Film highlights North Pole Santa letters program

Posted: Tuesday, December 22, 2009

FAIRBANKS - As a student at North Pole Middle School, Kaleb Yates answered letters to Santa Claus as have thousands of other middle school students in the Christmas-themed town since the 1980s.

What makes Yates different is the experience inspired him to make a documentary film "Letters to Santa."

The film will be broadcast on KUAC Alaska One at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve and 9:30 p.m. on Christmas Day.

University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism Professor Robert Prince said the film is the first by a student of his to be aired on public television in Alaska.

Alaska One producer Aaron Elterman said the film is unusually good for an amateur filmmaker.

"Kaleb kind of hounded me at first," Elterman said. "He dropped it off. He kept asking me had I seen it yet? Finally, when I did pop it in, I just felt like, yeah, this is definitely something we should have on the air. It didn't hurt that I grew up in North Pole and I answered these letters. He did a really good job of telling this story."

KUAC describes the film as a "light-hearted, inspirational look at the people who keep the spirit of Christmas alive by writing back to those who have written letters to Santa Claus."

The film features interviews with Jackie Fischer, Yates' mom; Gabby Gaborik of Santa's Mailbag and postal worker Donna Mathews.

Inspiration for the film came from a letter brought home by Yates' sister, Sadie, who also answered Santa Claus letters in middle school.

An elderly woman from Chicago, in debt and depressed, had written Santa asking for dental work and an eye exam. Yates said his mother, Jackie Fischer, called various media outlets in the Windy City, setting into motion an effort to get the womans medical needs met.

"What I found out is there are a ton of stories like my mom's," Yates said. "Through doing this film, I really learned a lot about the town that I grew up in. Many people are impacted by this program. I really saw North Pole in a new light."

Yates is the oldest of four children. He was born in California and moved to Alaska at the age of 6. At age 10, his family moved to North Pole. Yates' father worked at one of the refineries and his mother was a saleswoman at a music store.

After graduating from North Pole High School, Yates moved to Los Angeles and Maui, returning every so often to his home state.

In L.A., Yates worked as an extra in film and television, including on "That '70s Show" and "MADtv."

He was a sailor in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," he said.

Yates also worked as a stunt man for a beer commercial. "I ran from a herd of live buffalo," he said. "I almost died."

Working in Hollywood convinced Yates he'd rather work behind the camera than in front of it.

"If you're just an actor, you are somebody else's puppet," he said. "I don't want to be a puppet. I want to be the puppetmaster."

When Yates decided to make a film about letters to Santa, his only knowledge about filmmaking came from his Hollywood experiences.

"I didn't know how to use a camera," he said. "I didn't know how to edit film."

The film, a class project, took two years to complete.

"He sort of went beyond what the requirements of the class were," Prince said.

Prince was skeptical of his student's idea at first, he said.

"I didn't really understand the magnitude of the letters to Santa program," Prince said. "I thought it might be kind of hard to do a story. Once he came back with interviews and I got a sense that this is an international story, then I got really excited. Excited slash jealous because I thought he had come across a nearly universal story."

KUAC broadcast the film a couple of weeks after the U.S. Postal Service sparked a controversy by announcing it would stop releasing Santa Claus's letters - about 150,000 per year are sent to the North Pole Post Office - for security reasons.

The postal service reversed its decision following public outcry, but the future of the program seems uncertain.

North Pole Mayor Doug Isaacson said he plans to send a copy of Yates' film to the U.S. Postmaster General.

The Santa Claus House in North Pole will have the film for sale in the coming weeks.

"If my project helps save Christmas, it would make all of those nights in editing rooms worthwhile," Yates said. "Plus that would be a cool thing to put on a resume."

Yates' next film project is about people who build their own homes.

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