Sunday, December 14, 2008

Billie the Brownie

If you ask a Milwaukeean of a certain age about their favorite Christmas memories, chances are you will hear about "Billie the Brownie".
Billie the Brownie was created in the 1920's by Schuster's Department stores to promote their toy department during the holiday season. In 1931, Billie branched out into radio and had a daily show that included updates on Santa's progress as well as a segment where Billie and his pal Larry would read letters to Santa sent in by area children. Boy, were those were different times! I've listened to a few of the shows and not only did Larry and Billie read out the kid's name, but also included their address! "....and here we have a letter from little Bobby Jones of 123 Main Street in Milwaukee...." Geez, talk about making things easy for the local pedophiles! Mostly though, they talked up the benefits of being good kids: More toys from Santa Claus! (read: Parents who will buy the toys at Schuster's!)
The radio show ended in 1955, so I never got to listen to it, but the lore of Billie the Brownie was still a big part of my own Christmas memories due my parents growing up with it. I learned that Billie was Santa's front man--it was Billie who reported back to Santa on who was good and who was naughty. Things would go like this:
Parent: "I think I just saw Billie the Brownie peeking in the maybe you should go clean your room, be nice to your sister", or whatever was the naughty kid crisis of the moment. Billie even knew our phone number and called the house a couple of times! (In retrospect, I think it was really Uncle Bozo--but at the time I was convinced it was Billie.)
If you want to take a trip down memory lane or just hear for yourself the magic of Billie the Brownie, here are some links to audio files: Billie1    Billie2


john said...

Just to add a few memory comments:
There was Metek an Eskimo "Deer" Drover and Willie-Wag-Tail, the always barking dog (in the background). Then the radio transmissions would "break-up" just at a crucial time (ie. 3 days before Christmas) and Santa would loose the way. "Alright Boys & Girls pray hard and be especially good so Santa can find his way!!! I remember that you always said how old you were in (My) the letters.
" Life was good back then."

MaryRuth said...

Hi Dad....did you ever write in to the show?
I can see how the kids would get excited about listening and getting a new update each day. Now kids can "track" Santa on Christmas Eve on the NORAD website. It's pretty cool.

Miss Healthypants said...

Wow, I've never heard of Billie the Brownie! Milwaukee sure is its own special part of Wisconsin. *smiles*

MaryRuth said...

MHP--ask your folks or grandparents if they know. I'm pretty sure the broadcast area covered most of the state.
Every part of Wisconsin has its own special things...that's what makes it so cool.

john said...

I know that I had to have my Mom ( Ethel ) or my "older" brother help write the letter for me. That's why I know yor ADDRESS was there too. Hey, this is Wisconsin, we trust everyone ! No address=no dely !
I don't know if the show was broadcast outside of the Mke. area due to Schusters market area. Maybe the Historical Soc. could shed some light ?
My requests would be for...Highcut shoes that had a pocket on the side where there was a jackknife. (Leather boot, ie. lumber jack) or the typical ELECTRIC train or a sheepskin corduroy coat.

MaryRuth said...

A knife in your boot?!?!? You'll put yer eye out, kid!

Anonymous said...

My mother grew up listening to Billie the Brownie as a child and when my brother, sister and I were growing up she made Billie the Brownie Calendars for us that we would receive every December 1st. I've done the same for my daughter and have spread the story of Billie the Brownie to my friends in Virginia and they have started the tradition as well.

MaryRuth said...

Yay! Another Billie the Brownie fan! That's a pretty neat-o idea you have to make the calendar and it is even more special that the tradition is being shared with new generations. Is it a countdown to Christmas or does it cover the whole year?
My dad found me an actual Billie the Brownie pin from back in the day. I can't wait to wear it this holiday season.
Thanks for visiting The Bubbler!

Babs said...

I grew up in Ripon Wisconsin where at Christmas time we all gathered around the radio to listen to Simon & Schuster's program featuring Billie and Santa.
What fun! I think I had one of my letters to Santa read on the radio.
My 2 brothers and I always remember Billie to this day.

kelly said...

I just discovered that The Milwaukee County Historical Society is going to have a Billie the Brownie exhibition this year, through mid-January.

A call just went out on an audition callboard looking for someone to play him at the lighting ceremony in Pere Marquette Park on Thursday, November 17 from 5:30pm – approximately 9:00pm.