The retail celebrity—and ‘Keeper of the Keys’ to Santa’s workshop—was a staple of Cleveland’s Christmas scene

By Vince Guerrieri

Ghosts of retail can be found in downtowns everywhere. City leaders in Youngstown are debating what to do with 20 West Federal Street, a building best known as home to Strouss’ department store. Ford Field in Detroit incorporated a warehouse from the former Hudson’s Department Store into its design. Penn Avenue near Stanwix Street still has horns embedded in the sidewalk, part of the logo of Horne’s Department Store.

In Cleveland, three of the department stores downtown have been reused or adapted. The former May Company on Public Square has become luxury housing. Across Ontario Street, also on Public Square, is the former Higbee’s, immortalized in “A Christmas Story,” it’s now the site of Jack Casino. And the former Halle’s, at 1228 Euclid Avenue is an office park.

Listeners to Cleveland radio stations can occasionally hear on-air personnel talk about the Halle Building. (It was the namesake for Cleveland native and Oscar winner Halle Berry.) But its lasting—if less well-known—contribution to pop culture and retail is a character named Mr. Jingeling.

Mr. Jingeling was created as part of an advertising campaign in the 1950s, complete with his own backstory as the keeper of the keys for Santa’s workshop. He outlived the department store that inspired him—and another that took him on after Halle’s went to retail heaven. Since the early 1990s, he’s bounced around from place to place. Like a literal Christmas spirit, he could be found each year in fits and starts, if you were willing to look.

But this year, he’s got a promoter who’s ready to incorporate him back into the Christmas season. Jimmy Langa, the man behind the Kringle’s Inventionasium Experience at Tower City, now owns the rights to the character, and Mr. Jingeling has a full slate of events—where he’s greeted with the same warmth he got when he started sixty years earlier. “After the pandemic, people needed the goodwill of Mr. Jingeling,” Langa said.

 

The era after World War II marked an inflection point for department stores. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, multi-story palaces of commerce had sprung up in virtually every city with a commercial business district. And every city had its own department store: Hudson’s in Detroit (the namesake family also provided seed money for an eponymous auto company), Kaufmann’s in Pittsburgh, Lazarus in Columbus and LaSalle’s in Toledo (which, like the Public Square May Company, has gained new life as an apartment complex).

City neighborhoods were usually fairly self-contained; people didn’t have to venture far for a grocery or drugstore. But going downtown was still an event—a special night out that might include dinner, a show and even some shopping. “People didn’t go downtown because they had to,” Thomas Welsh, a historian who’s written about downtown Youngstown, including Strouss’ Department Store, said. “They did because they wanted to. People got dressed up to go downtown.”

Downtown got dressed up as well. Early on, stores relied on foot traffic, and windows displays were not just assembled, Welsh says, but crafted. “Window dressers took tremendous pride in their work, and in their own way, they were artists,” he told me. But as the 1950s dawned, stores had to consider other ways to meet their customers, who were moving farther and farther away from the city center. The twentieth-century rise in department stores also brought with it a related industry: Advertising.

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At one point, catalogs just listed prices and goods—anything from clothes to houses. But as people got more sophisticated and had more choices, retailers had to persuade customers to shop there. Stores began to hire advertising companies and create characters for the Christmas season. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was initially created by a Montgomery Ward employee. (His brother-in-law wrote a song about it, Gene Autry recorded it, and the rest, as they say, is history.) Marshall Field’s in Chicago created Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly, who lived in Cloud Cottage on the eighth floor of the flagship store in Chicago’s Loop.

Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly no doubt influenced Mr. Jingeling, who premiered in 1956 with an origin story to rival that of any comic book hero. He’s a famed locksmith with keys to every castle, as well as to Pandora’s Box and Davey Jones’ Locker, among other places. Shortly before Christmas Eve, Santa, locked out of his own workshop, enlisted his help. Ever since, Mr. Jingeling has been known as the keeper of the keys to Santa’s Toyland.

The initial Mister Jingeling was Thomas Moviel, a Cleveland police officer. (Halle’s already hired police officers to play Santa Claus, and Moviel gave added credibility to the role of Mr. Jingeling; he was on the jail detail, and had his own large keyring to use as a prop. Mr. Jingeling made a handful of store appearances in what was supposed to be a one-off campaign.

But the character proved wildly popular, thanks in no small part to regular television appearances on the local children’s show Captain Penny. Moviel was replaced by local actor Max Ellis, who played Mr. Jingeling until his untimely death in 1964. Earl Keyes, who’d produced the TV show, then stepped into the role. Keyes was the longest-serving and best-known portrayer of Mr. Jingeling.

Halle’s gave up the ghost in 1982, and Keyes and his key ring went to Higbee’s, which jumped at the chance to get the local character. He filled the role there for another decade before that store closed. Mr. Jingeling moved to the new mall at Tower City, until 1995, and then largely disappeared. Keyes died in 2000—and it looked like Mr. Jingeling might die with him.

 

At thirty-seven, Jimmy Langa isn’t old enough to remember Mr. Jingeling. But his uncles did, and Langa remembers them rhapsodizing about how he was as much a part of the season as eggnog and “A Christmas Story.” So, in 2005, after graduating from college at DePaul University in Chicago (where, he says, people are still upset that Marshall Field’s flagship store has been rebranded as Macy’s), Langa was determined to bring a little magic into downtown Cleveland—which, at the time, could definitely use it.

Technically, Mr. Jingeling still existed. Two days before Christmas in 1999, the trademark was renewed by a man named John Awarski, who incorporated a company called Traditions Alive. Mr. Jingeling continued to make appearances throughout Northeast Ohio. And eventually, that included Kringle’s Inventionasium, a Christmas experience Langa developed in an old Fuddrucker’s at Tower City. The Inventionasium was inspired by Langa’s own childhood cultural touchstones: Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and Tim Burton. It offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Santa’s workshop, and Mr. Jingeling seemed like a natural addition.

Awarski died in 2016, and Langa took on the character’s rights. He told me he interviewed every actor in the region. All of them were talented, but he couldn’t find anyone with that special magic. Finally, a friend connected him to Don Beck, a Medina area native who’d played Santa for decades. “This man was pure magic, and as soon as he got on the call, I knew he was the guy,” Langa says. “I’m so glad the universe brought us together.”

The friend wasn’t sure Beck would be willing to shave his beard, but it turns out he had grown up watching Mr. Jingeling on Captain Penny. “The beard was a small sacrifice for the opportunity to be the one and only Mr. Jingeling and continue that legacy,” he told me. “It really wasn’t even a question. It was sad to see the beard go, but I’d been having such a good time, that it definitely seemed like the right choice.”

Mr. Jingeling has a built-in adult audience, but Beck was worried what kids of today would think. “I was a little nervous at first giving the cardboard keys to kids,” he said. “I thought they’d look at it and wonder, ‘How do I turn it on?’” But he’s as beloved by kids as he seems to be by their parents—or. in some instances, grandparents. Beck says some adults will tear up at the sight of him as Mr. Jingeling, a connection that may have been strained through the years, but never broken. “People are reliving their childhood memories,” he said.

These days, there’s no need to get dressed up and go downtown anymore. Shopping can be done in your pajamas on your couch. But people are starting to return—for housing, recreation, leisure. And in the era of Amazon, brick-and-mortar stores offer an experience that can’t be duplicated online. “Investing in Christmas magic is not a futile endeavor,” Langa said. “If you get people excited and give them memories, they will come back. You will see a return on that.” ■

 

 

Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.

Cover image: Mr. Jingeling (courtesy photo).

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