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Mr. Bingle, The Hometown Tradition
Written By George Gurtner
Photo by Rick Olivier
Courtesy of New Orleans Magazine
December 1989 Issue
What becomes a legend most?
How about moving gracefully into
"Mr. Bingle," that syrupy, smiling,
little stringed puppet character who
has been with us every Christmas seemingly
since the first one at Bethlehem, has done
just that: no noticeable paunch (he's always
been a little overstuffed), no failing eyesight,
no receding hairline.
And thank God it is so! At 41, Mr. Bingle
will be with us again this Christmas, remaining
a constant symbol of whatever we wish Christmas to be.
Mr. Bingle is, of course, indelibly stamped
as a Maison Blanche creation, cavorting as the
main character in the marionette Christmas shows in the
store's giant windows on Canal Street.
And over the years we've watched him zip over to Charity
Hospital to visit a poor kid who was in at
Christmas time to get a tonsillectomy. We
remember him on the Midday Show on
WDSU-TV buzzing about the head of then-host
Terry Flettrich. How could we ever forget "Breakfast
with Mr. Bingle," a sort of kids' dinner playhouse
staged daily for hordes of youngsters while their
mothers shopped the Canal Street store. And that
two-story-tall cutout of Mr. Bingle bearing the message,
"Mr. Bingle is here with Christmas cheer," on the front
of the Canal Street Store. That's what Mr. Bingle was ...
and still is: a transition back to those kinder, gentler
days when you bought your Christmas tree at the Jefferson
Feed and Hardware Store on Magazine Street, then visited
your aunt and uncle's home and drank eggnog and watched
as they wrapped simple, non-lethal, non-battery operated,
kids' toys, things like skates and dolls a good-looking
catcher's mitt bearing the name "Yogi Berra."
And, all the while the sounds of Bing Crosby drifted
in from the big Emerson record player in the next room.
And everywhere was the smell of that jaw-shattering,
sweet candy your aunt used to keep in "Dese candy dishes
I got from Woolsworth" all over the house.
Oh, let us not misunderstand. Lo, these past 42 years
the Mr. Bingle through whom we have been flushed with the
holiday spirit has not exactly been standing still.
For though he looks basically the same, there have been
changes. In the early 1980s, Godchaux's Stores bought out
Maison Blanche. But MB kept its name in New Orleans. Then
Maison Blanche bought out two other companies -- May-Cohen
and Robinson's, thereby spreading into Florida.
The Canal Street store closed down from 1982-1984, then
reopened, and most of the world has disdained downtown
shopping for the Muzak-induced coma-walk of mall shopping.
The original singular Mr. Bingle has been marketed
ferociously ("Thousands and thousands of Mr. Bingle dolls
have been sold," says Maison Blanche Senior Vice President
Don Bell). And where Mr. Bingle's Christmas turf was once
confined to the windows and playhouses of the Canal Street
store and a few other nearby stops, our Christmas 1989
version of "Mr. B" will appear live at the White House
and at the Citrus Bowl Football Game in Orlando this yule
season. In addition, look-alikes of the original spreader
of cheer will star in shows in Maison Blanche stores in
Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and, of course, New Orleans.
In Florida, he will appear in shows in MB stores in Naples,
Fort Myers, Sarasota, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater,
Lakeland, Daytona, Orlando and Jacksonville.
And while Mr. Bingle himself remains virtually unchanged,
he has been spiffed up a bit to keep in step with the times,
we are told.
The 1989 edition sports a red woolen sweater emblazoned
with a logo which reads "Mr. Bingle University '89 ... Maison
Blanche." (Mr. Bingle University? Huhh?) There's a Mr. Bingle
"Watch Me Grow" chart to record a kid's growth ... and the
list goes on and on. Maybe they teach marketing at Mr. Bingle
In short, in addition to being a key to the door of the
nostalgia room, Mr. Bingle is big, big business for Maison
Blanche. "Mr. Bingle is to MB what fried chicken is to Al
Copeland ... big bucks," says one Maison Blanche employee.
A lot of money comes in ... and goes out because of Mr.
"He (Mr. Bingle) does not come cheap," says Bell, who is
director of all MB stores. "When you look at marketing,
storage, upkeep, transportation, putting up Mr. Bingle on
the Canal Street store, taking down ... you're looking at
a hefty chunk of my advertising budget."
