Salem’s Buddy the Elf takes spreading holiday cheer seriously

Often, passersby greet Buddy the Elf with a delighted shriek or a double take and a startled laugh. 

With a movie-accurate costume featuring embroidery, a pointed hat and yellow tights, it was as if Salem actor Corey Jenkins had stepped off the movie screen and into the Magic at the Mill event Wednesday night. 

Children often run, or tottle, over to him, excited to share their thoughts on the light show at the Willamette Heritage Center or to discuss their upcoming visit with Santa Claus. Adults in tow asked how his trip from the North Pole was.

Afterward, many would leave discussing the actor’s uncanny likeness to Will Ferrell in the beloved holiday movie, “Elf.”

“It’s my favorite movie,” one mom said to Buddy, laughing. She then tried to persuade her two teenagers to take a photo with the costumed man. The teens hesitated, appearing to think it uncool. Her excitement, paired with Buddy’s unrelenting Christmas cheer, prevailed.

“This is like, my happiest day,” the mom said after they took the fourth or fifth photo together. The family stuck around to talk to Buddy about his adventures, both teens now smiling.

Jenkins’ Buddy impression, in high demand at local holiday events, began with a couple’s costume.

His wife, Brooke, studied clothing and textiles in college and had spent years making high-quality costumes for the family. Fans of the movie, they first dressed as Buddy and Jovie in 2017. After that, friends and family started asking him to come to parties in character.

“I’ve been told by people, I don’t know for good or worse, that I remind them of Will Ferrell when I’m being funny,” he told Salem Reporter.

The next year, they upgraded the Buddy costume with imported wool from Norway, and ordered a custom belt from Ohio.

“We just went all in on it, and it just kind of spiraled out of control from there,” he said. 

Corey Jenkins and his wife Brooke dressed as Buddy and Jovie from “Elf” (Courtesy/ Corey Jenkins)

The impression goes beyond the costume, though. Jenkins is as tall as the over six-foot Ferrell, and has nailed the subtle elongated strides, posture and swinging arms from the original performance. When he talks to kids, he crouches and stage-whispers conspiratorially about Christmas gifts.

It’s a constant game of improv, and he never leaves character.

“The character of Buddy is like an amplified version of myself. I don’t know that anyone has as much, like, unbridled energy as Buddy does, but I’m close to that,” he said.

At the Mill, when there were no nearby visitors to pull into a conversation, he entertained waiting staff and security by asking where they got their fun hats or what their favorite color was. Those who first appeared bored and cold would end up doubled over in laughter.

Security guard Alex Ramos posed with Buddy for a picture after seeing the positive reactions from families, and after Buddy pulled him into an interaction with some kids.

“He’s very popular tonight,” he said and laughed. Ramos said he hasn’t seen the movie before, but is now considering adding it to this watchlist.

Jenkins has seen the movie countless times, but said it doesn’t feel like homework and still makes him laugh every time.

Originally from Idaho, he has a degree in film studies and prior experience in video production.
His family moved to Salem nine years ago, and during the day he works in insurance.

On Buddy’s off season, he works as a children’s entertainer and performs all over the region. He’s made four kids’ rock albums, and can juggle things that are on fire. 

“The Buddy stuff, it’s very similar. The whole goal with it, and the fun thing about playing Buddy, is that he’s innocent and fun. He’s not harmful to people. All of the humor with him, it’s never sarcastic, it’s never biting,” he said. “He is all about just experiencing life in the most fun, carefree way possible. And people really embrace it.”

While in character, he said he’s always on the lookout for someone who might need a pick-me-up.

“People are going through a lot of rough things, and life can be tough. The fun thing with an interaction with Buddy is it’s carefree and whimsical and just fun,” he said.

The Heritage Center booked Buddy for two nights of Magic at the Mill, and he was a featured performer at Salem’s downtown Holiday parade on Nov. 26.

Though his holiday schedule is booked, Buddy also makes impromptu appearances at local schools while picking up his five kids, ages 3 to 17. It’s one of his favorite things to do, and it began when his oldest attended Judson Middle School.

“I was mobbed by children who wanted pictures,” he said. “I was there to embarrass her and it did the exact opposite. I turned her into a mini-celebrity for a while because it was like, ‘Oh wow, you’re Buddy’s daughter.’”

He said his kids are all introverts, but he hopes they’ll learn to love the spotlight. One of his children makes appearances as a dancing dinosaur when he works at parties, which he said is a dream come true.

Whether as Buddy or as Jenkins, he said his main goal is to make people smile. No matter what time of year it is, he follows the code of the elves from the movie which says to treat every day like Christmas.

At the Mill, most people who met Jenkins on the way in would say goodbye to him on the way out.

“Bye Buddy, I hope you find your dad!” one child called from a distance.

Turning from the group surrounding him, without missing a beat, Jenkins responded with the next line from the movie.

“Thanks, Mr. Narwhal!”

Corey Jenkins and Caesar the llama (Courtesy/ Corey Jenkins)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.