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From Burlesque To Bingle
(Plus a Bonus Story)
Oscar Isentrout was a puppeteer. Neither Isentrout’s name nor his presence were well-known while he lived, but he gave both voice and character to a figure who became part of the city’s Christmas lore.
Isentrout’s career in New Orleans began on Bourbon Street. His puppet act involved some risqué marionettes who actually performed a strip show. It was hardly the career to suggest the making of a local yule legend. But then one day in the late 1940s he was approached by Emile Aline, the display director at the nearby Maison Blanche Department store 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 hawk toys to kids, came an elfin snowman with holly wings, a cherry nose, and an inverted ice cream cone for a hat. 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.
A company called Cities Stores owned Maison Blanche at the time of Bingle’s creation. With each successive owner Bingle seemed to grow in stature. When the Baton Rouge-based Sternberg family, owner of Godchaux’s department stores, bought the chain, they took great care to assure that Bingle was part of their marketing future. Arkansas-based Dillard’s Department stores, which eventually took over the Maison Blanche legacy, has incorporated Bingle in its Christmas marketing. The towering Bingle figure that once hung from the Canal Street store flew atop the Dillard’s at Lakeside Shopping Center for a few years. He has since been refurbished and makes his winter home in City Park at Celebration in the Oaks.
Behind the corporate wrangling was the soul of Isentrout, who gave Bingle the quality that seemed to charm people.
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. Away from the studio his favorite hangout was La Famille, a former Greek restaurant near the downtown Maison Blanche where Bingle had begun. His career path from burlesque to Bingle had rambled through the streets of the French Quarter. In July 1985 that path came to an end.
There was no money to cover Isentrout’s funeral expense, so the Sternbergs 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 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.
BINGLE’S LAST SHOW
Author’s Note: Several years ago, I received this e-mail from a New Orleanian named Michael who told about an incident in 1984. The Bingle legacy continues:
We had gone downtown with the kids, then 4 and 2 years of age, to shop at the re-opened Maison Blanche. It was mid-afternoon of Christmas Eve. Maison Blanche was a shadow of its former self. It was mostly devoid of shoppers, especially on the upper floors. Late in the afternoon, on the second or third floor, we happened across a small puppet theater. No one was around. I approached closer and noticed that it was the Mr. Bingle puppet show. Then I noticed this thin older man moving props around, closing up shop. It was Oscar Isentrout. I asked when the next show was. He gave me a pained look, like someone who had been distracted from his work, and said that he was done for the season and turned his back to me. However, a moment later he turned, stared into space and said: "Come on." Bettye and I moved our two young children in front of the theater. Oscar grabbed the puppets and put on a brief show, including that wonderful Mr. Bingle falsetto. The kids seemed to like it, but it was pure joy for me, as I understood what a treat this was. A private show with the real Mr. Bingle, in all likelihood the last live Mr. Bingle puppet shows of all time, as Oscar died after that Christmas season, silencing Mr. Bingle forever.
I miss Maison Blanche, Mr. Bingle, and Oscar.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.