As a child in Cleveland in the 1950s, Don Beck rushed home from school every day to watch “The Captain Penny Show,” a television program that typically featured cartoons, “The Three Stooges” or “The Little Rascals” shorts, and a variety of guests interviewed by the eponymous host, a railroad conductor portrayed by local radio announcer and TV personality Ron Penfound.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Beck was always in a little more of a hurry to get home. That was the season the show included appearances by Mr. Jingeling, a locksmith who helped Santa Claus when he lost the key to his workshop. Mr. Jingeling made his debut in 1956, created by the local Halle Brothers Company department store. The character proved so popular that he became a mainstay of the Christmas season for decades.
“Mr. Jingeling became so big that it was more important for kids to see him than Santa, as strange as that may seem,” Beck says.
The locksmith’s profile may have waned in the late 20th century, but he never completely went away. Now, decades later, it’s Beck who portrays him in public appearances. “When I put on the green suit and I’m out and about, the faces are just amazing, and I have the best seat in the house,” Beck says.
Once upon a time, cities of every size had their own department store (and many big cities had more than one). And every department store seemingly had a character like Mr. Jingeling, created for sales or merchandising purposes but capable of burrowing their way into the hearts of generations and, in some instances, continuing to inspire warm feelings long after the store that created them met its demise. (Halle’s closed in 1982; Mr. Jingeling moved briefly to Higbee’s, then to the Tower City Center mall, but is now owned by Mr. Kringle & Company, a group that specializes in immersive holiday experiences.)
“There’s something about these characters,” says department store historian Michael Lisicky. “So many of [them] are so wonderfully regional, and that’s why they’re still so powerful.”
Lisicky adds, “They were developed as salespeople. But they became traditions.”
The story of the first man who played Mr. Jingeling, Santa's keeper of the keys at Halle's department store https://t.co/Olchu3phaH #CLE #ThisWasCLE #holidays #holidayseason pic.twitter.com/KXIQcgUD86— Cleveland Historical (@CLEhistorical) December 23, 2017
Department stores are a modern phenomenon. Before the Industrial Revolution, many towns had a clothing store and a “dry goods” store—basically, selling anything that wasn’t food—but multistory downtown venues offering everything from attire to furniture to toys (and maybe even a restaurant so visitors could spend a full day there) didn’t emerge until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Americans started moving to cities en masse.
The 1920 census marked the first time that more people in the United States lived in urban areas than rural ones. That year also saw the Philadelphia-based department store Gimbels hold the first Thanksgiving Day parade, putting on an event that has since become virtually synonymous with Macy’s, as well as the beginning of the radio revolution.
“Radio played such a big role for department stores,” Lisicky says. It was not only a new medium for advertising but also a way to forge connections with shoppers and locals. The first department store character, according to Lisicky, was Billie the Brownie, an elfin character who debuted as a mascot in Schuster’s newspaper advertisements in the 1920s. He then started appearing in the Milwaukee store’s Christmas parade and eventually became a local radio star.
A staple of many department store characters, and no doubt a key to their appeal, was their backstory. Billie, for example, was dispatched to Milwaukee from the North Pole by Santa Claus himself. He helped children get ready for Christmas by ensuring they were polite and well-behaved, and he encouraged them to compose their wish-list letters to Santa.
“[Billie] really set Schuster’s apart,” Lisicky says. “And it set things in motion for other characters.”
The most famous character created by a department store is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But most people don’t know the reindeer’s retail origins, says Leslie Goddard, a historian and author based in the Chicago area. “Rudolph became so big nationally that he kind of lost his Chicago roots,” she adds.
Rudolph was created at the behest of Montgomery Ward, a department store that had a national footprint but played second fiddle in its hometown to Sears. Montgomery Ward gave out coloring books to children during the Christmas season, buying them from outside distributors. In 1939, the store decided to take the whole process in-house, but to do so, it needed its own character. “Developed as a cost-saving character,” Rudolph evolved into a cultural phenomenon, Lisicky says.
Copywriter Robert L. May had worked for Macy’s and Gimbel’s before coming to Montgomery Ward. By the end of the 1930s, his visions of writing the Great American Novel had vanished. His wife was dying of cancer, and bills—medical and otherwise—were piling up. Then, Ward came up with the story that remains basically unchanged to this day: Though other reindeer made fun of Rudolph for his shiny red nose, it eventually came in handy on a foggy night, helping Santa guide his sleigh.
May and Montgomery Ward struck gold, distributing 2.4 million coloring books featuring Rudolph that first winter. The outbreak of World War II placed restrictions on paper usage, but the Rudolph book was reissued in 1946, with Montgomery Ward giving out 3.6 million copies. In a serendipitous turn of events, the department store signed the character’s rights over to May, free and clear. May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, then put the story to music, attracting the attention of Gene Autry, the “Singing Cowboy.” In 1949, Autry recorded “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which remains a staple on Christmas radio to this day. The rest, as they say, is history.
