The last man to portray Mr. Jingeling, the Halle department store's surprisingly well-loved Christmas character, is 80 years old. He doesn't climb into his signature green suit for public appearances anymore. He no longer tells stories to audiences of wide-eyed youngsters. But he still sparks the holiday spirit in the hearts of those he meets.
He proved that on a recent Saturday afternoon at the Halle's 7th Floor Holiday Memories exhibit at Penitentiary Glen Reservation in Kirtland, the former summer home of the Halle family. When Earl Keyes and his wife, Nadine -- also known as Mrs. Jingeling -- paid an unpublicized visit to the park's nature center, where the exhibit is in its fifth season, the atmosphere of the place changed from low-key to charged.
Moments before, visitors strolled through without breaking stride, but when word spread that "he's here! he's here!" a line formed and stalled, inching slowly into the area devoted to photos and other Jingeling memorabilia. That's where Earl and Nadine Keyes held court for two hours. Nature center workers told visitors they didn't have to wait, that they could go around the line and look at the rest of the displays from the other side. But few acted on the offer. That would have meant missing a rare opportunity to talk to Mr. Jingeling, get a souvenir key signed, and maybe, if they were lucky enough to have a camera with them, get a photo of him with their kids.
The pictures weren't so much for the children as for their parents, many of whom grew up equating Christmas with a certain guy in green.
"My mom will be so happy," exclaimed Chelsea Paine of Mayfield Heights, clutching the key she had just had signed for her mother as if it were not thin cardboard but engraved gold.
"Such good memories," sighed Norma Longwinter, who was there with her two grown children, Bob and Pam. "That was the only peaceful time I had -- when Mr. Jingeling was on [television] -- and when that was off, they started fighting again. They loved Mr. Jingeling."
Ann Bugeda, chief of interpretive services for the nature center, overheard a woman in the gift shop -- fresh from seeing Mr. Jingeling -- declare, "I don't want anything else. This just made my Christmas."
Every year, Bugeda says, there are those who react that strongly to all things Jingeling. "I'm just blown away by the response that people give us, how much they enjoy it."
Appreciating Mr. Jingeling is a "three-generational thing: baby boomers with their parents and their kids," Bugeda says. "I just like that aspect of it."
Dan Burnett, manager of the center, sums up the appeal with these words: tradition and memories. Mr. Jingeling's heyday coincided with downtown Cleveland's status as the place to shop for the holidays. For families like Burnett's, heading downtown at Christmas was an annual tradition. "When I was a kid, the only time we would go downtown was at Christmas. We would go to Sterling-Lindner, May Company, Higbee's, and end up at Halle's, because they had Mr. Jingeling."
Nobody really has Mr. Jingeling anymore. Keyes made his last official appearance, at Tower City, in 1995. Not long afterward, he was diagnosed with dementia, the early stage of Alzheimer's disease, and his wife had a stroke. It's unlikely anyone will succeed him, as he, more than anyone, has been identified with the character. And besides, he holds the copyright and thus the right to discourage all pretenders.
So another local holiday tradition is heading the way of the Sterling-Lindner-Davis Company's gigantic Christmas tree. There can't be many more Clevelanders who will be lucky enough to see Keyes on his rare visits to the exhibit, which chronicles his character's glory days. The visitors there knew they were lucky and said so. They didn't seem to care that he wasn't in costume or wearing that funny bald-pate wig with wing-shaped tufts of white hair on the sides. It didn't matter that he had left his ring of keys at home, hanging by the fireplace. They had their keys -- the ones given out at the exhibit.
"Can he sign a key?" asked Dave Lelko, as soon as he learned that Mr. Jingeling was there.
Yes, indeed, he could.
And so, for some, Christmas was complete.
For a lot of years, Mr. Jingeling was a seasonal hit in Cleveland. He reigned on local TV and in an elaborate toy-themed village on the seventh floor of Halle's downtown store. "I remember him mostly from television," says 44-year-old Lelko of Chardon. "When you saw him on The Captain Penny Show, you knew Christmas was close."
