One went downtown to shop for personal things such as nice clothing and jewelry and to visit tea rooms and take in the color, such as a mechanical version of the monocled and top-hatted Mr. Peanut tapping with his cane on a silver dollar taped to the inside of the window of the Peanut Shoppe.
Public transportation there was provided by trolleys, which had rubber tires and looked a lot like modern buses except they had a long pole on top and were powered by electricity from overhead wires.
If you were a lucky boy – and I was – your mother worked downtown. And if you were really lucky, she worked in one of the big department stores.
My mother worked in a wood-and-glass warren on one of the upper floors of Lowenstein’s. It was her first job since she started having children 14 years earlier.
I was her last, and so when when I started the first grade, she was free to re-enter the work force. It was a welcome but forced freedom, as we simply needed the money.
A smart, determined woman, she had lost some of her confidence. It helped that she had a good boss. She would tell us about the kind “Mr. Orndorff.”
Lowenstein’s was also where Mr. Bingle worked, in the toy department.
Mr. Bingle was an unusual fella. He wore a pointed hat and carried a cane.
And he flew. That’s because he had holly-leaf wings. Strings attached to his snowman appendages helped.
Sometimes we were allowed to go downtown and visit Mama. We lived in a suburb, but it was more like a little town, nothing like Memphis.
Memphis was a real city. (And unreal. Kind of like the North Pole for Mississippi.) And the closer you got to downtown, the realer and dreamier it got.
We kids got downtown somehow. The buses didn’t run that far out. Maybe we flew.
Amid all those tall buildings we felt like elves, so dwarfed were we.
There was Lowenstein’s, as I mentioned, and Goldsmith’s, and Gerber’s and Bry’s and numerous big hotels – the Chisca, the Tennessee, the Claridge, the King Cotton and the Peabody, which is the lone survivor to this day.
Year-round, there was bustle and hustle. The city sidewalks were crowded. And in December there was a definite feeling of Christmas.
And there was Mr. Bingle.
He was our special Memphis snowman.
Except he wasn’t.
Little did we know, but we shared him with New Orleans.
He came upriver, where he was dreamt up in 1947 by an employee of the Maison Blanche department store. (Mr. Bingle, Maison Blanche. MB. Get it?)
A man named Oscar Eisentrout, who was a puppeteer on Bourbon Street, turned the drawing into a three-dimensional figure, according to Edward Branley, a New Orleans author and blogger.
Mr. Bingle took up residency at Lowenstein’s in Memphis because the retailer was owned by Mercantile Stores, which also owned Maison Blanche.
If you couldn’t make it downtown, the magic of television brought his performances from the Lowenstein’s toy department to your living room in black and white, right after school was let out.
So why didn’t he make it to the big time, like Rudolph and Frosty? A good lyricist would’ve helped. His jingle jangled.
Eventually, Dillard’s bought Mercantile and in doing so bought Mr. Bingle.
My wife, who also grew up in Memphis, had fallen under the spell of Mr. Bingle. A few days ago, she surprised me with a Christmas tree ornament in the likeness of the little guy.
Dillard’s is selling Mr. Bingle ornaments. One is made in glass by Christopher Radko for $60.
I’m fine with the sturdy $8 version now flying amid the angels, reindeer, lights, tinsel and family decorations on our tree.
He’s liable to survive another 60 years, or longer if he’s reinvented in this age of limitless media.
» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1016.
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