Austin has its own Buddy the Elf — but he’s about to hang up his tights

10:57 a.m. Friday, Dec. 15, 2017 Lifestyle

Sunday morning, while you’re still in bed, John Muehlbauer will tug on a pair of yellow tights, button up a green jacket and fasten a wide black belt around his waist.

Before he so much as pours a river of syrup over a plate of spaghetti or tears the wrapper off the first candy cane of the day, he’ll don a cone-shaped green hat and head to the airport, where he’ll wander the terminal, looking for anybody in need of a jolt of Christmas cheer. When he finds someone, he’ll tell them about the four main food groups of elfdom — candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup — and he’ll smile, because smiling’s his favorite.

Then, for the fourth and final year, Muehlbauer, disguised as Buddy the Elf from the Will Ferrell holiday movie “Elf,” will board an airplane bound for New York City, where he’ll spend the next 2 1/2 days taking in the sights in wide-eyed wonder, wishing passersby “Merry Christmas” and posing for “elfies.”

Friends told Muehlbauer, 48, that he looked like Ferrell, in the comedian’s “Saturday Night Live” days. Muehlbauer, who works in marketing for Rocksauce Studios and goes by the nickname Sweet John, didn’t watch the show, but when he spotted a picture of the actor on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, he was taken aback by the resemblance.

American-Statesman Staff
John Muehlbauer says this will be his last year dressing up as Buddy the Elf and traveling through the candy cane forest to NYC. He’s raising money for Emancipet during his trip. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“I thought, ‘What the (heck) am I doing on the cover of Rolling Stone?’” he says.

At 6 feet 4 inches and with bright blue eyes, they both could pass for overgrown elves.

In 2006, Muehlbauer bought his first Buddy the Elf costume to wear around Dallas on Halloween. To those he met, he embodied the sweet, orphaned human who was raised by elves at the North Pole. In 2008, he won a Ferrell look-alike contest at a special screening of “Semi-Pro” at the Alamo Drafthouse and met the star, who wanted to know whether his curly red hair was real. (It’s not.)

Spurred by his knack for spreading holiday cheer, Muehlbauer’s friends encouraged him to take it one step further and go to New York City on a Buddy pilgrimage. He’d never been, and four years ago he acquiesced. He took off, not knowing what to expect, traveling solo, in full elf costume, with no hotel room reservation or change of clothing and only his wallet, cellphone and a charger in his pocket.

“From the moment I got to the airport, I knew I was onto something,” he says. “It was insane.”

He got mobbed at Rockefeller Plaza, squeezed his way into the background of a “Today Show” taping and was escorted from the Empire State Building by security guards who thought he was soliciting. He discovered that his elf suit is, mostly, waterproof, nearly got frostbite and wrapped up the trip by visiting Santa at Macy’s on 34th Street.

“Walking around New York in tights in cold weather can be a little bit of a challenge,” he says.

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John Muehlbauer transforms into Buddy the Elf, from hat to toes. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Mostly, though, he learned that people get a sort of sugar rush from meeting Buddy the Elf.

“I have to remember I’m representing something bigger than me, and that’s Christmas cheer,” Muehlbauer says. “People really love this character, and that’s the best thermal blanket I could ever have — seeing the reaction from all those people.”

The second year, he added a charity element to his trip, notifying friends via social media that he was raising money for Art Start, a New York City nonprofit organization that exposes underprivileged youths to art and culture. He did the same in 2016, raising more than $3,300 in two years.

This year, Muehlbauer has chosen the Austin charity Emancipet. which provides low-cost health care for pets, as his beneficiary. He doesn’t mention the fundraising part of his mission to those he meets while masquerading as Buddy, because he doesn’t want to break the mood. Mostly, it’s folks back in Austin or who follow him on Facebook or Instagram who donate.

He says he’s bowing out of the “Elf” game after this year, because he’s getting older and wants to retire while he can still pull it off.

In the meantime, he’s looking forward to one final pass through the candy cane forest, the sea of swirly-twirly gum drops and the Lincoln Tunnel, a few more snow angels, and maybe a roll or two of Toll House cookie dough.

American-Statesman Staff
Buddy the Elf, aka John Muehlbauer of Austin, will be smiling on the streets of New York starting Sunday for the fourth year in a row. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
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