This instant identification with Christmas and a department store character was a boon for the retailer. "When Halle's had Jingeling, Higbee's and May Company were tearing their hair out," says Newell, former window designer and special events director for Halle's. Because, after all, Mr. Jingeling's entire purpose, at least in the beginning, was to entice kids -- and by extension, their parents -- to come downtown to shop. He was a brilliant marketing ploy.
The character was created in 1956 by Frank Jacobi, of Jacobi Advertising in Chicago, who was a friend of Walter Halle, president of the late lamented Halle Bros. Company, which closed in 1982. The two exchanged regular correspondences during Mr. Jingeling's formative years. The Jingeling history thus unfolded: He was a locksmith who made keys for castle doors, and while he worked, he would entertain local children with stories and songs. Then one day, Santa burst into Mr. Jingeling's little shop, crying out that he'd lost the key to his Toyland workshop. So as not to disappoint the children of the world, who were counting on Santa's visit, Mr. Jingeling sped to the North Pole to let Santa back into his workshop. From then on, he was the man in red's most important elf, the "Keeper of the Keys to Toyland."
Mr. Jingeling's real function, of course, was as a promotional device, and initially only for one season. His popularity caught everyone off guard.
"Even the store was surprised," says Newell, who, having joined Halle's in 1956, was there from the character's start. He recalls baffled store employees saying, "All these people are coming up to the seventh floor, and they want to see Mr. Jingeling. What's going on?"
"I sensed this early myself," Newell says. "This was a character the kids loved."
"The main appeal is that you don't see little green suits on every street corner ringing a bell," says John Petrone, who later wrote the music for the Jingeling TV show. "Kids could see Santa Claus anytime, but there was only one Mr. Jingeling."
Actually, there were several Mr. Jingelings over the course of the character's history, but before the first elf could be cast, there was research to do. The early names for the character had to be discarded, because they were already in use. "There was a Jingles and a Jingaling," remembers Newell. "I think they found somebody by the name of Jingles in Alabama." By spelling Jingeling with an "e" instead of an "a," Halle's finally had a name for its creation.
It also had a theme song. Jacobi and his wife wrote the famous Jingeling jingle that, to this day, loops through the brains of Clevelanders who grew up in that era. "You mention it, and they start singing that song," says Nadine Keyes.
The first Mr. Jingeling was Cleveland policeman Tom Moviel. The Halle Company's policy of hiring police officers to portray Santa Claus also extended to his elves. But Halle's decided almost immediately to put the character on the air, and Moviel, with seven children to raise, couldn't afford to pay dues for the TV and radio artists' union. His daughter, Rose Moviel, believes her father may have been on television a couple of times, but after that, he portrayed the character only in personal appearances. "We have lots of pictures from that time," she says. "I even have the original ornament Halle's presented to my father. It looks ancient."
Tom Moviel died in 1973. His children have proudly amassed every bit of memorabilia they could get their hands on about their father's stint as the Christmas character, though few people are aware of it. "Too bad my mom isn't alive," says Rose. "All she ever wanted was to get the whole story straight."
Mr. Jingeling's TV career began with a short spot at the end of The Captain Penny Show, a program of cartoons and movies for kids hosted by Ron Penfound and directed by Keyes, who would later become the longest-running and most well-known of the Jingelings. Although Halle's paid for its airtime, Mr. Jingeling's segment was considered a show, not a commercial; it varied in length from 5 to 15 minutes, with the occasional half-hour special thrown in. Each year, it debuted on the day after Thanksgiving.
Captain Penny aired weekday afternoons on WEWS-TV/Channel 5 and already had a well-established audience, which may account for the new show's immediate popularity.
Even now, Jingeling fans relish the days he was on the tube. "I couldn't wait to turn it on," recalls Beverly Nebelski of Euclid. "Boy, if we missed a song, we were so bummed out. I loved his show. That was part of Christmas."
The kickoff, taped on Halle's seventh floor, starred Max Ellis, a well-known Cleveland Play House actor who became Mr. Jingeling after Moviel bowed out. Ellis played the part from 1956 until he died, suddenly, at age 50, in the summer of 1964.
