MILWAUKEE - Each year about this time, Gene Schuldt is maybe the most popular man on the planet.
At least, he looks just like him.
The bearded, white-haired and portly 51-year-old Wauwatosa resident holds court - in a red suit and assisted by a number of Santa's helpers - at Milwaukee's Brookfield Square mall for thousands of area children. He listens attentively to each one's Christmas wish.
With Schuldt's gentle voice, smiling face and naturally snow-white hair - "It's something that happens to the men in my family when they hit 40," he says - there's no reason for any child to doubt he or she is sitting in the lap of the jolly old elf himself.
It's a trust that Schuldt and an increasing number of shopping mall Santa Clauses earn every year by undergoing a criminal background check.
"It's just a sign of the times for all businesses that provide services to families and children," Barbara Sacco said. She is vice president of marketing for Faison & Associates, which manages The Shops of Grand Avenue shopping mall in downtown Milwaukee.
There's good reason to do the checking.
Pre-employ.com, a company that specializes in doing background checks on job applicants, found that about 70 of 1,000 shopping mall Santa and Santa helper applicants had committed misdemeanors or felonies in the past seven years that would be cause for dismissal.
Offenses included indecent exposure, harassment, assault, soliciting prostitution, battery, drunken driving and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
That's an alarming but still smaller percentage than in the job market at large, where 10 percent of job applicants have criminal records, Pre-employ says.
Kelly Smith, media relations manager for Pre-employ, said her company has been doing background checks for the past three years for Cherry Hill Photo of Cherry Hill, N.J., one of the largest Santa vendors in the country.
Nancy Conley, marketing director at Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa, Wis., has overseen mall Santas for 18 years, the last three at Mayfair. She said the background checks have become more exacting in her tenure: "Even the elves are fingerprinted and drug-tested."
To children, Santa is there to hear their Christmas wishes. From a business point of view, he is there to bring shoppers into the malls and to get his picture taken with children. Most Santas are technically employed by the photo companies that operate Santa "sets," although malls have a say in who is hired.
Cherry Hill Photo provides Santas to Brookfield Square and The Shops of Grand Avenue, as well as about 300 other malls around the nation. A spokeswoman for Cherry Hill Chief Executive Robert Wolfe said in an e-mail that the company does "perform thorough criminal background checks on our Santa applicants."
Cherry Hill's biggest competitor is Santa Plus in O'Fallon, Mo. Each season, it scrutinizes the backgrounds of more than 500 Santas it places at more than 250 malls in 46 states, said Jerry Helton, the company's vice president of marketing and operations.
The company has a database of nearly 2,000 Santas divided into two categories - bearded Santas and "synthetic" Santas, that is, those with natural beards and those that need a little whisker enhancement, Helton said.
"Synthetic" Santas usually are those who possess certain "skill sets." Those include being a certain ethnicity or being a dancing Santa, singing Santa or even a signing Santa who can communicate with hearing-impaired children, Helton said.
For the trouble, shopping mall Santas are paid a few dollars an hour up to as much as $20,000 for a six- to eight-week stint, Helton, Sacco and others said.
Schuldt wouldn't say how much he is paid, but he said a good season contract for a naturally bearded Santa might be around $5,000.
Every year, each Santa hired by Santa Plus, a division of Eastman Kodak, is required to submit to a criminal background check once the mall agrees to hire him.
"Once we have a contract with a mall, we will run a nationwide criminal background check and put them through a drug test, on all our Santas whether real-bearded or synthetic," Helton said.
Each Santa Plus Santa goes through two or three days of computer-based video training that features "top Santas that we have used for years."
To Schuldt, background checks are just part of the job.
The questions from children are more difficult to answer than any question on a criminal background check, he said.
"One you hear a lot is, `I wish my daddy could be with us for Christmas.' Well, you don't know the family situation whether the parents are separated, or in the military, or dead," he said.