I should have known better, but I didn't.
When I set out to write Saving Mr. Bingle, I just wanted to create a fun little Christmas story about New Orleans. For me, when I think of Christmas in New Orleans, I think of Mr. Bingle. The fluffy white snow fairy with the upside-down ice cream cone for a hat and holly-leaf wings on his back began in 1947 at Maison Blanche and lives on to this day at Dillard's, having enjoyed countless incarnations along the way.
I imagine we all have a Mr. Bingle story of our own. Mine goes like this: One of my earliest Christmas memories is of my mom getting my brother, Jimmy, and me all dressed up so that we could go down to Maison Blanche to see Mr. Bingle and Santa and get our picture taken. Now, keep in mind that I was about 3 or 4 years old, and taking a trip from eastern New Orleans to Canal Street seemed the equivalent of going to France. But it was the magic of it that I remember most, staring at this friendly little guy, trying to figure out if he was real or some kind of apparition.
I've since read accounts of children carrying on conversations with the old Mr. Bingle puppet as though he were a real person. I can speak from experience when I say I understand exactly what those children were thinking at the time.
Nevertheless, when this project began, I had no sense of the depth of emotional attachment that many people have to Mr. Bingle. I mean, let's face it -- he's just a little stuffed doll, right?
As I started researching the history, I found something that goes beyond facts and figures, names and dates. I found the folk history of a character that speaks directly to people's hearts.
"On the surface, there's nothing especially elaborate about him," says Lauren Brown, owner of www.mrbinglefans.com and unofficial president of the Mr. Bingle Fan Club. "He didn't light up. He wasn't especially talented or anything dazzling. But to many of us who grew up with him, he was our hero. He represented a slower, kinder, gentler time in our wonderful city, and we will always have a special place for him in our hearts, especially at Christmas time."
To be honest, at first I thought it was a little odd that some people would be so wrapped up in Mr. Bingle. In addition to the fan site, there's also a Mr. Bingle collectibles group on Yahoo and a bevy of items for sale on eBay. But as I corresponded with many of them via phone and email, I found that there wasn't anything strange at all about it. In fact, their feelings are bound up in a human experience we all share: childhood.
"How well I remember when Mr. Bingle was born," says 76-year-old Merle Ann Fitzpatrick Farrington. "The beautiful displays in the front windows of Maison Blanche by the artistic window display crew was magical. Mr. Bingle was Christmas. He is stored away in my memory bank with so many other happy memories."
"My dad was a truck driver for Maison Blanche for 30 or more years," says Ve Ferry of Gretna, "and we were Mr. Bingle fans through and through. I am 54 and can remember sitting on that big bed in the winter afternoons waiting for those infomercials for the Maison Blanche toy department hosted by Bingle those were such wonderful days."
Those feelings aren't bound by city limits or state lines either. I'm now hearing from every corner of the country, from California to New York, from Seattle to Clearwater, Fla. And I've found that the feelings for Mr. Bingle cut across racial lines, even among New Orleanians who came of age in a time when much of the world was still off limits.
"When I was a little girl back in the 1950s, even though New Orleans was more integrated than the rest of the South, as an African American, there were still a lot of restrictions on where you could go," says Brenda Thornton, a board member of French Quarter Festivals, Inc. "But my mom would get my brother and me dressed up and take us down to Canal Street to see the giant Mr. Bingle and stand outside Maison Blanche to watch the little shows. I remember how people would let us get up to the front so we could see. Black or white, it didn't matter. We were all there for the same thing: Mr. Bingle."
This lesson wasn't lost on our most prominent citizen. Mayor Ray Nagin, himself a New Orleans native, announced publicly at the lighting of the Canal Street Christmas tree earlier this month that he was going to "bring back Mr. Bingle to Canal Street."
Perhaps we could undertake a citizens' campaign, call it the "Bring Back Bingle" campaign and create a coalition between the people of New Orleans and the many quasi-governmental agencies that operate in that milieu: the Downtown Development District, French Quarter Festivals, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., the downtown hotels. You get the idea.
I understand from the folks at Dillard's that the old Mr. Bingle effigy that recently graced the exterior of the Lakeside store has become so structurally unsound that it's unsafe to hang. It's currently lying in repose at the Blaine Kern float barn on the West Bank. I'm told that to rebuild it and mount it downtown (or anywhere for that matter) would be monumentally expensive.
