mark Zuckerberg.

I love the Mother’s Day episode when Will Ferrell hosted. He told you to lower the cards so he could talk to his mom on stage “unscripted.” Was that scripted? Yes. Adam McKay, who used to work for SNL and now writes and directs with Will Ferrell, wrote that. I get my best reviews for that performance.

 

Writing utensils: M99 markers, which are big, thick, silver pens that we unscrew and fill up with ink. The fumes are really bad for you, so we try not to inhale too much.

Best part of your job: Making friends with cast members and working with our celebrity hosts. After Paul Rudd hosted for the first time, I sent him his monologue cards, and he told me he has them hanging around his house. I’ll do that for young actors who haven’t hosted before and are really excited about it.

Most challenging part of your job: Getting through the day on Friday, when we start rehearsal at 1 p.m. and aren’t done until midnight or 1 a.m. It can be tough to stay focused, especially when it takes two hours to block one sketch.

Walk me through your week. I don’t work Sundays through Wednesdays. Thursdays are light days; we rehearse three or four sketches and are out by 5 p.m. They don’t want to scare the host too much. Fridays are long and hard. Saturdays we rehearse all day, do two shows, and then party.

Do you usually attend the SNL after-parties? Yes. You get such an adrenaline rush from the live shows, that even when I just go home, I can’t fall asleep until 5 a.m. Lots of alcohol helps you relax. Then, on Sundays, I’m a mess. I get home really late, which is tough on my wife and two sons, who are 12 and 10. They let me sleep until noon.

Feresten’s company, NYC Q-Cards, also works on the set of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Photo: sheknows.com

Do you foresee a future in comedy for your kids? I wrote some stand-up for my older son, who performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and he totally killed.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? The number of people who still ask whether SNL is a live show.

Best reaction to telling a stranger about your line of work: It kind of halts the conversation. Sometimes, I’ll go through my spiel about meeting celebrities, and the other guy will be like, Oh, I’m an accountant.

Most important lesson learned: The rewrite process is the most important part of writing comedy. That’s sometimes the hardest thing for a writer, since you might not want to mess with your work.

Do you consider yourself a funny guy? I do. [Laughs.] Growing up, we listened to a lot of George Carlin albums, and I always want to be a comedian.

Any summer plans while SNL is on hiatus? [NYC Q-Cards] is doing three shows at the same time: Ink Master, a tattoo reality show on Spike TV; Project Runway on Lifetime; and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on NBC.

Salary per show: For most New York shows, I normally charge $500 for an eight-hour day. SNL is a different beast, though. And the cards cost about $1,700 for a 10,000-card order.

I read that your legal name is Chris Feresten. What’s that about? My brother nicknamed me Wally when we were kids, and it kind of stuck.


LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Practice your printing – that’s copying from script to cue cards. Meet people doing cue card work and have them show you how to hold the cards; you need someone with connections to vouch for you.

Meet more No Joe Schmos who wield pens as swords: the fountain pen doctor, the tattoo artist, and the CollegeHumor.com editor.