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For Love of Mr. Bingle



Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche
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Oscar Isentraut with Santa Claus and Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche

Staff Photo By Bevil S. Knapp
© 1984 The Times-Picayune Publishing Co. All rights reserved.
Used with permission of The Times-Picayune.

 

Mr. Bingle's battery runs on smiles
By Ronnie Virgets
Correspondent
Around Town
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, three children 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 business

   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 how they 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 snowman. "Maison 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 to do it, because everybody 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 watching. 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 on Bingle's. 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 on the 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.



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to use these wonderful articles and photos for
"Jingle, Jangle Christmas!"

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(Ashleigh Austin's Personal Collection)
Ellen Clapsaddle Postcard
Early 1900's
International Art Publishing Co.


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