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Memphis Flyer The Santa Claus Professional

Mall Santas aren't born. They're made.

By Jacqueline Marino

JANUARY 5, 1998:  I never believed Santa Claus was responsible for Christmas. I figured Mrs. Claus directed the North Pole operation whenever Mr. Claus was away. And during the busiest time of the year, Mr. Claus was always at the mall.

Twenty years later, Santa still spends the bulk of the holiday shopping season at the mall in front of a Polaroid camera, taking requests for Barbie dolls and Mr. Potato Heads while excited parents do embarrassing things to make their children smile.

When I visited Santa this year, however, I noticed something about him had changed. He seemed jollier, rounder, and more well-mannered than I remembered. It was as if he had stepped out of the Thomas Nast cartoons that created him – or rather the grandfatherly, red-suited image of him portrayed on the Christmas cards we send, the holiday commercials we watch, and the wrapping paper we buy. He’d become a savvy, sophisticated Santa, from his rosy cheeks down to his shiny, black boots.

Wearing an impeccable, fur-trimmed suit and gold-rimmed glasses perched close to the tip of his nose, this Santa-for-Six-Weeks, Kenny Kelly Sr., spends 10 hours a day on a cushiony green chair at the Mall of Memphis play court, which has been decorated to look like “Santa’s workshop” and filled with faux evergreens, oversized presents, and mechanized mice with paintbrushes.

For the last four years, Kelly’s been telling children, “When you live at the North Pole, it takes all the color out of your hair.” But the truth is, he works at it.

Schooling Santas has become a booming business for companies across the country that specialize in turning average guys into super-Santas. There’s no such thing as a natural Santa these days. Santas must be made.

One of the companies that makes them is St. Louis-based Santa Plus, which supplied more than 300 shopping malls with professional Santas this year. Robert Riggs, the company’s president, says men who want to be jolly ol’ Saint Nick these days must “identify with the character” of Santa Claus. Voice training, questioning skills, and background checks are also required.

“The focus is on the voice. It must be soft and gentle enough not to frighten children,” Riggs says. “The eyes have to reinforce what the voice is saying. The eyes have to twinkle.”

Some services actually have “Santa schools,” where trainees learn important things every Santa ought to know, such as the names of the reindeer and how to pick up children without straining your back muscles. Instructors from Santa Plus spend between eight to 10 hours with Santas-in-training. Most Santas earn between $7 and $9 an hour, although naturally bearded ones like Kelly can earn more money.

For six weeks out of the year, Kelly grows a beard several inches past his chin and dyes his hair white (this year it took him five bleach jobs to get the color right). He’s learned to laugh so his generous middle shakes with every resounding “ho ho ho.” He also does other things to prepare for Christmas.

“I eat a lot,” says Kelly, who doesn’t have to bother with any of the extra padding required for less portly Santas.

Kelly watches television commercials for toy ads and keeps up with the latest children’s shows. He can make conversation about Barbie, Nintendo, and Power Rangers with children of any age. Whenever he has to leave his post, he tells children it’s time to “feed the reindeer.”

Despite the efforts of her mother, one 18-month-old girl refuses to sit on Santa’s lap. As Kelly cooes and cajoles her, she screams louder.

“I love you. You love me,” Kelly starts singing like the purple dinosaur Barney.

The child calms down for an instant, then bursts into sobs again.

You need to be patient, Kelly explains. That goes for the screamers as well as the disbelievers. Santa needs to be able to deliver quick comebacks to the direct, and sometimes stumping, questions that come from the mouths of babes.

“Are you real?” is one that he says he’s heard frequently over the last four years.

If the questioning child’s eyes do not gloss over with wonder after Kelly offers his beard for a tug, he responds by saying, “I’m as real as I could be.”

Kelly certainly looks real, much more real than the Santa I remember. Even the mall’s marketing manager, Kathy Jowers, seems to revel in a playful, but willing, suspension of disbelief. She approved Kelly’s hiring, but didn’t bother to learn his real name.


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