"Max was popular. He really started it," says Karl Mackey, who carried on what he calls "a real phenomenon," playing Mr. Jingeling after Ellis's death.
"They held auditions after Max died. I won the audition. I beat out Earl Keyes," says Mackey, then managing director of Lakewood Little Theater, which later became the Beck Center. "But it got to be too much, rushing downtown to do the show and directing every night." Plus, he didn't have time to make personal appearances, so Keyes did them instead; other Jingelings were deployed in the branch stores, as well.
"I liked the character," says Mackey. "I enjoyed it. I was a good storyteller, but the pressure got to be too much. My job was really the theater, and I just felt I was cheating on the theater."
So Mackey decided that one season as Santa's most important elf was quite enough. His departure left the door wide open for Keyes, who charged right through, into the land of Jingeling.
More Popular Than Santa
"I kind of was catapulted into it," Keyes says today. "I ran The Captain Penny Show, so I naturally inherited the Mr. Jingeling show." As director, Keyes's job was to help make the character come alive. Max Ellis as Jingeling would sit on a throne and tell fanciful tales. The show's writer, Isabelle Draeger, now deceased, created stories about the characters in the Jingeling universe. For instance, there was the Spider Lady and Joe the Clown and Zippo, "a little tiny elf no bigger than your tooth."
Zippo was a confidant of Mr. Jingeling, says Keyes, leaning forward slightly in storyteller pose. "He'd tell him stories and whisper in his ear and get him into trouble."
Several years into the show, Draeger herself got into trouble with the top brass at Halle's, who in turn -- along with Channel 5 -- had taken some knocks from the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC decided that Draeger's stories, which revolved around the popular toys of the time, were in essence five-minute commercials for Halle's. "Isabelle was called into the big office at Halle's and told she couldn't do that anymore," recalls Newell. "The stories got changed, but that was near the end of the television show. After the break, the format was changed away from commercialization."
The break occurred when Marshall Field took over Halle's in the late '60s and decided to quit doing the TV show, but keep Mr. Jingeling in the store. The show went back on and off the air in the '70s. In the early '80s, after Halle's closed, Higbee's picked up the character, revived the show, and hired Newell and Petrone to write for it. At different times, it aired on channels 61, 25, 43, 3, and 19.
Songs were integral to the program's appeal. Petrone, a professor of music at Ursuline College, says he has files full of the tunes -- "some better than the Christmas songs we've been playing for months." He wrote everything from ballads to a lot of catchy little numbers. "These weren't throwaways. They functioned like the songs in a Broadway musical: They were there to enhance the plot of the show."
Petrone also plays piano for private parties and country clubs. Occasionally he'll break into the Mr. Jingeling theme -- just the tune without the words. "You'd be surprised how many people recognize it. People will turn around and come up and say they remember it."
It's not all that surprising, really. In his time, Mr. Jingeling was "more popular actually than Santa Claus, at least at our store," says Bob Schug, former vice president of personnel for Halle's.
There's a bit of wistfulness that remains for the store itself. The exhibit at Penitentiary Glen captures the fondness that many Clevelanders still have for Halle's. "I don't think there's anything quite like it now," says Ann Halle Little, sister of Walter and the last surviving member of the Halle family. The store had a graciousness that was part of "an era that was quite fabulous," she says. "It's not like that anymore."
Despite FCC concerns and the character's origin as a marketing tool, Mr. Jingeling never became an object of commercialization himself. There was the key and the occasional ornament, but never a doll, T-shirt, or hat. Keyes wanted it that way, says Newell. "It was like he was your friend, the uncle that always told you a story when you came over."
Keyes used to spend hours on the job and off, making appearances at children's homes or delivering gifts that children had won at the store. "A Halle's truck would pull up to your house, and Mr. Jingeling would pop out with a present," says Newell. "You were the Kid of the Neighborhood then; Mr. Jingeling visited your house."
Newell remembers times when Keyes was at the store a half-hour before closing, with nobody in the place. He'd take off his makeup and put on his street clothes, and "at five to 6, a mother would show up, and Earl, without missing a beat, put his makeup back on and got dressed and went out for that one child."
