It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The air is crisper, PJ's is serving Jingle Bells blend, holiday wreaths top the St. Charles streetcar and the Lower Garden District is twinkling with festive lights. Traditions like The Running of the Santas, happy hour at the Roosevelt, Christmas Eve gumbo, oyster dressing, mirliton, the Krewe of Jingle, Miracle on Fulton Street, carols in Jackson Square and the bonfires that light the way for Papa Noel are all a reminder that Tis' the Season. But if you ask some NOLA lifers, one of the city's best traditions is the vintage department store icon, Mr. Bingle.
If you didn't grow up with Mr. Bingle, it's impossible to explain the nostalgia radiating from the giant flying snowman with a waffle cone hat. With a rich history anchored in the holiday hustle and bustle of old-school Canal Street, this goofy, advertorial snowball is an undeniable aspect of New Orleans culture that the city has diligently worked to keep alive. How did Santa's frosty assistant become the face of Christmas in New Orleans? Are his creepy voice and commercial jingle a retro piece of Christmas past? Or is the spirit of Mr. Bingle frozen in the rich mix of holiday life here in the city?
"I can remember when Canal Street was a real destination during the holidays," says one Uptown resident. "You could see the ladies in white gloves all dressed up to do their shopping and of course, Mr. Bingle was at Maison Blanche. It was Maison Blanche, right?" In fact, it was. Mr. Bingle was imagined in 1947 by Maison Blanche's window-display manager, Emile Alline. Inspired by the "Uncle Mistletoe" character from Marshall Fields in Chicago, Mr. Bingle was designed to draw crowds. In 1948, Alline brought the Maison Blanche mascot to life with the help of French Quarter puppeteer Edwin Harmon "Oscar" Isentrout and the third-floor toy department was transformed into a winter wonderland spectacle. In 1949, the 50 x 35 ft. paper maché snowman was mounted on the 14 story high Maison Blanche building. The store became the quintessential Christmas destination and Mr. Bingle simultaneously rose to fame as the star of his own local TV show which aired before the evening news. Mr. Bingle performed both in Maison Blanche and on WDSU for the next twenty years.
During the next few decades, not only was Mr. Bingle the crown jewel of Christmas, but it is also suspected that he inspired another pop culture icon - Saturday Night Live's Mr. Bill. Created by New Orleans local, Walter Williams, Mr. Bill was a submission to SNL's call for home movies in 1978. A tragic comedian is known to say "Oh nooooooo," Mr. Bill went on to make regular appearances on SNL for the next 7 years. In the most telling sketch, Mr. Bill requests to be a cone head (another popular sketch on the show). Mr. Hands (Vance DeGeneres, brother of Ellen) gives Mr. Bill a waffle cone hat, then moments later smashes him with it. "Oh noooooooo!" At some point, the original Mr. Bingle was destroyed when Maison Blanche attempted to fly Santa in via helicopter. In 1990, a large flying replica was commissioned for the front of the store which is where it would reside each December for the next 8 years. But in 1998, Maison Blanche was bought out by Dillards, making way for the present day Ritz-Carlton. Mr. Bingle was transferred to Metairie and away from the magic of Canal Street. The jolly snowman was 50 years old.
Over the next few years, Dillards tried to carry out Mr. Bingle's legacy trademark but the 17 by 29 ft. fiberglass flyer was in questionable condition. In the early part of the century, the once pinnacle of Canal Street was deemed a liability and moved to a Mardi Gras World storage center on the West Bank. Although many of Mr. Bingle's fans lobbied to get the icon fixed up, the project was estimated at a whopping $45,000 and so he remained in storage, slowly fading from the public eye. When Katrina hit in 2005, Mr. Bingle was miraculously spared despite damage to almost every other warehouse.
Though Katrina discharged everyone's favorite snowman, City Park was quite another story. With $43 million dollars worth of damage, it was the community that stepped up to help restore the 1,300-acre park, rallying around the upcoming Celebration in the Oaks. Not only was the park semi-restored for the event, but with the help of Dillards and Omni Bank (which set up a fund for community donations), the people raised enough to refurbish Mr. Bingle. It was a Christmas miracle. Only four months after the hurricane, a scaled-down version of the park's annual light display was met with incredible support. As New Orleanians flocked to the park to seek solace from the damage left behind, they were met with an uplifting force of a survivor - Mr. Bingle himself.
"He's such an interesting character - He's such a large part of cultural New Orleans, that it would really just break people's hearts not to have him here," says City Park's Amanda Frenz. Mr. Bingle still graces City Park's favorite family-oriented holiday festival, representing well over half a century of holiday memories.
For some, Mr. Bingle is a holiday plush or keepsake ornament (Amanda collects photos of the community with their Mr. Bingle dolls for the Celebration in the Oaks website. The dolls are available for purchase at Dillard's, but not at Celebration in the Oaks). For others, he is a symbol of childhood, and for others still, he is a tribute to the year City Park made a quick come back. These days he might even be a part of your social network. "He's pretty interesting on Twitter [and Instagram]," Amanda says of the snowman's handle @MisterBingle. "He's a bit of a curmudgeon - he sleeps all day and parties all night. He's a true New Orleanian."
But even though Mr. Bingle has been able to stand the test of time, will his story? Can his tradition survive the starry-eyed kids that saw him on the Maison Blanche building?
"Celebration [in the Oaks] is such a tradition in and of itself - this is a big part of the New Orleans holiday season. Even though it's possible children now days don't know him as a Canal Street icon; they don't know him like our parents knew him - they know him as a part of our tradition here in City Park."
Celebration in the Oaks, which began in 1986, takes about 8 - 10 months of preparation Amanda discloses. With only 7 staff members creating the incredible light display by hand it's no wonder some aspects of the exhibit get put up early. While well-loved aspects of Celebration in the Oaks like the dripping tree will stay the same with over 40,000 LED bulbs, the month-long spectacle (beginning with the exclusive preview on Nov. 22) will be adding some new stuff too. This year, look for the Sea-La-Bration with mermaids and starfish, Storyland's floating astronauts, and an enhanced version of the two-mile holiday mini train. But even with 32,800 linear feet of rope lights, 95,000 inches of cable ties, 8,000 linear feet of zip cord and 500 potted poinsettias, there is still only one Mr. Bingle.
"If you stand next to him on any night here [at Celebration in the Oaks] you can hear parents telling their kids the story of Mr. Bingle on Canal Street…It's just something so small and then you're like "this actually really cool - let's make this an integral part of what it means to live in this city" Amanda continues.
Among Mr. Bingle's many claims to fame, he serves as the backdrop for countless yearly family photos. Last year he was even photographed with Will Farrell during the production of The Campaign. As the voice of Celebration in the Oaks, he has his own page on City Park's website where kids can learn to make waffle cone hats and adults can reminisce with pictures and articles from City Park's extensive archive. It appears that no matter how old he is, everyone loves Mr. Bingle. "He's for kids, but he's also for adults. He enjoys cocktails, but he also enjoys marshmallows" Amanda concludes.
Whether this time of year takes you to the bottom of a marshmallow bag, down to the French Quarter for Reveillon dinner and a hot buttered rum at the Davenport Lounge on Canal, or over City Park for a hot chocolate and a glimpse at Mr. Bingle, don't forget to enjoy with loved ones. And definitely don't be surprised if the snowman's illusive jingle sneaks its way into your head - who knows, perhaps a tale of Christmas past and the wonders of Maison Blanche's elusive 3rd-floor wonderland might just wedge its way into the conversation.