Jingeling' All The Way

Two local entrepreneurs are pushing to revive the Cleveland Christmas legend made famous by Earl Keyes this holiday season with a slate of appearances and a line of new memorabilia they hope will bring the local tradition to a new generation of kids.

First, there was his book. Then, there was a sweatshirt, mug, Christmas tree ornament and, most recently, a canvas tote bag.

Not bad for a Ghost of Christmas Past making a comeback.

In this case, the ghost is "Mr. Jingeling," the key-making elf created by Halle Bros. Department Store in the late 1950s to promote the now-defunct retail establishment during the Christmas season. Many Clevelanders assumed "Mr. Jingeling" died in 2000 with Earl Keyes, the last and best known of the four men who played the character. But fledgling entrepreneur John Awarski and Pat Boesken, owner of Blue Ribbon Screen Graphics in Lakewood, have slowly but surely resurrected the keeper of the keys.

"It's just a labor of love, of trying to keep something alive and in the community," says Awarski, the former general manager of a local music distributorship. "This character brings a magic to Christmas that is unique to Cleveland."

Mr. Jingeling's second life began approximately eight years ago in Awarski's West Side home, where he and a group of baby boomer friends were lamenting the disappearance of Cleveland institutions such as Hough Bakeries, Higbee's and May Co. department stores. Awarski's wife, Winnie, began reminiscing about Halle Bros. and someone broke into Mr. Jingeling's theme song. "But no one could really remember the story of how Mr. Jingeling became Santa's keeper of the keys," Awarski says.

Their collective inability to recall the tale so bothered him that he picked up the telephone book and looked up Keyes, who refreshed his memory of how Mr. Jingeling saved Christmas by making a new key to Santa's treasure house of toys after the big guy managed to lose the original one on Christmas Eve.

"When he got done, I said, •This is such a great story. It shouldn't be lost to the ages. Has anyone ever done a book?' " Awarski remembers. "He said a lot of people had talked about putting a book together, but nobody had done it because it costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time and patience."

Awarski eventually contacted Boesken and her husband, Bob, both longtime friends and successful business owners, to ask if they'd be interested in financing such a project — one that might spawn a demand for T-shirts and other screen-printed apparel. "So many things were disappearing in our traditional Cleveland holiday seasons," Boesken says. "We thought this would be a really great thing to do."

The trio retained an attorney to perform a trademark search and discovered that any rights to Mr. Jingeling had expired. In 2000, their company, Traditions Alive, published a postcard-sized paperback, "How Mr. Jingeling Saved Christmas." Two years later, Awarski and the by-then-widowed Boesken hired Sheffield Village resident Jonathan Wilhelm — a professional storyteller and performer known as "Mr. Hatbox" when he performs weekly at Borders Books and Music locations in Westlake and Strongsville — to make personal appearances as the elf, first at the I-X Center Christmas Connection in 2002, then at Westgate Mall and a handful of private events in 2003.

This year looks to be the new Mr. Jingeling's busiest yet. He appeared at the I-X Center Christmas Connection and Westfield Shoppingtown Great Northern last month, and can be seen at the Western Reserve Historical Society Dec. 11 and 18, and at Westfield Shoppingtown Southpark Dec. 4, 5, 12 and 18. The "Mr. Jingeling" book is available at local Borders locations, Creative Gifts at Westfield Shoppingtown Great Northern and a number of independently owned bookstores. Other Mr. Jingeling merchandise can be purchased at the Kamm's Corners Medic Drug and Blue Ribbon Screen Graphics.

Awarski says the project remains a labor of love: The profits are still being used to reimburse Boesken for the original investment she and her husband made. "We're really in the hole right now," Boesken says with a good-natured laugh. But Wilhelm says the effort is well worth it, despite the occasional naysayer who tells him he's not the real Mr. Jingeling.

"When I was at Westgate Mall last year, there were people who traveled from all over to see Mr. Jingeling and get a hand-signed key," Wilhelm says. "Over and over again, people would say, •I would tell my children or my grandchildren about Mr. Jingeling, but they couldn't really understand what [he] was all about. Now, I can share with them why Mr. Jingeling was such a special memory to me."

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