Seattle's Santa Claus, Michael Baldwin, has died at 65. His PT Cruiser with the "Ho Ho Ho" license plate will be auctioned off to benefit the Seattle Children's Theatre.

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It didn’t matter if they saw him in July, to Seattle-area children, Michael Baldwin was still Santa Claus.

With his bushy white beard, rotund body and suspenders, he didn’t need to be dressed in red to have kids gaping and asking their parents what Santa was doing in the theater, the grocery store or driving along Mercer in a red PT Cruiser with Ho Ho Ho license plates.

On Jan. 8, Mr. Baldwin, praised by many for his gentle spirit, died of heart disease. He was 65.

Mr. Baldwin grew up in LaJolla, Calif., and was once a skinny, red-haired surfer who worked in sales and marketing, and later in life played Santa on the side.

Exactly when being Santa Claus became serious, he was never sure, he said in a 2003 Seattle Times interview. But once it did, he said he could think of no higher calling. He officially began working as Santa Claus in 2002, transforming his lifestyle as well. No drinking, no smoking, no swearing or going to bars, he told The Times.

He admitted to being a little rusty on the reindeer names: “Comet and Cupid and Dasher and Prancer … and Ben and Jerry,” explaining he was a forgetful old Santa, but it never seemed to matter to the kids who flocked to him wherever he appeared, his friends say.

In the past decade he’s been Santa at, among other places, gatherings for the Seahawks, Microsoft, Costco, Kirkland Performance Center and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — where he drove a golf cart taking disabled passengers from gate to gate during the holidays.

Even without the red suit, he was recognized, said his brother, John Baldwin, of San Diego.

John Baldwin said that 20 years ago his brother was engaged to be married to a woman who died of cancer. Afterward, he never fell in love again, although Mr. Baldwin always wanted to have children. Being Santa was a way of having many, John Baldwin said.

“In the offseason, kids would come up to him and ask if he was Santa Claus. He’d look over the top of his glasses and say, ‘Santa is on vacation right now. Be a good boy and I’ll see you at Christmas,’ ” said John Baldwin.

For the past seven years, Mr. Baldwin worked at Seattle Children’s Theatre as a telemarketer and fundraiser. Sometimes he’d be in the balcony during a play, and although he wasn’t in costume, children would stare and he’d tell them, “I’m not in uniform right now, but I’m making a list,” said Patrick Connor, his supervisor. “He played the role perfectly.”

Mr. Baldwin, who lived on Queen Anne Hill, was also an artist and a blues musician. He moved to Washington from California 38 years ago, his brother said.

“He loved the trees, he loved the water, he loved the rain. Everything is green up here, and Michael loved that.”

His first Seattle job was selling scrimshaw at Pike Place Market. He enjoyed books about the Old West, and that brought him into Taylor Bowie’s former bookstore, Bowie & Co., in Pioneer Square.

No matter what the subject, Mr. Baldwin was a person of boundless enthusiasm, whether he was judging a chili cook-off or playing Santa, Bowie said.

Mr. Baldwin was well-known for that enthusiasm at the Children’s Theatre, so when he didn’t show up for work earlier this month and didn’t answer his cellphone, Connor was concerned. He went to the house, found the lights on and mail still in the box, and called police.

John Baldwin said his brother appeared to have died in his sleep, his golden Labrador, Buck — who has now been adopted by friends — remaining by his side.

A memorial service will be held in San Diego, but no date is set.

Remembrances may be made to the Seattle Children’s Theatre scholarship fund, 201 Thomas St., Seattle, 98109-4535.

Mr. Baldwin’s red PT Cruiser will be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the theater, his brother said.

In addition to his brother, Mr. Baldwin is survived by two sisters, Linda Cochran, from Poway, Calif., and Sandra White, from Mission Viejo, Calif., many nieces, nephews and countless children for whom he’ll always be Santa Claus.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @BartleyNews.