Many baby boomers who grew up within an hour's drive of any large U.S. city have Christmas memories of shopping treks with Mom and Dad to bustling downtowns bedecked with silver bells and department store windows holding stories to tell and products to promote.
From Macy's and Gimbels in New York to Higbee's in Cleveland (a backdrop in the movie "A Christmas Story") and beyond, bedazzled youngsters pressed noses against glass to take in intricate, mechanically animated winter wonderlands: Santa's sleigh flying over white cotton "snow" batting, jolly snowmen twirling on pedestals and ever-toiling elves repeatedly hammering the same nail into the same doll house or toy truck. Candy canes and cellophane-wrapped lollipops swayed to and fro while ice skaters pirouetted jerkily on supports rising from partially-hidden tracks under tin foil frozen ponds. It was magical.
For me that big city experience was in New Orleans. The glistening fake North Pole and Dickensian scenes in the windows of venerable retailer D.H. Holmes were the closest opportunities most local kids had to see anything akin to snow. Though once every 10 years or so we'd get three or four inches in the countryside north of the city, enough to have snowball fights and build snowmen, it just wasn't the same as real, northern snowfall. Snowflakes simply don't adhere all that well to St. Augustine grass and azalea bushes. Actually it was in the summertime that we had "snow" in the form of those unique, finely-shaved ice treats called snowballs (not crunchy sno-cones) that are a part of New Orleans cuisine as much as sugar-dusted beignets and truites aux amandes.
Next door to Holmes, on New Orleans' wide and storied Canal Street, was Maison Blanche, the other big department store with its unique twist on Christmas themes. Maison Blanche, or "MB" as locals called it, developed a Santa ambassador named Mr. Bingle, appearing first in 1947 print ads and later on television. A hybrid, he was part snowman, part Santa's elf who could fly with a red-ball nose like Rudolph's and eyes of two raspberry blue bubble-gum balls. A waffle-cone hat topped his snowball head; holly leaf wings provided flight. A large red bow around his neck and a candy cane walking stick completed the persona.
By the early 1950s Mr. Bingle had become a three-dimensional marionette designed by Oscar Isentrout, known for his risque, adults-only puppet shows on Bourbon Street. Only in New Orleans: A Christmas character for tiny tots with their eyes all aglow rooted in the garish neon of the French Quarter.
Thanksgiving through Christmas, the little flying snowman had his own afternoon television show. He touted toys available at the department store laced through little adventure stories along the lines of saving Santa from angst or disaster. Children from the mouth of the Mississippi to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi Gulf Coast rushed home from school to tune in to Mr. Bingle's show that began with a jaunty theme song:
Jingle, jangle, jingle
Here comes Mr. Bingle
With another message from Kris Kringle
Time to launch your Christmas season
Maison Blanche makes Christmas pleasin'
Gifts galore for you to see
Each a gem from MB!
According to a retrospective in the Times-Picayune newspaper, Mr. Bingle's Canal Street puppet show was so popular, armed guards were hired to hold the grown-ups back from the store windows so the children could see. Sadly, today armed guards are hired to hold grown-ups back from crashing through retail glass doors as they press for Black Friday deals.
New Orleans wasn't the only market known for the precocious snowman. Because Maison Blanche operated under the banner of City Stores Co., a cluster of Southern U.S. traditional department stores, Mr. Bingle was exported elsewhere, including upriver each yuletide to Lowenstein's in Memphis. Arkansans on the eastern side of the state may recall last century that the puppet and his cohort Miss Holly entertained children of the Delta during afternoon broadcasts on KMCT Channel 5.
Through corporate consolidations late last century that included both historic New Orleans retailers -- D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche -- Little Rock-based Dillard's acquired the Mr. Bingle trademark. Therefore, current day he peeps out at you in all manner of products from coffee mugs to men's hosiery as you shop at Dillard's stores or online.
Pause if you will when you see him and his holly leaf wings mimicking flight and consider the irony. Delighting children since mid-century, a classic Christmas soft-plush toy emerged amongst soft-porn puppets on Bourbon Street.
Commentary on 12/12/2019
Print Headline: Here comes Mr. Bingle