Despite an economy that's going down the chimney, there's a bit of dough-ho-ho this season for Mount Airy's Bill Hartery, a musical-theater actor and professional Santa Claus.

A 5-foot-11, 245-pound tenor who appeared in the national tour of Cats, Hartery purrs your playlist of choice while accompanying himself on a full-size electric keyboard.

From "Deck the Halls" to "Hey Jude," this Santa sings them all.

"I absolutely love Christmas," says Hartery, 30, an emigre from the north. "I'm a very sentimental person. I believe in the idea of wonder and magic and hope. Playing Santa means a lot to me."

Hartery books at $150 an hour. No extra charge for his harmonizing elf chanteuse.

In real life, she is his fiancee, Kathy Robinson, 26, also a professional singer-actor. The couple moved here from New Hampshire four years ago and travel to New York frequently for auditions and training.

Hartery added singing to his Santa repertoire in 1995. During a lull in a post-Thanksgiving engagement at a mall in Manchester, his hometown, he began crooning out of sheer boredom.

"I turned into Burl Ives," he says. "Kids heard me from one end of the mall to the next." The crowds came; Hartery was happy; so was his mall boss. Lightning had struck the sleigh.

Acting has always been Hartery's priority, however. For his first three Philadelphia Christmases, he skipped Santa altogether because of theater work, appearing in Walnut Street Theatre productions of Peter Pan ('07), 42nd Street ('06) and Beauty and the Beast ('05.)

When he wasn't cast in this year's show, "I found myself unemployed. I really hate catering and temping and a lot of other things actors have to do between shows. I thought, 'What can I do that would be fun?' "

His mother suggested a return engagement for Santa Claus. Hartery dug out his $700 costume, complete with velvet overalls, and put out the word. Bookings, slow at first, began to pour in.

Customized private parties are one of his specialties. For a recent adult get-together in Doylestown, for example, Hartery and elf did one hour of Christmas carols followed by two hours of sing-along classic rock, including James Brown, the Beatles, and the Mamas and the Papas.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that Hartery happens to look a lot like St. Nick.

"I have naturally rosy cheeks and a very pleasant, warm, welcoming face," he says. "And I actually have a giant dimple on my right side."

Let the rest of the world wallow in cynicism. Hartery still believes in Santa Claus. (Cue singing reindeer.)

"I don't necessarily believe he's a man in the North Pole," he says, "but the spirit of Santa Claus exists in all the generosity, good will, kindness and wonderment that exists around this time of year."

With that, Santa signs off.

Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-5626 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister