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From Burlesque to Bingle

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 risque 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 had noted that the Marshall-Fields department store had developed a snowman-like marionette that was used for Christmas window displays. Isentrout was hired to create a New Orleans version. 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, M.B. Heads huddled; a decision was made: The character was named "Mr. Bingle."

Far more than a window display, by the 1950s with television and a generation of post-war baby boomers both 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 dinnertime romp involving a skit or two, plus sales pitches for the toys at Maison Blanche. Isentrout developed 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 into its Christmas marketing. The towering Bingle figure that once hung from the Canal Street store now flies over the Dillard's at Lakeside shopping center.

Behind the corporate wrangling is the soul of Isentrout, who gave Bingle the quality  that seemed to charm people.

It was an unlikely contribution from a meek, unassuming loner, a sometimes cantankerous little man. His life would eventually revolve 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 largely through the streets of the Quarter. In July of 1985 that path came to an end.

There was no money to cover Isentrout's funeral expenses, 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.

The Last Performance

Author's Note: An e-mail I received last Friday promoted my re-running the above story. The e-mail came 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, apparently 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, 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 show of all time, as Oscar died after that Christmas season, silencing Mr. Bingle forever.

I miss Maison Blanche, Mr. Bingle, and Oscar.

Addendum: Isentrout died July 25, 1985. The incident described above, which took place Christmas Eve Avenue, 1984, was likely his last performance with Mr. Bingle.        

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