History of Mr. Jingeling
In 1956, Walter Halle, president of The Halle Bros. Co., wished to develop a holiday marketing campaign that would help promote the toys at his department store in Cleveland, Ohio. He solicited the help of long time friend, Frank Jacobi. Jacobi worked as the head of an advertising agency in Chicago. Jacobi soon conceived the idea for a character that would be Santa’s main assistant. This elf would hold the keys to his workshop, the “Treasure House of Toys.” Originally the character was going to be named Mr. Jingles, but was changed to Mr. Jingeling as soon as Jacobi learned the previous name was similar to one already being used.
Halle's 7th floor...
The character of Mr. Jingeling was an instant success when he debuted that Christmas. And, what was initially intended to be a one-time promotion, soon became an annual tradition that would continue to grow in popularity with each passing decade. Halle’s quickly became a holiday destination. They created a wonderland of toys on the department store’s 7th floor. There, everyone would meet the cheery ‘ol elf and receive a good luck key before seeing Santa Claus.
From the jail unit...
During the 1950s, most department stores in downtown Cleveland employed police officers to portray Santa Claus. Since they were already on payroll, working security, many officers appreciated the opportunity to have extra money to spend on their families at Christmas time. Thus, The Halle Bros. Co. hired Officer Thomas V. Moviel to be the first Mr. Jingeling. Officer Moviel worked in the Jail Unit. Fittingly, he brought along several jail cell keys on a ring to use as a prop. The gimmick stuck, and became a key element in the lore.
The novelty of the character attracted the attention of WEWS-TV. As a result, they invited Mr. Jingeling to perform short segments on the Captain Penny show. Having to join the Actors Guild, and unable to afford the union dues, while still caring for several children, Moviel had to decline. But, he continued delighting children with in-store appearances that season, until he was replaced the next year.
Over the airwaves...
In response to the interest from WEWS-TV, the Halle Bros. Co. began seeking out a professional actor to portray Mr. Jingeling on television. At the time, Max Ellis was one of the most acclaimed and sought after regional actors. He appeared regularly in productions at the Cleveland Play House. Appropriately, Max Ellis was asked to take on the role of Santa’s head elf and entertain children over the airwaves during the 1956 holiday. Ellis accepted the position. He began appearing twice every afternoon annually from Thanksgiving to Christmas. It wasn’t long before children from all over Northeastern Ohio became enchanted by the character and the famous song synonymous with him. Ellis continued to be the persona of Mr. Jingeling for almost a decade, until his sudden death in June of 1964.
In the wake of Ellis’ passing, auditions were held to find the next Mr. Jingeling. Karl Mackey, managing director of Lakewood Little Theatre, landed the part. However, juggling responsibilities with the theatre made it difficult for Mackey to fully commit. So, he only played the character for the 1964 holiday season.
A lasting legacy...
From the very beginning, Mr. Jingeling had captured the imagination of Captain Penny’s producer, Earl Keyes. Keyes also performed regularly on the show as Wilbur Wiffenpoof. During the holidays, when he wasn’t working at WEWS-TV, Keyes was on Halle’s 7th floor playing the character for in-person visits. As a result, In 1965, Halle’s asked Keyes to become the main Mr. Jingeling and take over the appearances on television. Keyes eagerly accepted the position. He went on to become the longest, and arguably, the most famous person to personify the spirit of this beloved cultural icon. Occasionally, he called upon his wife Nadine to play Mrs. Jingeling.
Even after the closing of Halle’s Department Store in 1982, Keyes took it upon himself to keep the tradition alive. Beginning Christmas 1982, Higbees Department Store hosted Mr. Jingeling as part of their Santa experience on the 10th floor until right before its demise in 1992. Keyes continued to create lasting memories during the holidays by making special appearances, for instance, and greetings fans at Tower City Center from 1990 until his last appearance in 1995.
Into the future...
Mr. Jingeling disappeared from the zeitgeist of Cleveland Christmas traditions from the mid 1990s to early 2000s. During this time, a group of friends who grew up watching Mr. Jingeling on television began to reminisce about their memories of the nostalgic elf. Just for fun, one of them, John Awarski, went to see if Earl Keyes was listed in the phone book. To his surprise, Keyes answered when he called, and invited Awarski to his house to learn all about the Keeper of the Keys.
Soon after, in 2000, Earl Keyes passed away, coincidently, the day after Christmas. Awarski, his wife, and close friends decided to form Traditions Alive with the mission of continuing the Mr. Jingeling legacy. In 2003, they secured regional performer, Jonathan Wilhem who played the character until 2010. For the last decade, recording artist and songwriter, Greg Benedetto, had assumed the role and made numerous appearances all over Northeastern Ohio. In early 2020, the pandemic changed the world, and the torch was passed to the Mr. Kringle Company with the hope of reintroducing the tradition to a completely new generation of families. According to Mr. Kringle, the last 65 years was just the beginning…
- “Mr. Jingeling, the beloved Christmas icon, lives on every holiday season in Cleveland”. WEWS. 2019-12-06.
- “Mr. Jingeling has lifelong love of fantasy”, Lakewood Sun Post, June 7, 1990.
- “The First Mr. Jingeling”. Cleveland Police Museum. 2019-12-18.
- “Mr. Jingeling”. Encyclopedia Of Cleveland History. Case Western Reserve University. Therese Ruane.
- Cleveland Christmas Memories: Looking Back at Holidays Past by Gail Ghetia Bellamy; Gray & Company, Publishers; Cleveland, Ohio 2012.