Mister Bingle 2020 still goes “jingle jangle jingle!
The “Big Bingle” on the front of Maison Blanche on Canal Street. (Edward Branley photo)
Mister Bingle 2020
We’ve done a lot of things on Mr. Bingle, the most visible icon of Christmas in New Orleans, but not a podcast ep! Mister Bingle-2020 looks to change that, as we talk about the little snow elf.
Emile Alline, MB Display Director, received awards for his work, as described in this 1953 newspaper article.
The idea of Mister Bingle began with a trip to Chicago. In 1947, Mr. Emile Alline managed the display department at Maison Blanche Department Store on Canal Street. The “Greatest Store South” opened at 901 Canal Street in 1897. Fifty years later, the store survived two World Wars. Alline was an important part of advertising and promoting the store in the post-WWII boom. Alline took the train up to Chicago to see what stores along that city’s famed “Miracle Mile” were up to for the Christmas season. He took note of many things, particularly the signature character, “Uncle Mistletoe,” at Marshall Fields.
Alline decided Maison Blanche needed a Christmas character. He came home from that Chicago run and got to work. Rather than a paternal, big, Santa-like character, Alline sketched a more child-like figure. His concept began with a small snowman. The snowman received wings of holly and a big red nose. An upside-down ice cream cone became his hat.
While it would be Alline’s job to bring his preliminary concept to life, it wasn’t his decision to go forward. He pitched the character to Herbert Shwartz, the President of Maison Blanche. Shwartz liked the concept, naming the snow-elf, “Mister Bingle.” His initials became “MB.”
Sketches and Ad Campaigns
1947 newspaper ad introducing Mr. Bingle
Mister Bingle had the green light for his red nose. Alline went to work with the store’s art department to standardize the character. Bingle found his way into the daily ads in local newspapers. A back story on the snow-elf’s origin was created. New Orleans got a new Christmas story.
The artists of a department store’s Art and/or Display department were some of the most creative people in town. These are the folks that come up with ideas that make memories, like Phil Preddy’s six-foot letters, making lighted messages on the front of Krauss. A decade later, Walt Disney looked for these creatives, to be his “Imagineers.” Mister Bingle 2020 continues to inspire people with talent and drive.
Mr. Bingle goes 3-D
After the 1947 holiday season, MB desired a larger presence for their snow-elf. Alline planned to include Bingle in the store’s window displays. He commissioned a fifteen-inch Bingle doll. The prototype looked great. So, doll Bingles appeared in the windows.
While those display Bingles met different fates over the years, Mister Bingle 2020 includes the original prototype. Emile Alline’s daughters preserved the prototype doll. According to their Facebook pages, the daughters alternate Christmas “custody” of the prototype. Bingle celebrates with both branches of the family.
The Puppets and Oscar Isentrout
Oscar Isentrout, performing with Mr. Bingle at a charity event in 1984.
The folks who worked at the Canal Street store were quite familiar with businesses behind them in the French Quarter. While Bourbon Street was not as tawdry as it is for Mister Bingle 2020, the street had interesting night clubs. Several Bourbon Street clubs offered burlesque shows, interspersed with Jazz and vaudeville acts. i can just imagine Emile Alline, or one of his team mentioning a puppeteer who worked those clubs, maybe with a “or so I’m told” added to the story.
So, Alline connected with a puppeteer, Edward Harmon Isentrout. Isentrout went by “Oscar” professionally. Oscar Isentrout performed with several marionettes as an act in-between the dancers.
The creatives jumped on the idea for Bingle. Oscar referred them to a German puppet-maker, who built two Bingle puppets. Oscar became the eyes, hands, and most importantly, the voice of Mr. Bingle when those puppets took stage.
While the window displays worked on Canal Street, the “Greatest Store South” grew. Maison Blanche offered three locations for shoppers in the 1948 holiday season. The first store off Canal was at the corner of S. Carrollton Avenue, Tulane Avenue, and Airline Highway. Then came the company’s Gentilly store, on Gentilly Road, just off of Elysian Fields Avenue.
These two new stores meant Bingle hit the road. One of the puppets Oscar used stayed at the main store. The other puppet traveled to the other stores, as well as other venues for short shows.
