Jolly Old Elf says playing Santa ‘a hoot’

Originally Published December 16, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated December 14, 2012 at 11:21 a.m.
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Eilish Palmer

Santa and Mrs. Claus, aka Joe and Deanie King of Mallettown, are a popular couple at events during the Christmas season, including this one at First Security Bank in downtown Conway. King has been dressing up as Santa for about 18 years.

Joe King is as kind and jolly as any Santa should be, but he does have a naughty list.

One dry cleaners that almost ruined the big man’s red suit is still on it.

“We took it to the cleaners, and they apparently washed it, and the red faded on the cuffs. They were on my naughty list, and Mrs. Claus wouldn’t let me tell them how naughty,” he said. “We had to put new white cuffs on it.”

King, 67, of Mallettown has been Santa for about 18 years, ever since someone at Greenbrier Middle School, where King taught, noticed the teacher’s resemblance to Santa.

“One of the principals said, ‘Boy, you’d make a good Santa. Would you be Santa for us?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”

King didn’t have a Santa suit, so he said his wife, Deanie, rented one. Neither

of them got it out of the plastic bag until it was time to get ready, and it was stained with another Santa’s sweat.

“So, I had to put on a pair of

warm-ups under somebody’s else’s suit. After that, we went and found somebody

who made us a suit.”

That somebody was Katherine Alspaugh.

“It’s got a thing in the collar that says, ‘Made Especially for Santa by Kathy, because I believe.’ It’s real nice.”

King grew up in Alma, where there were Christmas parades, and Christmas was celebrated at school, home and church, he said.

“It was wonderful. Tremendous,” he said.

He and his wife got their degrees at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, and his first job was teaching in North Little Rock. He taught in the Greenbrier School

District for 23 years before

leaving to teach at the Crossroads Alternative Learning Center in Quitman, where he taught for three years before retiring a year ago.

“Kids and I get along. I think it has to do with being Santa. It doesn’t matter whether they’re at Greenbrier or Crossroads.

“[At Crossroads], we got children from Clinton, Heber Springs, many schools — Mount Vernon-Enola, Center Ridge — children that just couldn’t make it in regular school.

“I found out if you’re nice to them, they’re nice to you. If you give them respect first, they’ll give you respect back,” he said.

King’s wife of 47 years, who is by his side as Mrs. Claus at most events, retired in 2010 from teaching at Marguerite Vann Elementary School in Conway.

He said Mrs. Claus is his “handler” and keeps him looking nice, plus she’s “real pretty.”

“It works out real well because sometimes kids don’t want to sit with me, but they’ll sit with MeMe Claus, and I’ll stick my head around,” he said.

MeMe is what the couple’s nine grandchildren call her.

King said he tells children, “‘All the elves think of her as their grandmother.’ I had a little boy sitting on my knee the other day, and he turned to MeMe and said, ‘So, are you Santa’s grandmother?’”

“Smoke came out of that white wig,” he said, chuckling.

After all these years of being Santa, King has figured out what works with camera-shy kids.

Once child wouldn’t smile, so King called the Hogs and got a grin.

Sometimes the request is heart-wrenching.

“I had a little girl two years ago — I said, ‘What can Santa bring you?’” King said, pausing to control his emotions.

“She said, “All I want is peace.’ Of course, Santa had to tear up on that one.

“After this many years, I have developed a way to make it not Santa’s fault they didn’t get what they want,” King said.

He also has an answer for wishes such as four-wheelers and expensive toys.

“I say, ‘Santa Claus can’t override his mother, and I can’t override your mother,’ and ‘If it’s OK with her, I’ll bring you the puppy, the four-wheeler, the motor bike.’”

“I don’t want them to grow up and say, ‘I hate Santa — I wanted a puppy, and he wouldn’t give it to me,’” King said.

This year, a little girl who was about 6 years old asked for an iPhone.

He went through his spiel, and the little girl admitted, “Mom said I couldn’t have one.”

Barbies are still at the top of the wish list for girls, along with American Girl dolls, and he gets lots of requests for iPads, iPods and video games.

King’s favorite holiday movie is A Christmas Story, where Ralphie wants a Red Ryder BB gun.

Anytime a child asks for a BB gun, King uses a line from the movie: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

One little boy crawled up on his lap and said, without a pause, “You wouldn’t know this, because you’re not a hunter, but I want a 300 Magnum Weatherby with a flute barrel, 3x27 Leupold scope, and a Honda 4x4 350 and a trailer to put it on.”

“Santa said, ‘Who doesn’t, baby?” The child’s father nearly fell to the floor laughing, King said.

King is a hunter and lives on 288 acres. He had a road cut through his property and named it North Pole Road.

The Kings used to have parties for schoolchildren at their home, which has a basement full of toys, just like Santa’s workshop.

One smart little boy asked why, if he was Santa, there was a rock outside that said Joe King, and Santa told him it stood for Jolly Old Elf King. “That satisfied him,” King said.

At 6-3 and 265 pounds, and sporting a white beard, he draws attention wherever he goes.

He said that a few weeks ago, Mrs. Claus bought him a red T-shirt that has a design of a white stripe and a black belt, so that just encourages Santa stalkers.

They went on a cruise before the Christmas season started.

“I wore it on the cruise. I think I am an attention person. I had pictures taken at Belize, I had pictures taken at … Honduras, Costa Maya, all over the ship.

“There was an Italian group, and they all wanted a picture with Santa Claus,” he said.

King gets attention in local businesses and shops, too.

“The little kids will just study you and study you and study you, and they’ll say something to their mother, and she’ll turn around and look.

“I’ll give them a ‘Ho, ho, ho.’ I practice. I can whistle and call the reindeer. I put on a pretty good show,” he said.

He and Mrs. Claus appear each year at Dazzle Daze, sponsored by Conway Regional Medical Center in Conway. They also do appearances at schools, banks, churches and the Masonic Lodge.

He said it makes him happy that his grandchildren tell all their friends, “My grandfather is Santa Claus,” and that his daughter Kyndell Rea of Conway posted on her Facebook page: “I’m so glad my daddy’s Santa Claus.”

When someone calls and gets his voice mail, they’ll hear: “Ho, ho, ho. You’ve got Joe. Leave me a message — I’ve gone north.”

King drives a red Dodge supercab truck with a license plate that says Ark Santa. He doesn’t plan to hang up the suit anytime soon.

“If it’s not fun, then I won’t do it. But, it’s a hoot,” he said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or

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