If department stores experienced a golden era, it was the 1950s. At the time, they were still destinations, as well as important parts of their cities’ identities. The modern middle class had formed, aided by pent-up consumer demand and financial savings from World War II, when most adults worked and few consumer goods were produced.
People still came downtown for a night out, and stores still relied on foot traffic. Their street-level windows were artfully decorated, especially for the holidays, as much to draw customers in as to distinguish themselves from the competition.
“You needed to create an identity and loyalty,” Lisicky says. “You needed to be perceived as the store.”
And competition could be tough in big cities. As Goddard notes, Chicago once housed seven department stores in an eight-block radius around State Street. “The stores really worked hard to lure customers [in] and make themselves a destination,” she says. “The window displays were their gift to the city of Chicago.”
Marshall Field’s initially decorated its windows to tell the tale of Clement Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” known more widely as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” But competitors copied the idea, so the department store came up with its own story and character: Uncle Mistletoe, a jolly figure sporting a top hat and red coat, who reminded kids to be kind at Christmas.
“[The display] was so popular that [Marshall Field’s] started featuring Uncle Mistletoe in the windows every year,” Goddard says. From there, he became part of the Cozy Cloud Cottage on the store’s eighth floor—and a regular television character. Soon, he even gained a partner, Aunt Holly.
It seemed like every store had a similar character. Halle’s had Mr. Jingeling. Miller & Rhoads in Richmond, Virginia, had the Snow Queen, a position that Lisicky says was a prime job for any young debutante in the city. Joseph Horne’s in Pittsburgh had Christopher Candycane, an impish elf created by Santa’s cook and put on alert to find disobedient children with his radar antennae. And Maison Blanche in New Orleans had Mr. Bingle, a snowman brought to life by Santa Claus to become his helper during the holiday season.
“Some of my earliest memories are going to Maison Blanche on Canal Street … to see Mr. Bingle,” says Sean Patrick Doles, a New Orleans native and the author of Saving Mr. Bingle: A New Orleans Christmas Fairy Tale.
On the eve of the 1960s, Americans who lived in cities started to move to the suburbs. Nights out downtown became fewer and fewer, and many stores started suburban outposts themselves, first standing alone and then as part of shopping malls.
The 1980s and 1990s really brought about the end for downtown department stores—and even some suburban ones, as the industry consolidated and individual names got lost in sales and mergers. Halle’s disappeared, as did Horne’s. Montgomery Ward was sold and resold, its stores finally closing in 2001. Miller & Rhoads filed for bankruptcy. Higbee’s and Maison Blanche ultimately became part of Dillard’s.
“There was this simmering conversation about how Dillard’s was phasing out Mr. Bingle, and there were Mr. Bingle fanatics, much more fervent in their fandom than I had been,” Doles says of the inspiration behind Saving Mr. Bingle.
From that desperation came a last gasp of department store characters. “1986 was the year of the bear,” Lisicky says. “All the department stores were trying to issue new traditions that year. Each one had their own bear with their own stories.”
Higbee’s had Twigbee. Hutzler’s had Bawlmer Bear, which Lisicky says probably kept the Baltimore-based store open for another two or three years. Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia had Rudi. Marshall Field’s had Mistletoe Bear, whose backstory found him showing up at Uncle Mistletoe’s house.
“There was this massive panic to get people back into department stores,” Lisicky says. “Bears were easy to stock and easy to give to children. All these department stores tried to start a tradition, and you can’t [manufacture] a tradition.”
But some characters created by department stores a generation earlier became traditions organically, and, in many instances, they remain so.
Marshall Field’s is now Macy’s—a fact that engenders some ill will in Chicago, Goddard says. But you can still find tributes to Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly in the Macy’s Walnut Room. In 1996, Billie the Brownie had a son, Beanie, whose comic strip ran regularly around the holidays in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Mr. Bingle may have the most prominent afterlife of these beloved characters, Lisicky says, noting, “He will not die.” Doles’ book helped turbocharge already-present interest, and Mr. Bingle remains an integral part of Christmastime, not selling anything but emerging as a tradition for tradition’s sake, according to the author.
“That’s what I think makes Mr. Bingle so special,” Lisicky says. “It wasn’t just the department store that’s the caretaker, it’s the city. [Mr. Bingle] still has a presence at Mardi Gras. [He] still has a presence in the park at Christmastime.”
Beck says that Mr. Jingeling draws a crowd wherever he goes. Even children whose parents’ memories of Mr. Jingeling are probably hazy at best are thrilled to see him.“I was initially unsure how kids would receive it,” Beck says. “But the kids get excited to see Mr. Jingeling. And they’re usually with their parents or grandparents. And it’s like they turn back into kids again. It’s the spirit of Christmas. Everything’s magical at Christmas.”