Bingle's battery runs on smiles
By Ronnie Virgets
The Times-Picayune/The States-Item
December 21, 1984
Oscar Isentraut got into a puppet club when he was in school
in Brooklyn. That was about half a century ago.
"Our teacher was Irish and she had an Irish temperament, " Isentraut
said. "We'd have to build our own puppets, and if we messed
up, sometimes she'd get mad and slam our puppets to the ground.
If they broke, she said,
'You didn't build your puppet right.'"
So Isentraut learned all about puppets. His most famous one
has lasted for 35 Christmases, and some New Orleanians can't imagine a holiday
season without him.
Oscar Isentraut certainly can't.
On with the show
It's time for the 3:30 p.m. performance of Mr. Bingle. On the
fourth floor of the Canal Street Maison Blanche, just past the lamp department,
sprawl and tumble on the carpet in front of a small stage A few
feet back, three mothers smile.
Music. Curtain up. Up pops a snowman puppet, more slender than your average
snowman, and wearing an inverted ice-cream cone for a hat. "Hi, kids!" squeaks
the snowman. "I'm Mr. Bingle!"
The oldest child puts her hands over her mouth as her eyes
grow very large. The boy squeals and tries to do a back headstand. The youngest
child simply opens
her arms wide to embrace it all.
What follows is 20 fast minutes of a show that is part vaudeville,
part morality play and full fantasy. There are spiteful gremlin puppets who for
a time threaten
to wreak Santa's workshop, but a wise Kris Kringle demonstrates
how they can be disposed of by simply making them laugh.
For the furious finale, Isentraut joins his puppets on stage,
kicking up his heels in a rousing little dance. After the curtain rings down,
and the audience
moves on, Isentraut emerges from behind the curtain, wiping his
brow and puffing.
"The business always turns out to be more than you thought," he
says through a huffing smile.
The call to amuse and entertain others came to young Oscar
Isentraut by an internal voice, a series of voices.
"I was working as an usher at a Warner Bros. theater on
Broadway when I saw a movie short by the creators of 'Amos 'n' Andy,' explaining
did different voices. I knew I had different voices inside me."
Isentraut knocked around with a few puppet shows touring upper
New York and Canada before deciding to strike out for his fortune. On a whim,
he bought a bus ticket
to New Orleans, and the first day he arrived, in 1947, he landed
in a semi-burlesque show at the old Lafayette Theater.
A year later, he answered a call to give voice to a mute department store
Blanche already had the Mr. Bingle figure, but their ad agency
decided to bring him to life. It was just the right set of circumstances
from the display manager and sales promotion man to the store carpenters
and painters were turned on by the idea."
Mr. Bingle started out in commercials in the earliest days
of television, hawking everything from ladies' stockings to washing machines,
but gradually he took
on an aura and a following that enabled him, much like Smokey the
Bear had done, to transcend his commercial origins.
"When you see the faces," Isentraut says, "when
you're looking out into the audience and you see what he means to the people
The first time we performed with him 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
That's when I knew what I'd been sent here to do."
Isentraut, 61, a bachelor, has devoted his life to being Geppetto looking
at the Wishing Star, wishing for Pinocchio to become a real live boy. "I've
only taken one vacation without Bingle," he says. "It
just feels funny to be too far away from him."
The 4:30 edition of the Mr. Bingle show is nearing, and the crowd for this
one looks like it will be small. Isentraut doesn't care. "The
looks on the faces will always be there, and guess what? I see
the same look
faces of the
mommies and daddies who bring the kids."
A young mother marches up, carrying a little girl toward her
first look at one of New Orleans' most enduring holiday institutions. Isentraut
reaches out to
grab the little girl by the thumb.
"Come on in!" he says. "Mr. Bingle's waiting."
© 1984 The Times-Picayune Publishing Co. All rights reserved.
Used with permission of The Times-Picayune.
Special thanks to The Times-Picayune for their permission
to use these wonderful articles and photos for
"Jingle, Jangle Christmas!"