Television audiences grew across the country in the 1950s. New Orleans was no stranger to this. Maison Blanche expanded their ad strategy to include TV ads. Oscar’s traveling puppet show went to television, specifically, WDSU (Channel 6). Oscar performed live commercials during the station’s morning cartoon/children’s programming. Oscar passed away in 1985, but Mr. Bingle lived on, particularly in animation.
Where are the puppets now?
Mr. Bingle and Oscar, Hebrew Rest Cemetery. (Dominic Massa photo)
The two Bingle puppets are still with us. One of those puppets came into the possession of Jeffery Kent after Oscar passed away. The puppet was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Bingle was a flood victim. The worst of the damage was rust-related. The puppet’s metal frame rusted, and the orange color bled out into the fabric. Kent painstakingly restored Mr. Bingle to his original condition. Since local TV weatherman Bob Breck encouraged Kent to take on the project, Mr. Breck re-introduced Mr. Bingle to New Orleans on his show.
What of the other puppet? At the time I wrote my book, Maison Blanche Department Stores, a friend told me a story. He said the second puppet, the one that remained at Canal Street, was still around. According to the story, an individual took possession of the puppet when Dillard’s acquired MB. This tale is similar to the story of the “Holmes Clock.” At D. H. Holmes, a pair of customers feared that Dillard’s would not take the tradition of “meet me under the clock” seriously. So, they removed the clock, returning it to the location when the building was converted into a hotel. I’m told that the caretaker of the second puppet doesn’t want to be identified (my friend wouldn’t give up the name), but the puppet will re-appear when that individual passes away.
The Big Bingle
A large-form Mr. Bingle first appeared on the front of MB Canal Street in the 1950s. That first “big Bingle” vanished in the 1960s.
Ad in the Times-Picayune, 6-Nov-1953, for the arrival of Santa and Mr. Bingle, via American Airlines.
The store did a number of “big” promotions for Mr. Bingle in the 1950s and 1960s. MB partnered with Eastern Airlines several years, to “fly in” Santa and Bingle. They presented a motorcade/parade. One year, Mr. Bingle arrived at Canal Street, a Bingle doll “landing” on top of the building via helicopter.
By the 1980s, “big Bingle” returned to the front of Canal. The store commissioned a large, fiberglass Bingle for all to enjoy. When Dillard’s acquired MB in 1998, they also acquired Bingle. Dillard’s displayed the big Bingle on the side of their Lakeside store (the former D. H. Holmes Lakeside) in 1999. It’s unclear why the tradition failed, but Dillard’s put Big Bingle into storage.
Big Bingle made appearances in downtown Christmas parades. Carnival krewes, such as Metairie’s Krewe of Caesar, put papier mache Bingles on floats, celebrating New Orleans icons.
“Big Bingle” is a mainstay of City Park’s annual “Celebration in the Oaks” (Louis Maistros photo)
Dillard’s finally donated Big Bingle to New Orleans City Park in 2005. Now, he’s an annual feature of Celebration in the Oaks.
I’ve presented this talk to several groups in the last year or so. With everyone holed up because of Covid-19, I did the talk yesterday (19-March) via Zoom. It’s a bit long, because I was sorting out the use of Zoom, so you’ll need to fast-forward through the first 20 minutes of the talk to get to its actual beginning.
Also, TIL: it’s too long for YouTube. I’ll edit out that first portion and get it up there over the weekend. If you’d like to view it now, the link will let you download the MP4 version.
Canal Street Shopping 1895 – before the department stores
Mercier Buildings, 1892. Leon Fellman’s store on the left, A. Shwartz and Son right, on the corner.
Canal Street Shopping 1895
1895 was part of an interesting transitional time for Canal Street. Christ Episcopal sold their third church, at Dauphine and Canal, in 1884. The Mercier family bought the property. So, they demolished the church and built a series of commercial buildings. Retail space in the 900 block attracted merchants for a number of reasons. While Canal Street evolved, Christ Episcopal moved to St. Charles Avenue and Sixth Street.
Ad in the New Orleans Times-Democrat, 8-Dec-1895, for S.J. Shwartz & Co.
