Dallas Morning News Article

Business: Columnist Cheryl Hall

He's built his business on characters

Need a Santa, or maybe an Elvis? Talent shop owner can hook you up


By CHERYL HALL / The Dallas Morning News

When Santa Claus comes to town, Richard Pollak provides the map. He also knows when to send in the clowns and what time Elvis needs to leave the building.

The 49-year-old owner of Rainbow Entertainment is a one-man talent shop that books 1,200 independent performers for every imaginable gig.

A goofy shopper dressed like Cher for a Saks Fifth Avenue store opening?

A silver-painted lady who stands statue-still for the State Fair of Texas?

Six country bands for a cattle drive in the West End?

No problem.

He's got Fat Elvis, Young Elvis and Hispanic Elvis. He hasn't discovered Black Elvis yet, but Mr. Pollak is sure there's one out there somewhere.

These days, Mr. Pollak is deploying a dozen Santas, six elves on stilts and a legion of holiday-clad clowns to parties and events throughout North Texas.

Ironically, one of his white-bearded-and-paunchy crew had to go on a diet to wedge into his Santa suit.

Among his most popular is Saxophone Santa, who plays Christmas tunes in addition to doling out lap time.

"All my Santas are either professional clowns or schoolteachers who work with children year-round," Mr. Pollak says, acknowledging that he's careful about who he puts in contact with kids. "They're not just fat guys with white beards."

These are spiritual clones of the real guy at the North Pole, he insists.

One St. Nick will listen to wish lists at the downtown Neiman Marcus, beginning Sunday through Dec. 24. And as you might expect, playing Santa at Neiman's is no ordinary sit-down job.

He'll cruise into valet parking, provide a lap of luxury in his designer mink suit, listen to wishes in an enchanted forest and get paid $4,000 for the one-month season.

The oddest Claus caper Mr. Pollak ever arranged was in 1993 at a Mesquite funeral parlor, which invited folks into its chapel to meet the big man in red. A quirky but neighborly idea, Mr. Pollak thought. So he equipped Mrs. Claus to take 600 souvenir Polaroid photos during the two-hour event.

Afterward, Mr. Pollak had 588 exposures left.

"That's how I got into 'Have your picture taken with Elvis' and 'Have your picture taken with a Las Vegas show girl' at casino parties," Mr. Pollak laughs. "I had to get rid of all that film."

Rent a reindeer

This year, Rainbow Entertainment's holiday entourage includes a team (eight and a spare) of live, 5-foot-tall yearling reindeer replete with 3-foot antler extensions. In the off months, these Blitzens and Vixens live on a Weatherford ranch.

"That's what I want to do in my next life," says Mr. Pollak. "Earn $350 an hour [per reindeer] for four weeks and then spend 11 months doing nothing but eat."

After a year, though, they grow to 3,500 pounds and are sent into retirement at Arbuckle Wilderness, a drive-through exotic animal and nature park in Oklahoma.

Mr. Pollak, unmistakable in his neon Rainbow Entertainment shirt, has enjoyed several lives himself. He's no shrinking violet.

He came to Dallas 21 years ago as regional marketing manager of Burger King and helped implement the famous "Battle of the Burgers" ad campaign, which achieved 12 straight quarters of higher sales.

Looking for an encore, he gave up burgers and fries in 1985 to book stand-up comics for St. Louis-based Funnybone, which was opening a club here.

"We were like the McDonald's of comedy," Mr. Pollak recalls. "Our comedians had to work two weeks straight at each of our 18 clubs."

This was before television really targeted comedians for sitcoms, he says, and many high-voltage comics started in small venues like his - Roseanne Barr, Jeff Foxworthy and David Spade, to name three.

"They all used to get $1,500 a week from me and [were] very happy to get that," he says.

In 1988, when competition and TV dealt a deathblow to Funnybone, Mr. Pollak created his own comedy circuit at Holiday Inns.

"The towns kept getting smaller and smaller," says Mr. Pollak, who operates out of his house in Far North Dallas. "We started out playing Saturday nights in Tulsa. A year later, it was Tuesday nights in Enid, Okla. And I had to sit home and hope the guy who ran the Holiday Inn in Enid would mail me a check."

