December 8, 2023
George Irlbacher ’83: Playing Santa is Serious Business
It was 1996, and George Irlbacher ’83’s brother Mark was about to host his first holiday party for patrons of his new archery store in Tonawanda, NY, along with family and friends. Mark needed someone to play Santa, and Irlbacher was happy to oblige.
For Irlbacher, who lives in Fredericksburg, VA, there was something magical about putting on the red suit and white beard. It was in the way people smiled at him, shared their memories, and talked about what they wanted. He began to think that maybe he could do this at work or at stores. Maybe he could even visit people in their homes.
“There's just something about putting that suit on that makes you want to spread goodwill and and good cheer,” Irlbacher says.
By the time the annual parties ended in 2020, Irlbacher had launched a gig portraying Santa. These days, the retired Marine appears as Santa at everything from black tie affairs for the Fredericksburg Symphony to charity events for Toys for Tots. He does 20 to 30 gigs every holiday season. About a third of those now are house calls, where he visits with families and poses for photos.
“I’ve arrived in a red hot rod, a fire truck, and on foot,” he says. “Every event is different, and you never know what’s going to happen. It requires flexibility.”
A More Serious Approach
This year, Irlbacher began taking his Santa gig a little more seriously. Last March, he enrolled in the Professional Santa School in Charlotte, NC, where he learned everything from how to ho-ho-ho and maintain a beard to how to answer tough questions from kids. The course also taught him the business aspects of portraying Santa. He enjoyed the course so much that he returned in August for the advanced class.
He also made a business card, printed a flyer, and got insured and bonded as an entertainer. And for the first time this year, Irlbacher is growing his own beard after wearing a designer beard for more than two decades.
In addition, Irlbacher got custom fitted for a red velvet Santa suit. The suit’s been custom dry cleaned, so the red won’t wash out onto the white trim. “Dozens of Santas have told me they’ve taken their suits to the dry cleaners, and they come back with pink fur,” he says.
Irlbacher loves hearing what kids want and spends time every year researching the hottest toys on the market. He also enjoys seeing the reactions from adults who often share their favorite childhood memories of the holidays with him. On rare occasions, Irlbacher hears sad stories too, from children who miss a sibling or want their parents to get back together.
“When you walk in a room and everybody starts clapping and smiling, no matter what your troubles are, for a short period of time, you can put those aside and just be glad in the holidays,” he says. “I try to be a Santa to everyone regardless of race, religion, or anything else. Santa can cross all kinds of boundaries.”
Where Did Grandpa Go?
Transitioning from a regular person into Santa always takes some adjustment, like an actor getting into a role. When he can, he will get dressed and pop in at a gas station or coffee shop to practice on customers. If he’s backstage, he’ll do his Santa routine on stagehands.
Irlbacher credits his ability to portray Santa to his parents, who raised him and his siblings with plenty of holiday cheer. “They always made good Christmas for us, even though we didn't have a lot,” he says.
Having a double identity has made for some interesting memories. For instance, there was the time Irlbacher tried to get past security at an office where he was working, with a photo of Santa on his badge, something he thought would be funny. Security didn’t laugh. Instead, the security guard stopped him and summoned his boss to verify that Irlbacher was a legitimate employee.
Irlbacher also comes under scrutiny from the youngest members of his family. As the father of six and grandfather of 10, Irlbacher used to get tough questions when he disappeared from the annual party in Tonawanda — he always seemed to miss Santa’s appearances — only to come back a little later looking a bit sweaty.
“My wife Sharon had to come up with all sorts of exotic excuses for where I was, from stomachaches to going to get something to I don’t know what,” he says.
Before the Transformation
Portraying Santa is a far cry from Irlbacher’s career as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. He had risen through the ranks and was deployed all around the world, even spending time in the Mediterranean when Iranian militants took U.S. diplomats hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
College however, had eluded him. Though he had gone to SUNY Alfred after high school and taken classes from Old Dominion University professors while actively serving, he had a hard time accumulating credits that added up to a degree.
Irlbacher was months away from being discharged from the active component of the Marine Corps Reserves when a mentor recommended him for a meritorious augmentation. The promotion gave him the opportunity to devote his time to finishing his college degree at SUNY Empire while remaining in the Marine Corps.
“If it had not been for my boss and that offer, I would have been out of the Marine Corps with 12 years of service and nothing to show for it,” he says.
He spent 18 months at the Niagara Falls Air Force Base outside Buffalo and graduated in April 1993 with a B.S. in information management systems. After 27 years of service, he retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel. He became a businessman in cybersecurity and IT and spent the last five years of his career doing cybersecurity for the federal government before retiring in 2020.
These days, being Santa is his primary vocation. “I've been focusing more on the art and the practice of Santa,” Irlbacher says. “For 2024, I’ll be expanding my involvement in Santa meetings, activities, and events while increasing my social media presence. It is really a year-round activity now.”