In his hometown of Sterling, to his 6-year-old granddaughter and the children who share with him their most heartfelt desires at Park Meadows shopping center, Larry Propp has but one name: Santa.
To the 60 Santas who work for him, he’s the boss.
With his seven years of mall experience, naturally white beard and a love of children that inspires their confidence, Propp is a considered a premier Santa. Four other Santas work as his backups.
While he won’t reveal his specific compensation, the typical Santa contract for six weeks of work at a peak venue like Park Meadows includes a $10,000 to $15,000 salary, lodging, a meal package and often, car rental and airfare.
“We pay a lot for our Santas,” said Pamela Schenck-Kelly, Park Meadows’ manager. “But you can tell the difference between someone who loves what they do and someone who doesn’t. We bring the best Santa we can possibly bring.”
In addition to working one of the most coveted venues in the industry, Propp runs a Santa agency. He selects, trains and helps place Santas in malls and other venues nationwide. Instruction and administration comes naturally to Propp, who retired 10 years ago from a career as a community college administrator.
The Santa industry is competitive, and Propp is highly selective about who’s allowed to join his agency.
“You have to be a natural-bearded Santa,” he said.
Hair color doesn’t matter; any beard can be made white, he said. But thickness does. Propp wants to see a full, round beard that covers the skin under the mouth — an area in which some men have trouble growing hair — and a generous mustache. Eyes are preferably blue, and while even Propp pads his figure for the holidays, a good Santa has a solid build.
The other qualities are harder to put into words.
“I’m really looking for a personality, a sense of humor, someone who’s fun to be around,” Propp said. “A jolly guy is what I’m looking for.”
All Santas also must undergo a federal background check and drug test.
Those who make the cut receive a Santa manual, instructional DVDs and personal training from Propp that includes suggestions on packing for the road, hair preparation and posing for pictures.
The most important bit of advice? “Do not break character,” Propp said. “You are Santa.”
He shares with them knowledge gleaned over the years, including the proper approach to take with children of varying ages.
Children between the ages of 1 and 2 are the most challenging, he said.
“Once they get to 2, about two-and-a-half, they will just accept you for who you are and usually will have a very long wish list,” Propp said. “That goes good until about 7 or 8; then they start shying away. When they’re in high school, the girls will start wandering back in. At that time, their wish list is, ‘I want Justin Bieber,’ or perfume.”
Like many businesses that involve customer service, Propp is always in the market for bilingual employees.
“There’s a shortage of Santas,” he said. “If I had a Santa today that spoke Spanish, he’d have a job tomorrow.”