As his comedy business waned, Mr. Pollak got a call out of nowhere asking him to provide entertainment for a children's festival benefiting the Family Place.

He didn't have kids and had never booked a children's act. Undaunted, he turned to the Yellow Pages, filled five stages for three full days and became one of the largest children's entertainment agents in Dallas overnight.

Business improves

Today no event is too large, or small, to garner his attention.

His wife, Marsha Pollak, keeps him on the straight and narrow. "If your wife's an accountant, you don't spend a dollar until you make a dollar," he says.

When Mr. Pollak considered giving up the lower-end clown trade, she pointed out that he earned $2,500 last year by booking 100 clown hours over the telephone. That paid for their vacation to Hawaii.

Looked at that way, he kinda likes those rubber-nosed fools.

And compared to some of the higher-paid "stars" he's endured, funny folks with big feet are considerably more enjoyable.

When Joan Rivers (whom he booked for a local Jewish charity event) stormed off her plane screaming obscenities about getting to her limousine, Mr. Pollak knew he was in for a long, bumpy ride.

His company will bill $550,000 in entertainment this year. Mr. Pollak, who gets 5 to 25 percent of that, will pocket $140,000. That's up sharply from his $103,000 take last year, when 25 percent of his corporate clients canceled celebrations after 9-11. They're back in force this year.

Event planner Marsha Singer wants Santa and his reindeer for Holiday Magic in the West End on Dec. 7 after the downtown parade. She doesn't know just how many antlers she can hire yet, but she knows Mr. Pollak will work within her client's budget.

"I can say, 'Richard, I have this much money,' and he'll get me what I need."

In April, she needed a circus - big-top tent, performers and animals, right down to the cotton candy. Mr. Pollak found one through a festival trade show in Houston.

Errol McKoy, president of the State Fair of Texas, says Mr. Pollak is his go-to guy for local talent of the strange and eclectic ilk.

"Everything I ask for is kinda screwball," Mr. McKoy says. "I don't know how he does it, but he's able to ferret out these people."

For this year's fair, he needed a talking robot, a midway barker, a band of belly dancers and crowd-friendly horses for the nightly parade.

"I had to find the best-trained horses in town," says Mr. Pollak, who actually found his equestrian ensemble in Cowtown, not Big D. "They performed at the Fort Worth Stock Show in pitch darkness in an arena with fireworks. I figured those horses must be deaf, dumb and blind and willing to go where they're told to go."

Going the distance

He often hires unemployed actors, who are usually offended at first. "They say, 'No way. I'm a performer.' But when I say $200 a day for 29 days, they go, 'I'm in,' " he chuckles. "You don't have to put State Fair of Texas on your résumé. You just have to deposit the money in your bank."

Last year, Megan Wright, a tax accountant at Lennox Industries Inc., needed to put together an executive go-cart race to kick off the company's United Way campaign. Mr. Pollak contracted for six race cars, which executives put into high gear around a lake at the Richardson headquarters.

The event was such a hit that Ms. Wright recently arranged an expanded version, pitting employees against execs.

Rainbow Entertainment's business is fairly evenly split among family celebrations, city-sponsored festivals, corporate events, conventions and holidays. About 90 percent of its business is local.

But Mr. Pollak doesn't know exactly how to classify a recent job that came his way through an international tourism organization.

He booked 40 Cossack dancers from Russia to sit-kick for a month early next year at an international shopping festival in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

He didn't know any Cossacks, but he certainly wasn't going to let a $30,000 fee slip away. He tracked them down and made the arrangements without ever leaving his desk thanks to the Internet.

Now Mr. Pollak only hopes his check is in the mail.

Pleased with his punctual turnaround, the government-sponsored group in Dubai is now talking about signing a big-name recording star for the 2004 festival.

That, he says, probably isn't going to happen but not because he won't give it a shot. "I think they're thinking $250,000, not the $2 million it would take."

Once the holidays are over, most of his Santas will become clowns again, with Mr. Pollak busily booking them for kids' parties.

His Elvis impersonators will croon at corporate gigs. People arranging Easter events will start calling for petting zoos.

"The only ones who'll get to kick back and relax," he says cheerily, "will be the reindeer."

Cheryl Hall

Cheryl Hall
Cheryl Hall is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News.

Richard Pollak with Elvis impersonator, clown and Santa in background