The story of Mr. Bingle, a New Orleans Christmas icon
‘Twas the run-up to Christmas 1948, a time in which New Orleanians flocked to Canal Street to do their shopping — and in which stores found themselves needing to do a little something special to stand out. That’s when Emile Alline, a window-display manager at Maison Blanche, decided to dream up a Christmas character the department store could call its own. The result was Mr. Bingle, a cute little snowman with an ice-cream cone for a hat, holly-leaf wings and Christmas ornaments for eyes. Local puppeteer Oscar Istentrout was hired to bring Mr. Bingle to life for passers-by on Canal Street through regular marionette shows in the store’s front window. The city was immediately smitten, and — quicker than you can say “jingle, jangle, jingle” — a New Orleans Christmas icon was born.
Maison Blanche ceased to exist in 1998 after being purchased by the Arkansas-based Dillard’s, with the flagship store on Canal Street now home to the Ritz Carlton hotel. But Mr. Bingle has proven to be a resilient little fellow. His image is still seen around town at Christmastime, including at City Park’s annual Celebration in the Oaks event, where an oversized likeness of a “flying” Mr. Bingle that once graced the façade of Maison Blanche is proudly displayed. Dillard’s also still markets a line of seasonal Mr. Bingle merchandise.
- Though created by Alline and operated by Isentrout, Mr. Bingle — whose initials cleverly match those of the store — got his name from Maison Blanche President Lewis Schwartz Jr. after a store-sponsored name-the-mascot contest failed to produce a winner.
- Mr. Bingle was an immediate success. In that first year, some shoppers offered to pay “handsome sums” for props used in the puppet shows, according to a 1949 story in The Times-Picayune. That prompted the store to commission a New York company to make Mr. Bingle plush dolls, which it sold starting in 1949.
- A year after the character’s debut, Maison Blance supersized him, installing an enormous likeness of Mr. Bingle on the front of its flagship Canal Street store for the holiday season. For years, locals would gather annual to watch the installation of Mr. Bingle.
- The giant Mr. Bingle figure measured 50 feet tall and 35 feet from mitten-to-mitten. Made by a Chicago firm, it was shipped to New Orleans on two railroad flatcars and was described at the time in The Times-Picayune as “the largest outdoor display of this sort ever used by a retail store.”
- Before he was hired to breathe life into Mr. Bingle, Isentrout — a former vaudevillian — performed risqué puppet shows at local burlesque clubs as “Oscar and the Little Woodenheads,” according to a 2014 story in Country Roads magazine. “Oscar had these beautiful showgirl puppets made of wood. We would use them in Mr. Bingle’s puppet shows,” Istentrout’s onetime apprentice Jeff Kent is quoted as saying. “They had little light bulbs in their nipples. They were made to strip; you pulled a string and their dress came off.”
- Isentrout knew pretty early that he had found his calling with Mr. Bingle. “The first time we performed with him at Crippled Children’s Hospital, I placed his hand on the knee of a little boy whose hands were twisted into little claws,” Isentrout told The Times-Picayune in 1984. “That boy slowly straightened one of his hands and laid it down on Mr. Bingle’s. That’s when I knew what I’d been sent here to do.”
- Isentrout died penniless in 1985 and was buried in an unmarked grave in New Orleans’ Hebrew Rest Cemetery No. 3. In 2004, writer Sean Patrick Doles penned a fiction book titled “Saving Mr. Bingle,” with some of the proceeds going to a marker — which includes an image of Mr. Bingle — for Isentrout’s grave.
- In addition to puppet shows and TV commercials, Mr. Bingle appeared on records, in books, on radio and in occasional TV specials. Maison Blanche would also make an annual spectacle out of the arrival of Santa Claus, who always drew a crowd — and who was always accompanied by Mr. Bingle.
- Mr. Bingle’s theme song, still remembered by countless New Orleanians went thusly: “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!”
- In 1996, Mr. Bingle briefly went national, when Mercantile Stores — the company that bought Maison Blanche in 1992 before itself being bought out by Dillard’s in 1998 — made him a pitchman in 100 stores in 21 states. He was a particular favorite in Memphis, where he was “adopted” by Lowenstein’s department stores.
- In 1983, Isentrout and Maison Blance introduced an Easter character, a bunny called Mademoiselle Blanche, who starred in her own puppet shows, speaking in a French accent. She didn’t catch on.
There’s no question there was a certain amount of Christmas magic at work when Alline and Isentrout gave New Orleans Mr. Bingle in 1948. How else to explain the enduring appeal of a character who for so many decades has delighted children and adults alike? (According to a 1949 story in The Times-Picayune, “Two uniformed men were required to help get adults aside so children could see the Bingle show” on Canal Street.) But there’s another kind of magic at work here. In addition to being a nostalgic touchstone, Mr. Bingle serves as a comforting, jingle-jangle-jingling reminder that — in a city in which so many beloved institutions have faded into memory, including Maison Blanche — there are some things that the passage of time simply can’t take away.