A young girl points to a large statue of a snow-elf, on display at City Park. “Mom, who is that?” she asks. Mom obliges with an answer: “That’s Mister Bingle,” she says. “He helps Santa here in New Orleans.” Then, mom takes a picture of her daughter standing next to a true New Orleans Christmas icon.
This scene takes place almost nightly, from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Eve, at “Celebration in the Oaks” at City Park. Since 2005, Mr. Bingle has been a part of the park’s wonderful holiday light display — but today’s kids just simply weren’t around when Mr. Bingle was at his height. The statue, which once adorned the front edifice of Maison Blanche Department Store on Canal Street during the 1980s and 1990s, now brings the spirit of “old downtown” to kids who came up after the big department stores closed.
The story of Mr. Bingle
In 1947, Emile Alline was the display and front-window manager for Maison Blanche. He made a trip up to Chicago that fall, to check out what the stores on that city’s “Miracle Mile” section of Michigan Avenue were up to. When he got to Marshall Fields, he saw posters featuring the store’s Christmas character, “Uncle Mistletoe” in the display windows. Alline decided that Maison Blanche should have its own signature character. He took a different approach from an adult Santa-style character, though, sketching out a “snow doll” figure. The doll was to be a foot and a half high, with wings made of holly leaves. Alline gave him a hat made of an ice cream cone, and took the sketches to his boss, Herbert Shwartz, son of Maison Blanche founder Simon J. Shwartz. Herbert liked the idea of his store having its own Christmas character, and even suggested the snow elf’s name: Mister Bingle, so he had the same initials as Maison Blanche.
The plan was to introduce Mr. Bingle for the next year’s holiday season, in 1948. Alline was happy with his creation, but he wanted to bring him to life for the display windows that very same year. Alline was introduced to Edwin Harmon Isentrout, “Oscar” to his friends. Isentrout was a puppeteer who worked at a couple of the burlesque clubs on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. He did puppet shows in between the dancers’ performances. Alline asked Isentrout if he wanted a job working for Maison Blanche, doing shows with a Mr. Bingle puppet. Isentrout agreed and had three Mr. Bingles made. The first was a prototype doll that was about 15” tall. That doll is still owned by the Alline family. When the doll was approved, Isentrout then had two puppets made. One stayed at the Canal Street store, and Isentrout kept the other with him, so he could drive to suburban stores to do shows. The store’s puppet disappeared under mysterious circumstances after MB closed in 1997. Isentrout’s puppet came into the possession of Jeffery Kent when Isentrout passed away. That puppet was severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina, but Kent restored Mr. Bingle to his original condition, with encouragement from one of his co-workers at WVUE-TV, weatherman Bob Breck.
Throughout the 1950s, Isentrout did regular shows with the Bingle puppets, in the front display windows on Canal Street and also in the toy department, on the third floor. Maison Blanche had a “Santa’s Village” in the toy department, and Oscar would entertain the kids while they waited to sit on Santa’s lap. Mr. Bingle was a huge hit.
In the early 1960s, Maison Blanche decided to go one step further with Mr. Bingle. The little guy was featured in almost all of the store’s Christmas ads every year, and Isentrout’s shows made everyone happy. Television was the next logical step. The store bought commercial time during the daily morning kids cartoon show on WDSU-TV, the city’s first television station (and NBC affiliate). Isentrout would go over to the WDSU studios on Royal Street in the French Quarter with Mr. Bingle. The commercials would open with Mr. Bingle’s signature jingle:
“Jingle, Jangle, Jingle, here comes Mr. Bingle…
with another message from Kris Kringle.
Time to launch the Christmas Season,
Maison Blanche makes Christmas pleasin.’
Gifts galore for you to see,
each a gem from… MB.”
After the jingle, Mr. Bingle would greet the kids and tell them to tell their parents that MB had everything they wanted in the toy department. When New Orleanians of a certain age now go out to City Park during the holidays, their memories of the “snow doll” are of those commercials.
A Lasting Icon
Television evolved from the “all-live” days of the 1960s, and those Mr. Bingle commercials faded into the city’s past. Mr. Bingle lived on, and Isentrout did shows at the stores until his death in 1985. Maison Blanche went through several ownership changes in the late 1970s to the 1990s, but Mr. Bingle still represented the store. In the late 1980s, MB commissioned a large, fiberglass statue of Mr. Bingle. That big Bingle looked down on Canal Street annually, until the store was sold to the Dillard’s department store chain in 1997.
Dillard’s closed the Canal Street store, which was then sold and renovated to become the Ritz-Carlton Hotel New Orleans. Dillard’s inherited the big Bingle statue, along with the rights to the character. They put the big Bingle up on their store in Lakeside Mall (which, ironically, a D. H. Holmes location, not a Maison Blanche). The notion of Mr. Bingle adorning a D. H. Holmes just didn’t work, and the statue was placed in storage. When it became clear that the department store wasn’t going to return Mr. Bingle to public display, New Orleans City Park and its volunteer organization Friends of City Park lobbied Dillard’s to donate the statue to the park.
By the early 2000s, “Celebration in the Oaks” was a hugely popular part of the holiday season: it would be the perfect place to keep Mr. Bingle’s spirit alive. Dillard’s agreed, and the park took ownership of the statue. The big Bingle was refreshed and restored, with plans to include him in the display for the 2005 season. This turned out to be a bigger deal than it should have been, because of Hurricane Katrina. The fact that the lights in the park happened at all was a huge boost to the spirits of a broken city, and the addition of Mr. Bingle made that even better.
There’s an entire generation of kids and teens now who only know Mr. Bingle from visiting him each fall in City Park. Memories of the store on Canal Street will vanish, but our snow elf will continue to make kids happy.
Edward Branley is the author of Maison Blanche Department Stores, New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, and Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, which are all in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is @NOLAHistoryGuy on Twitter. Edward also has a stuffed Mr. Bingle at home.