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culture

Get to Know a Toronto Mall Santa

We sit down with Bob King, resident Santa Claus and possessor of a real and glorious beard, at Sherway Gardens shopping centre.

Photo of Bob King courtesy of Sherway Gardens shopping centre.

At the Sherway Gardens North Pole, it’s a balmy room temperature with winds gustless at zero miles per hour. A layer of tulle snow lines the just-mopped morning floor, and clusters of plastic evergreens twinkle under a heavy dusting of glitter. It’s in this plastic-and-mesh wonderland that Bob King, a veteran Saint Nick with almost three decades on the mall-Santa circuit, spends the six weeks before Christmas trying to make kids happy. And while he inevitably makes some of them very, very upset, King has a straightforward strategy for dealing with the criers.

“I laugh. Mock them,” he says. “I have fun with it, ’cause the parents are laughing themselves.”

Although King has been buckling up the big red suit for 29 years, his Christmas responsibilities have become more varied and involved since he began performing his ‘Santa Experience’ at Sherway eight years ago. Rather than just plopping the kids on his lap and smiling for the camera, King puts on an interactive event that’s been touted as the city’s best take on Saint Nick. For $12, children are regaled with half an hour of Santa theatrics, and then given a chance to sit on his lap and make their demands. “Let’s face it—all other Santas suck compared to this Santa,” proclaimed an article in The Globe and Mail last December—a review that gained King some guff from his fellow Kris Kringles.

“They rode me about that one,” King says, acknowledging that there was some friendly rivalry among the other Father Christmases last year.

It’s the variety that distinguishes King’s routine from that of your basic sit-on-the-knee Santa. His show involves magic tricks, story time, a mimed snowball fight, and lots of rolling around. In fact, it’s the physicality—rather than the screaming toddlers—that King identifies as the most exhausting part of his job.

“I do somersaults, and when I come out, my head’s flying back and my hat’s flying off,” he explains, though he says his padded Santa suit does offer some protection. Under the red fuzzy ensemble, King wears two pairs of track pants, two sweatshirts, a dress shirt, and two fake bellies—one in the front and one in the back.

This may seem like a lot, but King feels the layers are necessary to get his look just right. While he’s young enough to do flips, he’s not quite old enough to pass for Mr. Claus up close: King’s got an honest-to-goodness, sprouting-from-his-own-follicles white beard, but he still looks youthful around the eyes, and his natural voice is more bachelor than grandpa. Still, he looks closer to the iconic Santa than he did three decades ago, when a buddy in the house-painting business recommended him for the role. He was 23 years old—not exactly the “Night Before Christmas” ideal.

“My first thought was, ‘My voice doesn’t sound like Santa,’” King says about that initial year. “So I changed my voice. I used to watch a lot of Second City, and Dave Thomas used to do Walter Cronkite. I thought, ‘Oh, Walter Cronkite playing Santa Claus—that’s the voice.’”

Although he initially had no acting experience, his time in the Santa seat inspired King to work his way through all the levels of the Second City Conservatory Program in Toronto. The improvisation skills still come in handy—for example, when kids ask for iPads, the most popular item on their wish lists this year.

“All I can say is, ‘Oh, you know, my elves are having a tough time getting into the factory over at the Apple store. They don’t want to let us in…high security. We really don’t know how to build those things!’ And the parents are laughing, because they’re going, ‘Yeah, we’re not buying the kids that.’”

For the most part, King downplays any suggestion of out-of-control children. While he concedes the little ones sometimes “charge the chair,” he says it’s usually pretty easy to keep them under control—though there can be the odd naughty-lister. “One time I was reading a story, and a kid was sitting back there,” King remembers, gesturing to the back of the seating area, “Then he just walked up, smacked a little girl on the head, and walked back. I stopped the story, and I gave the kid shit.”

Having completed his run of performances on December 22, King has now hung up his hat for the season—which means his Santa celebrity will be on hiatus until next year.

“Walking through the mall, everybody loves you,” he says when asked what he enjoys most about his job, “There’s nobody who doesn’t want to go, ‘Hey Santa!’ And then usually after the season, I shave my head, and I dye my beard dark. Then I walk through here, and nobody even gives me a second look.”

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