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Santa for a Living

Ottertail's Patrick Kilby as Santa.

As if shimmying down chimneys, carting around a bulging bag of toys all night, and dealing with the antics of unruly reindeer weren't enough, being Santa these days has also turned into quite the competitive venture.

So competitive, in fact, that Ottertail's Patrick Kilby has hired a professional "Santa talent agent" to help his Santa adventure take flight.

"It's kind of like a movie star," explains Kilby's wife, Karen. "People go out and bid for jobs."

Karen says that her husband's talent agent is responsible for submitting pictures to various malls, and then the malls choose their Santa for the year based on the pictures they receive. This year, for the first time, Kilby got a contract with a company that placed him in a Florida shopping mall in Pembrook Pines, near Miami.

Being selected for the month-and-a-half long Santa stint is no small accomplishment, especially considering the amount of competition that's out there. To kick-off the Christmas season, a party for Minnesota Santas was hosted this year at the Mall of America.

An astonishing turnout of over 120 Santas made the Mall of America party an event to remember. "The kids were just amazed that there were so many Santas there," recalls Karen Kilby.

From Ottertail to Florida, Patrick Kilby's Santa journey has been fueled by a desire to help share the joy of Christmas with both youngsters and their parents. Kilby has been playing Santa for about six years, initially just for family and friends around the East Otter Tail area.

In fact, not only is he donning the suit and classic red hat, but he's also started investing himself into making the types of traditional toys kids can enjoy. When it's not Santa season, Patrick and Karen Kilby are the jolly owners of Sugar Creek Woodworking, on Middle Leaf Lake between Ottertail and Henning.

This year the Kilbys created a new "Santa Select" line of natural wood toys. Kilby engraves letters and numbers on wooden blocks, and has also started making some wagons. Until Christmas Eve, though, the elves are in charge of the shop while he is ho-ho-hoing for ten hours a day, seven days a week on the Santa throne in the rotunda of the Pembrook Lakes Mall.

"By the time he's done, he's done," Karen says of the long days her husband puts in from mid-November all the way through Christmas Eve. However, even with the long hours, Karen says they love the opportunity the Santa gig provides to travel and meet new people.

Although she hasn't done it yet, Karen is ready to get into holiday dress and join her husband at the mall. "I've got the costume, and I'm willing," says Karen, eager for a chance to debut her Mrs. Claus character.

Always eager to hear about her husband's experiences with the kids, Karen is up-to-date on some of the most popular requests to Santa this year. "For the most part, the kids are asking for phones, iPods, and computers," she says, noting that not all the requests are related to modern, technological devices. "Some of the kids still want Barbies and bicycles."

Sometimes the requests are a little more unusual, even heart-wrenching. Karen says kids have come to Santa simply asking for their family to be nice. Then there are the kids who want a horse or dog, gifts that require Santa to look at the parents' telling eyes to see if the present should be encouraged or not. But, most of all, the kids are just happy to see their favorite man in red and have a chance to sit on his lap.

The story of Santa's white beard

Patrick Kilby says he already has the "cookie zone" to fill out his Santa Claus suit, but he called Minnesota State Community and Technical College when he needed help turning his beard as white as the snow.

One of the challenges faced by dark-haired Santas--besides fitting all those toys in a sleigh and flying around the world in a single night--is that it's not easy turning brown hair to white.

"I usually have a hard time finding someone to dye out my hair and beard," said Kilby, who this year called Bobbie Salo, an instructor in the cosmetology program at M State - Wadena, because he thought a vocational program would be up-to-date on hair-coloring techniques. He entered the school in October as the brown-haired owner of a cabinetry company and, after a second touch-up visit in mid-November, emerged as the world's most famous elf.

"Bobbie took it on, and the students did the work," Kilby said. "She told me, 'No problem,' and it wasn't. They did a highly, highly professional job for me, and the students were fabulous. It was a lot of fun."

Kilby was one of three local Santas that the cosmetology students primped this year. Because of its coarse texture, Salo said, dying beards is a time-consuming process that few commercials salons want to take on. Kilby spent about seven hours with the cosmetology students for his initial dye job.

"It was fun for the students doing it, and fun for everyone else to watch," Salo said. "By the time we were done with him, he looked like ... Santa."

"It's hard work, but it's a lot of fun when you see the faces of the people who truly believe you're Santa," Kilby said. "I get a lot of people who can't believe my beard is real. They tug on it ... even the adults do. They pull on my beard and say," 'Real Santa?' And I say, 'Yes, I am.'"

Kilby plans to come back to M State before his 2010 holiday engagement, and he's going to tout the college's services to his fellow Santas at next year's annual meeting of the Minnesota Santas Club. Word has it that many Midwestern Santas currently travel each fall to a salon in Atlanta, but Salo says they'll be welcome in Wadena. It is, after all, quite a bit closer to the North Pole.

(Information for this article was provided by Minnesota State Community and Technical College.)