An elf’s work is never done. Joey Panek knows this better than anyone. Dressed in a blue polo shirt and jeans, Panek is almost unrecognizable to his elf fanbase as he emerges from a side door at the HuB with a toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.
The HuB, a whitewashed warehouse in downtown’s Rosemary District, is home to the Internet company ThisWeekInSarasota, where Panek — when he’s not dressed in a green velvet suit and pointy fur-lined booties — works as the director of production and interactive marketing.
It’s been less than a month since the 32-year-old actor was hired to help market the HuB and its various economic and social ventures and only two weeks since Panek launched the company’s Internet elf project.
“I’m so pleased and a little surprised that everyone’s embracing him,” Panek says of his alter ego. “In all honesty, the elf blew up faster than I thought.”
The genius behind Panek’s elf project lies in the power of viral marketing, namely Facebook. Panek, a Syracuse, N.Y., native, graduated five years ago from Onondaga Community College with a degree in electronic media communication. An actor at heart, he says he wanted something outside of theater to fall back on, “just in case.”
Immediately after being hired earlier this month by HuB founders and business partners Rich Swier and Matt Orr, Panek began brainstorming ways in which he could draw on both strengths. Because sharing YouTube clips via Facebook was how he and Orr first bonded, he decided to film a series of ongoing interactive holiday “Webisodes” — something that could easily and quickly be disseminated via social networking Web sites.
Neither bearded nor paunchy, Panek, who has performed in “Evita,” “Chicago,” “Plaid Tidings” and “The Full Monty,” at The Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, happily passed on playing Santa.
“I don’t look like Santa,” he says, surveying his small frame. “An elf made more sense.”
So, he called The Show Palace Dinner Theatre, in Hudson, where he just finished playing a Jewish villager in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and asked if there would be an elf this year in the theater’s Christmas show.
“No,” replied the theater’s costume designer.
“Jackpot!” Panek exclaimed.
In a borrowed elf suit and Santa hat, Panek began making appearances at downtown restaurants, clubs, arts organizations and parks. True to his character, he claimed to be on vacation from the North Pole, experiencing Sarasota for the first time, smitten with the beaches, the bars, the babes and the ballet, in no hurry to return to his nagging boss and frigid hometown.
“The best way to appreciate something you already have is to see it through someone else’s eyes,” Panek says.
He created a Facebook fan page, and, within two weeks, amassed 1,050 fans — among them business owners, dancers, photographers, museum directors, teachers and journalists. The page is littered with photographs of the elf frolicking about downtown, sipping beer at Divino, reading a poem during open-mic night at Pastry Art, shopping at Whole Foods and admiring sculptures at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
“You are the cutest elf ever,” wrote one Facebook fan. “You are a breath of fresh air. Don’t go back to the North Pole.”
The elf spent last Thursday rehearsing with the Sarasota Ballet and plans to fly next week with aerialist Dolly Jacobs during a Circus Sarasota rehearsal.
Regarding what lies ahead for the elf, Panek won’t say, although it’s obvious, given the costume, that the sightseeing imp’s Sarasota exploits will soon end after Christmas. Two Webisodes have already been released, and filmmaker Matt Carman plans to produce at least 10 more from now through December.
“There’s going to be a love interest,” Panek says slyly. “But, outside of that I don’t want to say too much more. The further along we get, the more we learn that the elf character can’t be precious. People like a little bit of debauchery. They like it when the elf goes out and has a drink.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at firstname.lastname@example.org
Get to know the Sarasota elf
• The elf has an iPhone. When Santa calls, the ring tone is rapper 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.”
• The elf has been known to enjoy a stogie or two at Smokin’ Joes Pub.
• According to one Webisode, Sarasota real-estate magnate Michael Saunders has provided downtown condo accommodations for the elf.
• Like many active downtown dwellers, the elf enjoys jogging over The Ringling Bridge.
To view the Sarasota Elf’s latest Webisode, visit www.thisweekinsarasota.com.