So just who is this stuffed little personification of
everything that makes us feel all cuddly and warm and
soft about Christmas in New Orleans and where did he come
For that tale, Horatio Alger himself could not have written
a more born-in-a-log cabin, rags-to-riches story of how a
bonafide American hero is made.
Actually, the Mr. Bingle tale is two stories about two
One story is about this funny looking snowman doll wearing
an ice cream cone hat, holly wings, and clutching a candy
cane. The unnamed doll was bought on a whim at a trade show
by a Maison Blanche sales promotions director back in the
late 1940s. Nobody else wanted the odd-looking little
character, so the guy from MB bought it.
That would have been the end of that story, probably, except
for the second story.
This one is about a living, breathing, chain-smoking,
hard-drinking drifter named Edwin Harmon "Oscar" Isentrout,
who learned how to restore dolls at Public School 9 in
Isentrout had kicked around the country working at
everything from puppeteer with the world-famous Zuzares
Marionette Troupe to supper clubs, movie theaters and
finally supplying the bums and grinds to a "striptease
puppet" at a joint on Bourbon Street. He had picked up
the name "Oscar" from a billing somebody once laid on him
and his puppets. "Oscar and the Little Woodenheads."
Isentrout lived in the French Quarter in the late 1940s
and fell in love with those big windows at the Canal Street
Maison Blanche. He sold the MB brass on the idea of letting
him put on a Christmas puppet show. While he was doing that
he was introduced to the funny looking little rag doll nobody
except the MB sales promotion director had wanted.
Christmas in New Orleans was never quite the same after
"Oscar was Mr. Bingle and Mr. Bingle was Oscar," Bell says
of the man who named the doll to rhyme with "Kris Kringle."
The fact that Mr. Bingle's initials are also those of
Maison Blanche didn't hurt.
"It was unbelievable," Bell says. "I'd go to Oscar's office
to talk to him and I'd hear him having a conversation with
somebody. I didn't want to disturb them so I left and came
back. He was still having a conversation with Mr. Bingle ...
doing both voices."
Back in those early days the Maison Blanche promotions
people would fan out around August to try to round up
Isentrout to begin work on his Christmas show.
He needed months to work on the elaborate shows which included
a myriad of themes, music and stage settings. The lighting
was as dramatic as that of any theater in the country,
and the curtains which would roll up and to the side were
a marvel of stage wizardry.
But it was all built around Mr. Bingle and Mr. Bingle was
Oscar. Oscar was signed on as a full-time employee of Maison
"Oscar was incredible," Bell says. "He used to say, 'You
have to eat, sleep and drink it,' meaning his work ... and
he did. Everything about Mr. Bingle was and is stored on the
second floor of the Westside store. Oscar had everything
up there: wires, tools, boxes of arms, heads, hands,
workbenches, rolls of colored felt, metal signs. That floor
is called 'Bingle Land.' " Here was a man who did exactly
what he wanted to do with his life. He brought happiness to
kids through a simple little doll which he brought to life.
And in doing that he brought unbelievable happiness to
countless thousands of kids.
"It does a lot for the store too," Bell says. "Mr. Bingle
represents all the good things about the Maison Blanche
stores and Christmas in New Orleans."
Edwin Harmon "Oscar" Isentrout died in 1985. Mr. Bingle shed
a tear but he stayed on. Oscar would have wanted it that way.
But since Oscar's death, Mr. Bingle has not spoken a
single word. He spreads his joy now not with that high-pitched
voice that was so familiar for so many years; instead, he
now does it only with his actions.
"Oh, after a few drinks, I can speak just like Mr. Bingle,"
Bell says jokingly. "But no ... it just isn't right. As I
said, Oscar was Mr. Bingle and Mr. Bingle was Oscar.
Everybody just thought it would be better if we let that
unique voice die with Oscar."
The original Mr. Bingle, the one introduced to Oscar
Isentrout in the MB offices back in the 1940s, is alive
and well and has just begun headlining a Mr. Bingle
museum of sorts in the Canal Street store. He spent the
last year in a glass case in the Baton Rouge MB. His
look-alikes will be performing in all of those Christmas
extravaganzas in stores throughout Louisiana and Florida,
and that's okay.
"They haven't divided him or the Christmas cheer he spreads,"
Oscar would say. "They've multiplied him. Now there's a lot more
of Mr. Bingle to go around."
To Join Mr Bingle Collectables Club
for free go to "messages"