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Jolly old job

| Friday, Dec. 22, 2006

As Marshall Ledbetter made his way through the mall, children stopped what they were doing, gawked, offered shy smiles or, in the case of 2-year-old Lindsay Bruder, jumped up and down.

"Santa's here. Santa's here," she chimed as Ledbetter passed the line of children and settled down in his Santa Land chair at the South Hills Village Mall.

This is the last weekend children can pose for photos with mall and department store Santas, who now have another season of stories to tell.

Santas like Ledbetter see up to 300 children a day. At the end of the season, their red Santa suits have been soaked in phlegmy sneezes, gushing tears, potty-training accidents and baby spit-up.

"Yesterday was the first time in eight years I got spit up on," said Century III Mall Santa Bob Bailey. "I was just bragging about it the other day that it had never happened."

Ledbetter said he's been "wee-wee'd" on a few times. Hence, the spare Santa suit in his dressing room.

Last Friday, Ledbetter's first visit came from 21-month-old Andrew Lippert. He sat on Santa's lap -- and promptly broke into bawling tears.

"He wasn't very happy with Santa," said Andrew's dad, Doug Lippert, 43, of Bethel Park.

One in four young children will start crying when they're put on Santa's lap, Ledbetter said. Another three or four a day will pull his beard. And this one's real.

"To me, if you're going to be a Santa Claus, you have to have a real beard," he said. So why put up with it all?

"I enjoy working with children," said Ledbetter, a 64-year-old grandfather of one. And for every terrified baby, there's a child who lights up on Santa's lap.

"I think a lot of them realize I'm the same one as last year, so they come running" he said. Simon-owned malls -- the South Hills Village, Century III and Ross Park malls -- use the Noerr Programs Santa agency, which has placed the Atlanta-based Ledbetter in Pittsburgh for the past two years.

Bailey, 69, has come in from Lake Wales, Fla., for the past four years to work at Century III. He claims there are no bad moments as Santa -- even the ones involving spit-up -- but some outshine the others.

Bailey recalled a boy named Nicholas who had come to visit him back in 1999 while Bailey was working as a Santa in Tennessee.

"He sat in my lap, and he said, 'Don't even try to tell me you're Santa Claus,'" Bailey said. But Bailey got lucky and guessed his name, (maybe St. Nick was on his mind?). Since this Santa knew his name, the boy was convinced he must be the real Santa Claus.

"I had never laid eyes on that boy in my life and how I knew his name, I'll never know. But I convinced him right then and there that I was Santa Claus," Bailey said. Little Nicholas came back five or six times that year alone, he said.

Bailey has a way with children, managing to calm many of the crying ones, said Century III mall manager Gina Mercorelli, and he's developed a following among the parents who come back year after year.

"I look forward to every moment of (being Santa). In February, I already look forward to coming back," said Bailey, who has 15 children. "If I ever hit the lottery, I'm going to do it year-round. I'd build a Santa house for kids to visit all year."

Additional Information:

Santa hours

South Hills Village, Century III and Ross Park malls:

11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday (breaks: 1- 2 p.m., 5 - 6 p.m.) 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Sunday (break: noon - 1 p.m.)

Monroeville Mall

10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday (breaks: 2-2:40 p.m., 6-6:30 p.m.) 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday (break: 2-2:40 p.m.)

Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills

10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (breaks: 1-1:45 p.m., 4:30-5:15 p.m.) 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Mall at Robinson

11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday (breaks: 1-2 p.m., 5-6 p.m.) 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday (break: 2 -3 p.m.)

Macy's Downtown

10 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday and Saturday 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday

By the numbers

The results of a 'Santa Claus' survey conducted by mall pretzel company Auntie Anne's:

  • 60 percent of Santas are sneezed or coughed on up to 10 times a day

  • 74 percent have up to 10 children cry on their lap every day

  • 90 percent of Santas have their beard pulled every day to see if it's real

  • 50 percent of Santas have children step on their boots up to 10 times a day

  • 45 percent of Santas see camera flash-spots more than 25 times a day

  • 34 percent of Santas have been 'wet' on

  • 23 percent of Santas own four to six red suits

SOURCE: Auntie Anne's

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