Simon Shwartz was the youngest son of merchant Abraham Shwartz. Abraham was a wholesale merchant for most of his career. He opened a retail store on Decatur Street in the late 1880s. Abraham moved the business to the Touro Buildings in 1890. That location, in the 701 block, suffered a devastating fire in 1892. Therefore Simon moved the store to Canal and Dauphine Streets. So, Shwartz kept the name of the store, A. Shwartz and Sons when he moved. His brothers dropped out of the business, however. So, Simon changed the name to S.J. Shwartz in 1894. Shwartz aggressively advertised and competed with other Canal Street merchants. In 1897, he acquired the entire Mercier complex. He merged it into a single store he named Maison Blanche.
Note at the bottom of the ad, there is a reference to “the Picayune.” That’s The Daily Picayune newspaper. The Daily Picayune and the Times-Democrat would later merge, becoming The Times-Picayune.
The Fellman Brothers
Ad for L. Fellman & Co. in the Times-Democrat, 8-Dec-1895.
Leon Fellman wanted to move the family store from the 701 block to the Mercier Buildings. His brother Bernard objected. The Fellmans split their company. So, Leon moved up the street. While SJ Shwartz occupied the building at the corner of Canal and Dauphine, L. Fellman & Co. was located at the end towards the middle of the block. The Grand Opera House was right next to his store. The Grand Opera House was later demolished and became the S. H. Kress store, in 1910.
Ad for B. Fellman, 727 Canal Street, in the New Orleans Times-Democrat, 8-Dec-1895
Bernard Fellman continued to run the original Fellman Brothers store in his name. Like Abraham Shwartz, B. Fellman’s suffered severe damage in the 1892 fire. So, Bernard rebuilt and continued the business. After his death, his widow and son operated for a few years, eventually closing the company.
The landscape of Canal Street retail changed dramatically in 1897. Simon Shwartz acquired the entire Mercier property. He evicted the other tenants, including Leon Fellman. Fellman re-located his store to the old Pickwick Hotel at 800 Canal (corner Caroldelet St.) Leon Fellman’s operated on that corner until Leon’s death in 1920. While Fellman operated his store at 800 Canal, he also purchased the property in the 1201 block of Canal in 1899. He later built the building that became Krauss Department Store. So, in 1903, he invited the Krauss brothers to lease his building.
The family changed the clan name from Fellman back to Leon’s original German surname, Feibelman, at that time. They operated the store at Feibelman’s, moving from 800 Canal to Baronne and Common in 1931. They sold the store to Sears, Roebuck in 1936.
S.J. Shwartz combined the separate Mercier properties into a single building. He opened Maison Blanche Department Store in the Fall of 1897. “Greatest Store South!”
Riders wait for the Broad line at a bus stop Iroquois Street Gentilly
Broad line bus stop Iroquois Street at Gentilly Boulevard
Bus Stop Iroquois Street Gentilly
Bus stop at Gentilly Blvd. and Iroquois Street, 10-Jun-1946. This Franck Studios photo has a court docket number in the corner. I haven’t looked up why NOPSI lawyers hired their go-to photographers to shoot this location yet.
There wasn’t much in Gentilly, below Franklin Avenue, at this time. In May of 1946, the Southern Baptist Convention upgraded the New Orleans Bible College to a seminary. The increased interest in the school motivated the SBC. They moved the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to its present location, directly across the street from this bus stop, in the 1950s.
The Broad Street line ran across town, from out here in Gentilly to Lowerline Street, uptown. Folks studying at NOBTS and their families at this time took the Broad bus to Franklin Avenue. They transferred to the Gentilly streetcar line, heading inbound, to get downtown. NOPSI discontinued the Gentilly streetcar line in 1957. The Franklin Avenue bus line replaced the streetcars.
The Broad line offered a lot of options to the rider. I used Broad to get from Brother Martin High School back to #themetrys in my high school years.
