Photography courtesy of NorthPark Center

Every year, event centers and shopping malls play host to the season’s favorite visitor: Santa Claus. NorthPark Center’s resident Santa retired this year after more than 30 years, but singing Santa helper Joel Lagrone is ready to fill his boots.

Lagrone has a professional background in aerospace engineering, music and community theater. While maintaining a 23-year-long career at Lockheed Martin, the Southern Methodist University graduate explored his creative side acting in musicals, community theater events and local Saint Nick gigs, not to mention his rock ’n’ roll band AeroMotion.

Lagrone brings his musical talent to NorthPark for this year’s storytime.

Santa season kicks off Nov. 25 with visits and portraits with Santa benefiting Children’s Health.

Stories run from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and 12:30-5 p.m. Sundays. Songs with Santa start at 10:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday and noon on Sunday.

And Lagrone certainly fits the part. With the white beard and jolly disposition, the role of Santa feels made for him.

Which came first, the look or the interest in becoming Santa?

With the beard, the white hair and the suit there’s a certain amount of iconic character that just happens. For me, having the stage experience, I tried to develop that character so that I looked like Santa to myself. Because I always looked like me to me, even in these other characters I have to convince myself and bring those characters to life.

Who are your Santa inspirations?

Certainly The Miracle on 34th Street, there’s a genuineness when you have a man that portrays what we all want to be and there’s a sweetness there. I’ve been compared with Tim Allen based on the look alone and he tends to be a bit less serious. Looking back, there’s Ed Asner in Elf who is kind of cranky and sad or even the dad that gets caught wearing the fake beard. With all of these, I can understand the character a lot better.

When is a time that the role of Santa became more than a role to you?

One time, I got a call from a group of people who didn’t know me; they only knew about me from a mutual friend that I could sing and play guitar. I’d already made it known before I even started that my hope was to sing and play carols at events and things like that, not knowing what Santa could be. In early November, they called and had a friend who they said would not see Christmas because she was in hospice. They decorated the house for Christmas, and we met around the corner with around 100 people. I strapped on a guitar, and we walked down the street up to her and sang Christmas carols. It was the perfect night: Nov. 10, 2018. We sang about three more carols because it was all she could take. As we exited, people were just so thankful to me. And I said, “No, thank you. Because if this is Christmas, and this is Santa, where I get to see people love on their friends in this way, then I’m good.” She passed away two weeks later.

How do you handle cynical kids?

There’s this particular age group, above 8 or 9 or 10. Because they’ve been told that Santa knows everything, they challenge you at every level. It’s a fun game to play with the children because of course my first thing is to torment that bag, right? If they say, “What’s my name?” I’ll say, “You forgot it already?” Eventually, one of their brothers will admit it, or I’ll catch them saying it. But you also get such sweet, tender moments with the little kids when they aren’t afraid, and they’re just so happy to be there.

Coming from a musical background, what are your favorite Christmas songs?

It’s hard to pick favorites sometimes because I sing them a lot, but there are a couple that are really meaningful to me — the “please come home for Christmas”-type songs always get to me. I love “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Of course, the kids’ favorite is always “Jingle Bells.”

You’ve been Santa for many different events over the past five years. What is different about being NorthPark’s Santa?

It wasn’t a conscious thought, even as a new Santa. I just didn’t understand the breadth of what they accomplished there. Still, as we began our discussions with NorthPark and I realized how involved they are in the community with their fundraising, I realized it was everything I liked about being Santa. It’s a fantastic gift to the community to do that.

Photography courtesy of NorthPark Center