NORTH BEND — His name is Dennis Freeman, and for the better part of the past decade, you've probably seen him at the mall this time of the year.
Except he doesn't go by Dennis. It's "Santa." Has been for the past six years at Pony Village and will be from 1-6 p.m. every day until Wednesday.
"Maybe there are better Santas, they maybe look better, but I think I got a good personality for it," Freeman said during his break, still in Santa gear a few feet from his giant green chair. He laughs, "ha, ha, ha" in the same cadence as Santa says "Ho, ho, ho."
"I would say I'm above average."
Freeman has been a mall Santa since Christmas 2003 when one of his coworkers — and fellow Santas — convinced him to give it a go. For the next five years, living in San Bernardino, Calif., for the time, he worked as Santa at a pretty busy mall. Eventually he moved up to Bandon to run an adult foster home, and after a year's hiatus, he came over to Pony Village and saw their Santa. Freeman didn't want to disparage someone he thought was a nice guy, but his predecessor was a "sloppy" Santa who wore a fake beard. Freeman figured his aesthetic could work a little better, so he went up to the photographers and asked when he could hop on. The next year, he was North Bend's mall Santa, taking a pay cut from his wage at San Bernardino to do it.
"It's dealing with the children," Freeman said. "Seeing most of them's happy little faces. Of course there's always the ones that cry, and I feel bad about those, but the majority of them are happy, so I think that's part of it — most of it."
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Freeman gets a majority of children but welcomes people of all ages to sit on his lap. The youngest Freeman has taken a picture with is four days old. The oldest was 104 years old in a wheelchair — 94 is the record for his lap. He's also never been vomited on, but still carries around an extra suit after 11 Christmases in case of emergency.
Now that he's been in town for six years, he's started to remember some of the kids he has sit on his lap. Last Christmas, a woman came up with her child and the four previous years' photos. Freeman got to see the kid go from 2 to 3 to 4 years old.
Besides just taking pictures, Freeman also helped deliver presents as Santa last year to four families the mall sponsored.
"They were so excited, because if not, they might not've had much of a Christmas," Freeman said. "That's part of it. It just makes me feel good."
At 69, Freeman only plans to Santa for one to five more years. Time is running out this year, too. Freeman has only three days left and if 2014 was any indication, he expects a last-minute rush.
"Last year, it was pretty busy the last couple, three days," Freeman said. "In the past, mostly people they say, 'Oh, I want to get my picture taken with Santa' and 'Oh we got plenty of time,' then all of a sudden, the last three or four days, it's like, 'Oh we gotta get down there.'"