Times-Picayune ad announcing the opening of Maison Blanche Gentilly, September 12, 1947
In 1946, Maison Blanche was still a year from opening their store in Gentilly. The store opened its second location, closer to Elysian Fields, in September, 1947. The store at Tulane and S. Carrollton Avenues followed a few months later. By the 1950s, the Gentilly Woods subdivision grew rapidly. Maison Blanche recognized this. They moved their Gentilly store, from Frenchmen and Gentilly Blvd., to just down the street from NOBTS. MB rode that boom, then moved on to the next boom, New Orleans east. They moved the store to The Plaza at Lake Forest mall in 1974.
Maison Blanche Department Stores, by Edward J. Branley
Santa and Mr. Bingle on the front of MB Canal, 1952 (Franck Studios photo courtesy HNOC)
Maison Blanche regularly put up big displays on the front of the store. The second floor was mostly stockrooms and warehouse space. The view in windows on that floor left much to be desired. So, the store closed in the front of that floor. The display department placed large displays in that front space.
The first Mr. Bingle on the second floor appeared in the 1940s. By the 1950s, Santa joined the snow elf.
Second floor displays
Maison Blanche Canal second floor display, late 1960s (Tess Conrad photo)
The store set up other displays in the second floor space. Mr. Bingle stepped aside for different Christmas decorations. The store saluted teams playing in the Sugar Bowl. In 1976, Maison Blanche promoted Bicentennial celebrations (and sales) with red-white-and-blue on the second floor front. Mr. Bingle took a back seat to these varied displays in the 1960s through the 1980s.
Return of Mr. Bingle
Mr. Bingle on the front of Maison Blanche Canal, 1985. (Edward Branley photo)
While large Bingle displays vanished, he never really left Canal Street. He appeared in the front windows of the store. He was the main attraction of the store’s third floor Christmas section. Kids posed for pictures with Santa, but Mr. Bingle calmed them down.
The little guy re-appeared on the front of the store in a big way in the 1980s. So, the store commissioned a huge fiberglass Bingle. They put it out on the front of the store, along with a storyboard. The sign told the story of how Mr. Bingle came to be. Well, not how Emile Alline got the idea to hire Oscar Isentrout from a Bourbon Street strip club to work the Bingle puppet. This was the proper kids’ story!
Christmas Eve at MB
I worked at Maison Blanche at Clearview Mall when I was an undergrad at UNO. The Men’s Department assigned me to sportswear. Eventually, I moved to suits. I enjoyed working at MB, particularly since we were on commission! Christmas Eve was always a crazy day. So, there wasn’t much selling happening. We parked in front of the cash registers and rang stuff up. It made all the slow, boring nights in January welcome!
In 1947, Emile Alline was the display-window manager for Maison Blanche. He took his family up to Chicago that fall, for a family trip. While up there, he applied a professional eye to Christmas displays along the “Miracle Mile.” Alline decided his store needed a Christmas character. He sketched a short snowman. Snowman? Not quite right. How about holly wings, and an inverted ice cream cone for a hat? Now Alline had a snow elf!
Mr. Alline brought the concept to MB management. The little guy captivated everyone. The store featured Mr. Bingle all over its print advertising for Christmas, 1958.
Mr. Bingle hooked New Orleans. While the other Canal Street stores did Christmas displays, they didn’t have a character. So, Maison Blanche presented Mr. Bingle. Kids loved him. By 1952, the store displayed Mr. Bingle right up front!
Maison Blanche grew from the single store on Canal Street in the post-war 1940s. They opened stores on S. Carrollton Avenue in Mid City and Frenchmen Street in Gentilly. Mr. Bingle flew out to those locations! So, when Alline commissioned the Mr. Bingle puppets, they visited all the stores.
Canal Street in 1952
Maison Blanche anchored the 900 block of Canal Street for almost a century. S. J. Shwartz built the “MB Building” in 1908. So, by 1952, it stood for over forty years. Shoppers entered on the corner of Canal and Dauphine Streets. The entrance on the left of the photo (behind the bus) led to the office building. The first five floors of the building were retail space. The next seven housed a number of businesses. Many doctors set up shop in the MB building.
Santa and Mr. Bingle look down here from the second floor. So, that area was stockrooms. Eventually, the store covered up the second floor windows with year-round displays.
Maison Blanche Department Stores
Maison Blanche Department Stores, by Edward J. Branley