Khloe Gregory, 4, reacts with excitement with her parents, Matt Gregory and Khrysha Liska, while talking with Santa, 74-year-old Tom LaBelle, in the Everett Mall on Monday, Nov. 28. LaBelle began wearing the suit after his wife suggested he try it out. He’s now a regular each year as a mall Santa and has an entire collection of answers about Santa’s duties for his most inquisitive visitors. (Daniella Beccaria / The Herald)

Khloe Gregory, 4, reacts with excitement with her parents, Matt Gregory and Khrysha Liska, while talking with Santa, 74-year-old Tom LaBelle, in the Everett Mall on Monday, Nov. 28. LaBelle began wearing the suit after his wife suggested he try it out. He’s now a regular each year as a mall Santa and has an entire collection of answers about Santa’s duties for his most inquisitive visitors. (Daniella Beccaria / The Herald)

A day in the life of a shopping-mall Santa Claus

He gets paid to sit on his buns and chuckle all day.

What’s up with that?

’Tis the life of a mall Santa.

And, well, it’s a lot harder than you think.

For Tom “Santa Tom” LaBelle, 74, it all started with advice from the Mrs.

“My wife said I was getting portly,” LaBelle said. “She said, ‘You know, if you let your hair and beard grow, you’d look like Santa.’ I said, ‘Oh, come on…’ Sure enough, I looked like Santa. And that was 12 years ago.”

This guy has the gig down pat.

The thick white beard is real (I pulled it). The long silky hair is real (I ran my fingers through it). His eyes twinkled and, I swear, when he laughed, I heard a slight ho-ho-ho in the melody.

For real.

LaBelle divides his time between Bothell’s Country Village and the golden throne at Everett Mall.

His old knees can hold tiny tots to brawny men, sometimes both at once. The job is more mental than physical.

“You have to like kids and people in general,” he said. “I like the teenage kids. They’re the best.”

The plush red suit is comfortable.

“It’s like a turtle. I take my home wherever I go,” LaBelle said. “The boots are awful. They click. Fortunately, I don’t have to go far.”

When not in uniform, he’s just another civilian.

“I’ve got a hoodie; I throw the thing up on the top,” said LaBelle, who lives in Clearview. “And if I remember them, a pair of dark glasses.”

LaBelle has had a beard since 1972, but he kept it short and his hair coiffured.

“I had the businessman cut,” he said. “You should have seen me back in the day. I had the image down. Handmade suits. Ties. Shirts. I’d walk into a place and they’d go, ‘Who is this guy?’ Now it’s, ‘Look at this old dude.’”

He and his wife, Pam, ran a home-based software development company. After their two daughters were grown and raising families of their own, the couple hit the road.

“I said, ‘Let’s have a little adventure.’ I drove a semi cross-country and she came with me,” he said.

That’s when he picked up the paunch and Pam saw a Santa in the future. In the winter, Santa Tom is his alter ego. He even has a website.

LaBelle is a Santa for Arthur and Associates, which was started in 1943 by a Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer whose office was across the street from the monumental Frederick & Nelson store. As a sideline, he started taking photos of kids with Santa and it launched a national trend. That’s right: Those Santa snaps started in Seattle. Or so the story goes.

Times have changed with the big chains using big chain Santas. Arthur and Associates, a mom-and-pop outfit, has 35 Santas at mostly suburban sites. None in downtown Seattle. (FYI: The Lake Forest Park Town Center site has the traditional Frederick & Nelson set.)

In these skeptical times, some parents question the motive of men in red suits who love kids.

“We do background checks on all Santas every year,” said Arthur and Associates president Hillard Viydo, whose family took over the business in 1962 but kept the original name.

“All are unique. Each portray it a little bit differently. Their character, uniqueness and set of skills and experience make them really cool dudes.”

Above all, Santas are good listeners.

LaBelle said people confide sorrow as well as joy.

The saddest?

“It was about six years ago, in Bellevue,” he said. “There was a woman walking back and forth, and back and forth. Finally she sat on my lap and said she had just gotten a cancer diagnosis. It was going to be a bad outcome. She just had to talk to someone about it. I said I’d had one of those. I said, ‘Welcome to the club.’ ”

LaBelle has dealt with prostate cancer for 16 years.

“It can make you feel very alone,” he said. “I had the malignancy and associated pieces of equipment cut out in 2000. In 2013, it had come back. So I had another surgery. It’s still there and it’s on the march again, but it tends to grow slowly, so I’ll probably expire of something else before it kills me.”

It makes each day magical.

One time a man popped the question in front of him. “He pulls out the ring box and gets on his knee and proposes.”

Mostly, it’s a succession of excited kids asking for iPads, American Girl dolls, Pokémon and Trolls, he said. “Some will come in with a list that’s a scroll.”

On a recent evening at Everett Mall, 4-year-old Khloe Gregory skipped up in a flowing dress, white tights and black shoes. She posed for a photo that will hang in her living room and replace the one from last year in her parents’ wallets with Santa Tom. (Many parents seek the same Santa, year after year.)

“I love my picture,” Khloe said. “Thank you, Santa Claus.”

“My pleasure,” he said.

Then, the young girl and her idol in the red suit talked business. When the subject of food came up, Santa confessed to a love as great as cookies.

“Once in a while, I fly in and park the sleigh in back and get a burger, fries and a Coke. Sometimes milk,” LaBelle told her. “I take it with me in a bag and, boy, it hits the spot.”

Khloe promised to leave him a snack when he came to her house.

He winked.

Andrea Brown at 425-339-3443; abrown@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @reporterbrown.

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