Victoria Runyan, 5, of Talent sits with Santa (Don Schmidt) at the Rogue Valley Mall Saturday. Schmidt was hired by Cherry Hill Photo, which provides Santa representatives to shopping centers and department stores around the country. - Jamie Lusch

Have Whiskers, will Travel

Yes, Virginia, the beard on Santa Claus at the Rogue Valley Mall is real.

Cherry Hill Photo, the company that hired him, prides itself on sending only naturally-bearded Santas to shopping centers and department stores throughout the U.S. and Canada to act as representatives on the jolly old elf's behalf.

But bushy whiskers alone weren't enough to land Don Schmidt of Neenah, Wisc., a job with this New Jersey-based holiday photo business.

"We look for a congenial Santa with a twinkle in his eye. He must have stamina, patience and love the spirit of Christmas," says Bonnie Fluck, the company's media relations representative.

Schmidt began spreading Christmas cheer at the mall on Saturday. He will be there through Christmas Eve. This is his 16th year of being Santa.

"I love bringing joy to the kids," he says. "There is no greater thrill than seeing the look of amazement on their faces."

Founded in 1961, Cherry Hill Photo currently employs about 1,000 highly photogenic Santas.

"Most of our Santas are hired by referrals, but we sometimes go through churches, clubs and organizations," Fluck says. "Sometimes it is necessary to put an ad in the newspaper or go through an employment agency."

Santas receive extensive training before the company permits them to go forth and be mirthful.

"We actually run a Santa Claus University, where they learn the importance of being Santa," says Fluck, adding that the curriculum includes everything from makeup techniques to Santa do's and don'ts.

"They even learn the names of the reindeer," Fluck notes.

This marks the first year that the mall has contracted with Cherry Hill Photo.

Though the facial hair may have been lacking on Santas sent by other companies, Mr. Claus has always brought an excellent work ethic, says Kelly Pegoda, the Ashland resident who has been running the mall's Santa booth for six years.

"He works from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. straight through the season, seven days a week. If he catches a cold, he just drinks his water, takes his medicine and keeps going 'Ho, ho, ho,' " Pegoda says.

Despite the demands of the job, burnout doesn't seem to be a problem.

"We have many longtime Santas," Fluck reports. "Many have been working for us for over 15 years. Over 70 percent of our Santas return from year to year."

Exactly how much Santa makes was not revealed. But he can earn thousands of dollars lending a patient ear to children as they tell him their wishes and pose with him for photographs day after day for four and a half weeks. Santa must cover the cost of housing, usually a hotel room with a kitchenette, while he's in town, however. The company provides his red suit, black boots and makeup.

"If his beard isn't white enough, he'll have to go to the salon to get it bleached," Pegoda says. That money would come out of his own pocket.

As for Schmidt's beard, it's not something he shaves as soon as the Christmas lights have been turned off and the tree taken down.

"I do trim it every January, but I grow it throughout the year," he says.

Cherry Hill Photo also provides representatives of the Easter Bunny to hundreds of malls. If you're thinking of applying for the job, take comfort in knowing that your tail need not be real.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at

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