Each year at Christmas we see the images of Mr. Bingle around town. I have heard that Bingle was created by a puppeteer who specialized in strip-tease puppet shows. Is that correct? - Tim Marley (New Orleans)
It is only partially true. An executive for Maison Blanche department store created the concept of Bingle, but yes, the strings were pulled by a burlesque puppeteer named Oscar Isentrout whose career in New Orleans began on Bourbon Street. His puppet act involved some risqué marionettes who actually performed a strip show. One day in the late 1940s he was approached by Emile Aline, the display director at Maison Blanche on Canal Street. Aline had visited Chicago where he noted that Marshall-Fields department store had developed a snowman-like marionette that was used for Christmas window displays. Aline discussed a similar idea with Isentrout, who was interested, and so hired him to create a New Orleans version of the Chicago pitch man. From what was intended to be a marketing tool to promote toys to kids, became an elfin snowman with holly wings, a cherry nose and an inverted ice cream cone for a hat. Most notably, in one hand he clutched a peppermint candy cane. What to call this character became a subject of debate. A store executive insisted that he should have the same initials as the business, MB. Heads huddled; a decision was made: The character was named “Mr. Bingle.”
Far more than a window display, by the 1950s with both television and a generation of postwar baby boomers in their infancy, Bingle became one of the city’s first local TV celebrities. Each evening during the Christmas season he had his own show, a 15-minute dinner time romp involving a skit or two, plus sales pitches for the toys at Maison Blanche. Isentrout created a Bingle voice that was nasal, squeaky and kid-friendly. Bingle’s theme song, “Jingle, jangle, jingle, here comes Mr. Bingle, with a message from Kris Kringle ...” became the anthem of the New Orleans Christmas.
It was an unlikely contribution from a meek, unassuming, loner, sometimes, cantankerous little man. His life would eventually evolve almost entirely around Bingle. He worked from a studio at the Maison Blanche store on the west bank. While playing classical music in the background, he would labor on the puppets and he would design sets for the upcoming holiday season. His career path from burlesque to Bingle had rambled through the streets of the Quarter. In July 1985, that path came to an end.
There was no money to cover Isentrout’s funeral expense, so the Sternberg family that owned MB stepped in and provided for his burial. Only a few people gathered at the Hebrew Rest Cemetery #3 on Pelopidas Street for the burial service. Those in attendance were mostly people who worked for Maison Blanche. But, according to Poydras, there was one stranger in the group. He stood quietly until an appropriate moment when he stepped forward and placed an object on top of Isentrout’s coffin. Then he walked away. None of those there knew who the person was. What had he left? A peppermint candy cane.
If logic did not prevail, it might seem magical that someone as unlikely as Isentrout became so entwined with Christmas in New Orleans. The man made Bingle, but in the end, Bingle made the man.