By 1900 many department stores across America featured a live Santa Claus during the holiday season. Children typically sat on his lap and whispered their Christmas wishes into his ear. The Omaha Daily News on December 18, 1909, published an interview with an Omaha man, Gust Schommer, “who plays Saint Nick at the Brandeis stores.”
Schommer was presented by the News as a “professional Santa Claus of international experience,” who for sixteen years had played the role in Omaha and Paris. “Short in stature and endowed with a ‘bay window’ of splendid proportions, Mr. Schommer is a replica of the storybook Santa Claus. His gruff, yet kindly voice, chubby, rosy cheeks and twinkling brown eyes complete the popular image of Santa Claus. . . .
“Three weeks of every year are spent by Mr. Schommer in being Santa Claus. He began his impersonation sixteen years ago for J. L. Brandeis & Sons. He missed only one Christmas season in that time, and that was being San Nicola to the Parisian children. At Paris he played the French Santa Claus at the Bon Marche store in 1903.
“‘I’m one Santa Claus who is up to date,’ says Mr. Schommer. ‘First I came on a jackass; the next year on a white horse; then in an automobile, and then in an airship.’ This year Santa Claus rides an airship, but also has his team of trusty reindeer hitched outside his cottage in the Brandeis stores, ready for service in case the airship breaks down.
“‘When I get on my Santa Claus clothes and whiskers, I forget myself and feel I am Santa Claus,’ says Mr. Schommer. He is enthusiastic over his holiday work, enjoying every minute among the children as Santa Claus. For each child he has some expression to increase their faith in Santa Claus, and also a present.
“When not playing Santa Claus, Mr. Schommer is a regular employee at the Brandeis stores. He is a native of Luxemburg, and is quite a linguist, speaking German, French and Swedish of the foreign languages.”