But let's get real. We're not going to let a few dollars get in the way of a project that would serve the common good for generations to come. By comparison, New Orleanians -- led by the New Orleans Steamboat Company -- scrape together the $25,000 it takes to put on a New Year's Eve fireworks show on the river every year without batting an eye.
And think of the PR coup it would be for Dillard's, which currently owns the trademark and still faithfully manufactures the Mr. Bingle dolls each year. What company wouldn't jump at the chance to have an entire community adopt a piece of intellectual property that it owns? Imagine if Phoenix, Ariz., wanted to erect a giant statue of Tony The Tiger. Do you think Kellogg's would be excited? Or if Des Moines, Iowa, wanted to put the dude from Jack in the Box on the antennas of all their city vehicles. For that matter, does anybody here remember "Cha-Ching"? I'm sure Rally's does, and buoyed by the Saints success at that time, they cha-chinged that slogan all the way to the bank.
But Mayor Nagin's comment brings up a telling point that I've heard echoed by many people at my book signings these past few weeks. So many have said to me, "It's a shame he's not still around."
You can imagine my surprise -- because he is. I have in my possession a 2004 version of Mr. Bingle currently on sale at Dillard's, sitting right alongside my 40th Anniversary commemorative doll from 1987. I also took part in one of the annual Breakfasts With Bingle, which was sold out with families and children from the area. Later that day, I spotted a giant Mr. Bingle entertaining a group of captivated children and having photos snapped by eager parents.
But those comments reflect a more ominous sentiment, the sense that Mr. Bingle is somehow slowly being snatched away from us, not by Dillard's, but by some larger force at work in the world today.
Like K&B, McKenzie's and Maison Blanche, there's a sense that Mr. Bingle is on his way out as our country moves headlong toward the genericization of our culture.
That fear is not unfounded. Most New Orleanians are unaware that, at one time, Mr. Bingle enjoyed a parallel history in Memphis, Tenn., at Lowenstein's department store, which was also owned by Mercantile Stores Inc., the former parent company of Maison Blanche. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Mr. Bingle not only performed as a puppet in the stores, but he also starred in his own daily television show just like on WDSU.
Sadly, when Mercantile sold off Lowenstein's and the store was forced to close its doors, the lights also went down on Mr. Bingle in Memphis. Thousands of children and adults lost their little Christmas friend, and a piece of Memphis culture vanished forever.
And perhaps that's the heart of it.
In an age when there's a new Starbucks opening up on every corner, and when any suburb of any major U.S. city looks just like any other, Mr. Bingle is something that's uniquely ours. The world may have Santa Claus, but only we have Mr. Bingle. Dillard's may own the trademark, but we can all share in his spirit.
That's exactly how Oscar Isentrout would have wanted it. Isentrout was the original puppeteer and voice of Mr. Bingle. Despite his gruff exterior, he thought of Mr. Bingle as an ambassador of sorts, an ambassador of hope for children -- not just the ones who came to see the shows in the stores, but the ones who couldn't come. Isentrout took Mr. Bingle to schools, hospitals and orphanages around the city to put smiles on the faces of children who had little reason to smile. In an interview with Ronnie Virgets that ran in The Times-Picayune in 1984, Isentrout said:
"The first time [I performed with Mr. Bingle] at the Crippled Children's Hospital, I placed his hand on the knee of a little boy whose hands were twisted into little claws. That boy slowly straightened one of his hands and laid it down on Bingle's. That's when I knew what I'd been sent here to do."
That's why it was so ironic when I discovered the most important fact in my research, the ultimate fate of Oscar Isentrout. By all accounts an eccentric, reclusive sort, he never married, had no family, and in 1985, he died alone and penniless, left to be buried in an unmarked grave in Hebrew's Rest #3 Cemetery in Gentilly.
In that instant, Saving Mr. Bingle became more than just a fun little Christmas story about New Orleans. It became a vehicle for keeping Mr. Bingle's spirit alive and honoring Oscar Isentrout's memory, regardless of what might happen in the corporate world. If Saving Mr. Bingle can tell the story of Mr. Bingle in a fun, entertaining way, we might be able to raise a little money to purchase a tombstone for Oscar's grave and revive local interest in our favorite little snow fairy.
If we can accomplish this, we will have taken the first step in preserving Mr. Bingle for generations to come and in honoring -- albeit 20 years too late -- Oscar Isentrout for the timeless gift of joy that he brought to thousands of children in New Orleans.