RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On Wednesdays, we focus on the workplace and for seasonal employees, right now the place to be is the mall. It's the last of our series, Take Two, people reinventing themselves through their work, NPR's Ketzel Levine travels to Greenville, South Carolina, to meet a man dressed conspicuously in red, suited up for a new career.
(Soundbite of door closing; jingling bells)
KETZEL LEVINE reporting:
He emerges from a storeroom straightening his jacket cuff. He's got a kind of twinkle in his eyes. He walks briskly through the industrial corridor and heads for the backstage door.
You feeling pumped?
Mr. GREG MOHL(ph) (Seasonal Santa): I'm getting pumped, I'm getting pumped.
(Soundbite of jingling bells)
Mr. MOHL: It's the ringing of the bells, I think, that does it.
LEVINE: He takes a shortcut through Belks department store. Heads swivel as he walks through the aisles. Then he steps out into the limelight for another 12-hour day.
Mr. MOHL: Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas, everybody! Merry Christmas!
LEVINE: Greg Mohl is 63. He's a former sales VP in the telecommunications industry. At the peak of his career he was earning about $150,000 a year. Greg Mohl retired early, at age 57, with a sizeable stock portfolio. But when the markets plummeted, he lost half of his savings. One aspect, however, remained unchanged.
Mr. MOHL: I've had a beard for 35 years, and in the grocery stores I could hear kids whispering, `Mom, is that Santa? Mom, is that Santa?' in the summer. So I figured, well, you know--I pursued it, let my hair grow long and a month or so ago, I had my hair, which was gray, had it bleached white, had my beard bleached white and my eyebrows bleached white, and now I look the part.
Unidentified Woman #1: Hey, Will, come sit with Santa.
Mr. MOHL: Get up on my knee. There we go, guys.
Unidentified Woman #1: There you go.
Mr. MOHL: OK.
Unidentified Child #1: ...(Unintelligible) Santa.
Mr. MOHL: Hello. Look at the camera. We're going to take a picture first.
LEVINE: Picture-perfect, down to the wire-rimmed glasses pinched on his nose, Greg Mohl is back in sales. He's working for a photo-op with Santa corporation which provides legions of Santas and their camera-wielding helpers to a nation full of malls. A good day on a high-volume Santa set is worth an even $9K. Average that over a month, multiply that by a few hundred malls, it is clear as ice this is a multimillion-dollar industry.
Unidentified Child #2: Thank you, Santa.
Mr. MOHL: You're welcome.
Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you very much.
Mr. MOHL: Here's your cookie.
LEVINE: Greg Mohl is in it for the long haul. Right now he's on a six-week contract paying less than $10,000. Fellow Santas have told him he might take home four times that for a single season's work.
Unidentified Woman #3: OK. Did you need a frame today?
Unidentified Woman #4: Uh, no, thank you.
Unidentified Woman #3: So it's going to be $20.99.
LEVINE: Of course it takes more than bleach to become a natural-bearded Santa. Greg Mohl studied at Santa school where he found himself surrounded by a group of 60 men who looked a lot like him.
Mr. MOHL: And a number of the people, probably a third of the group, had been to the school before and almost to a man, they said that this school would change your life.
LEVINE: During Santa training, the men watched one another work with children, including one little boy who climbed on Santa's lap and whispered into his ear.
Mr. MOHL: And he said something to Santa, and Santa said something back to him, and the kid turned and smiled and said, `Santa loves me,' and then I understood what these guys meant.
LEVINE: Presumably, to even want to be Santa, you were already a compassionate man.
Mr. MOHL: Yeah. But I guess I really didn't expect it to be so engrossing, so captivating.
Unidentified Child #3: I would like a puppy.
Mr. MOHL: A real puppy?
Unidentified Child #3: I'd like a Chihuahua.
Mr. MOHL: Is that OK with your mom?
Unidentified Child #3: Yeah.
Mr. MOHL: I can't bring anything to you that your mom or dad doesn't want you to have.
Unidentified Child #3: OK.
LEVINE: It is not Greg Mohl's job to debate a little boy's ability to care for an animal, nor can he say no to a long list of presents a family may not be able to afford. But what he does bring to the job is a great calm and a businessman's sense of fair play.
Mr. MOHL: What I say to the kids is, `Well, you know, I can't promise everything you ask for, and I'll do the best I can.' I ask them if that's OK, and they all say yeah. So I'm off the hook that way.
LEVINE: As he nears the end of his first season in the hot seat, Greg Mohl seems quite pleased with his new career. Never before, in decades' worth of executive meetings, whether in Singapore, Melbourne or Bombay, did he ever get anything like the reception he enjoyed during the Haywood Mall Santa parade.
Mr. MOHL: As I walked down the hall, everybody was cheering and waving at me and it was like being a rock star. I'll come back for that.
LEVINE: In fact, he will be back next year, though where he'll show up is any child's guess. Ketzel Levine, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And Ketzel will follow up on some of the people we've profiled in our Take Two series. You can visit each of them and peruse Ketzel's list of the year's best gift books at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.