By Susan Petrone
There are elves in the bookstore where I work. They’re my age or maybe a little older. They are in the store window getting ready for Christmas. A couple of them are having a snowball fight. The elves are refugees from Halle’s Department store.
If your only experience of a department store is going to Macy’s or Nordstroms somewhere in the suburbs, if your idea of visiting Santa is a guy sitting on a shabby throne in the middle of a shopping mall, I feel bad for you. There was a time not so long ago where going downtown to see the Christmas displays and to visit Santa was An Event. You know how in A Christmas Story, the store has so many decorations that one more piece of tinsel would cause structural damage and Ralphie and his brother have to climb up an elaborate indoor mountain to visit Santa? Yeah, stores really used to do stuff like that, even as recently as the 1970s.
The only remnant left of the downtown department stores is the Higbee Building, home of the casino [blocktext align=”left”]They performed the hell out of that show all during the Christmas season, for free. [/blocktext](because nothing says “Christmas” like throwing your money away), and the Halle Building, which has been reconfigured as an office building. We went to Halle’s downtown when I was a kid because that was the home of Mr. Jingeling. In recession America, where every penny is counted and every bit of entertainment seems to rely on technology, it’s difficult to imagine a time when a department store would put on a half-hour original musical featuring Mr. Jingeling and two other characters with live piano accompaniment. They performed the hell out of that show all during the Christmas season, for free. That’s just what Halle’s did. You didn’t have to buy anything to see the Mr. Jingeling play. You just went downtown to the Halle Building on Euclid Avenue and went up to the 7th floor.
But you didn’t just walk up to the stage and plop down to wait for the show. No, to get to Mr. Jingeling (and Santa, who occasionally seemed like an afterthought), you went through a Christmas maze that took up much of the store’s 7th floor. The elves currently in the bookstore were among the dozen of poseable elves and mechanical people and animals used in the Halle’s windows and to create the Christmas maze. The maze had enough magic to turn even the most skeptical little kid into a believer.
Except me. I don’t ever remember believing in Santa Claus when I was a little kid. For that, I blame my parents. And Mr. Jingeling.
When I was a tiny little kid, my parents got the job of writing the half-hour Mr. Jingeling musical. My mother wrote the book and the lyrics and my father wrote the music. My parents would write it in the fall, and then Mr. Jingeling (okay, the actor Earl Keyes, whose name became synonymous with the character) and whatever side actors they’d written in that year would come to our house and rehearse. Then they performed the half-hour show (with my father on piano) several times a day, starting from the day after Thanksgiving (back then we still called it “the day after Thanksgiving” instead of Black Friday) all the way up until Christmas Eve.
It was quite the kick for my six-year-old self to sit next to my father on the piano bench while he played the show. I imagined that all the kids in the audience were looking at me in envy, when in reality they probably couldn’t see me behind the piano and were watching the show anyway. And why not? They were good shows. Cute with catchy little tunes and a Christmas message about love, etc. [blocktext align=”right”]The backstage area wasn’t all that big, so Mr. Jingeling and Santa shared a dressing room. [/blocktext]And Mr. Jingeling was Right There, singing and dancing right in front of you. He still did his TV spots, but we all know the live show beats TV any day.
The other cool thing about having our parents write the show was that we could go backstage. Now here’s the thing. The backstage area wasn’t all that big, so Mr. Jingeling and Santa shared a dressing room. The show always allowed for three characters—Mr. Jingeling and two others. To the best of my memory, any male actors would use the same big dressing room too, and any female actors used a smaller dressing room. I had met Mr. Jingeling/Mr. Keyes at our house with the other actors, when they showed up dressed like normal people, and stood in our living room and practiced songs. I understood the difference between a real person and the role that person might playing.
But when you see Mr. Jingeling and two Santas sitting around in their costume pants and T-shirts and talking about what kid peed on their lap or how the Browns were doing, well, that kind of killed some of the Christmas magic for me.
So I didn’t believe in Santa. But I did believe in Mr. Jingeling, at least, in the kindness I saw embodied in the actor who played him. Earl Keyes was incredibly patient and funny and kind with every single little kid. You hear stories about Earl’s love for the character and the kids, that if a kid got to the store right before closing, when Earl was already out of costume, he’d go back and put on his costume and make up and come out just to talk to that one kid. Those stories are true. I saw it happen. Halle’s had closed by then, and Mr. Jingeling had moved to Higbee’s. I worked at Higbee’s a couple of Christmases in high school, taking the rapid to and from Cleveland Heights to downtown. They had two Santa (no waiting), and Mr. Jingeling, and a live show, but the decorations paled in comparison to the ones I had grown up seeing at Halle’s.
Part of wonderment of those Halle’s displays is due to a man named Ron Newell, who worked at Halle’s from 1956 until the store closed in 1982. He was the Assistant Director of Window Display, a window designer, and Special Events Designer. He was also a long-time friend of my parents (and recommended them for the gig writing the Jingeling show). [blocktext align=”left”]”Even back then I was telling stories in the windows. Without really thinking about it, I guess I looked at them as vignettes.”-Ron Newell, Halle’s window designer[/blocktext]Ron was the mastermind behind the Christmas mazes that took wide-eyed kids and their parents to Mr. Jingeling. In addition to being an incredibly talented designer, he’s known around the city as a consummate actor and director.
I once asked him about his work at Halle’s, the window displays, the mazes, the elves. He said that he had maybe 100 of the elves and mechanical figures (like carolers). “All the little people I ever used had to be doing something. To me they were like action figures,” he said. “They couldn’t just be standing there looking cute. They had be doing something. I guess even back then I was telling stories in the windows—what’s the story in this window? Without really thinking about it, I guess I looked at them as vignettes. You don’t just look into a window and see a witch—you look into a window and see them doing something.”
When Halle’s closed, Ron gave five of the little elves to my family. My sister used them to decorate the store window of a short-lived used bookstore my mother co-owned on Lee Road (Wordsworth—honk if you remember it) and of the old Booksellers stores on Shaker Square and Pavilion Mall. Then they sat in a box in her attic for a while. Years, in fact.
I started working at Loganberry Books on Larchmere Boulevard a while ago. When it came time to decorate the store windows for Christmas, I asked my sister if we could use the elves. She was more than happy to give them a new lease on life, and the owner was happy to have that bit of Cleveland history. They’re there now, in Loganberry’s holiday window display. Stop by and see them.
The elves aren’t as pristine as they once were, but who is? I still don’t believe in Santa, but I believe in the power of memory, both my own and the ones my family and I create each year. I believe in the magic of this holiday, the light in the bleak mid-winter, of its ability to turn us all into wide-eyed little kids, in awe of the beauty before us.
Susan Petrone is a Cleveland writer.