"He did this time and time again," says Newell.
Even now, says Schug, Keyes is "so Mr. Jingeling, he doesn't have to have the costume on for you to know who it is. His personality just comes through."
It's fitting, in a cosmic sense, that Keyes would have the last name he does. Keys have always been, well, key to the Jingeling persona. "They always were with Mr. Jingeling," says Keyes. The stories were based on the fact that Mr. Jingeling opened the door to something, whether it was Santa's workshop or the Christmas spirit.
Children would ask, "What do you open with the keys?" he recalls. "And I said, "These are the keys to your heart, and they're made to open and let something out. What is in your heart? That's where Christmas is.'"
So when Mr. Jingeling signed a key and gave it to a child, "It meant something," Newell says. "The cardboard key was personal to the little boy or girl. It wasn't pre-signed." The children would wear them on strings around their necks. Newell remembers seeing one hapless mother after another try to remove the key, so her child wouldn't soil it during lunch in Halle's tearoom. The child would inevitably wail until she gave it back.
Even adults wanted those keys. Petrone remembers Nadine and Earl telling him about the time Earl went into the hospital for bypass surgery in the late '80s. "Some of the nurses had brought their keys, and they wouldn't wheel him into the operating room until he signed them."
On a more poignant note, Nadine recalls one couple who brought their mother to see Mr. Jingeling. She was in a wheelchair. "She was dying of cancer, but she insisted on coming down to get her key."
The Last Jingeling
With Keyes holding the copyright, "No one can do the character without Earl's permission," says Newell. "My feeling is, unless you find somebody that really has the rapport with children and has what Earl had, just let it go.
"There's something about telling stories to children that requires an honesty by the actor and a voice they feel safe with. Both Max and Earl had that." The difference between them, says Newell, is "Earl personalized it, Max didn't."
Years before he took on the role, Keyes says he'd watch Max Ellis play Mr. Jingeling and think, "He's got a wonderful job. That's something I wanted to do."
When the job became his, "It was a proud and happy day," he says. After having watched Ellis for so many years, Keyes emulated him in the beginning. "The guy was so good, I would say to myself, "Max would do it this way.' I had a good role model." Eventually, Keyes developed his own characteristics, including growing a mustache. "It made me a little more avuncular, I suppose," he says, smiling.
"I don't think I had people saying, "You're not the real Mr. Jingeling.' I tried to kind of move into the part."
Beyond Ellis, Keyes relied on his own acting experience in local community theater. He also had a part in Harvest Home, a 1977 made-for-TV movie starring Bette Davis, which was filmed in Chagrin Falls. He was thrilled when Davis complimented his acting after a scene.
"Earl is a good actor," says Petrone. "He was a great ad-libber. If he forgot his lines, he would make up his own."
Nadine got in on the TV movie action, too, serving as Bette Davis's body double for last-minute filming after the star left for another shoot. The Keyeses recount such past exploits with amusement.
Now, they spend much of their time in their Rocky River home, where they have 24-hour care.
They have their stories, though. When Earl talks about his longtime character, he still puts on that Jingeling face, as one of the couple's caregivers calls it, and it's as genuine as a child's enthusiasm at Christmas.
At Penitentiary Glen on that recent Saturday, he graciously signed dozens of keys, all with different messages: "To the Tabassos, Be happy." "Hi, Bob, Stay well!!"
He was responsive to his fans and quick on the uptake. When Carolyn Hobi of Mentor asked him to sign a key to her grandson, Luke, Keyes replied, "Oh, the doctor." She was impressed. "In the Bible, the book of Luke was written by Luke the physician," she says.
"The greatest story of Christmas -- the story of Jesus -- that man has it in his heart."
One more story about Mr. Jingeling, this from a couple of Saturdays ago: A fan, upon seeing him, exclaimed, "You have the same smile."
"Same smile. Fewer teeth," he quipped. And then he smiled that Jingeling smile.
Kathryn DeLong can be reached at email@example.com.