A happy return: Cleveland Christmas mainstay Mr. Jingeling makes a comeback

Everyone’s favorite key-keeping holiday harbinger is returning to Cleveland, bringing a sweet dose of Christmas nostalgia to young and old alike. Mr. Kringle & Company, producer of the Kringle’s Inventionasium Christmas Experience, recently announced the comeback of Mr. Jingeling, who hasn’t been seen ‘round these parts recently.

An appearance at the I-X Center’s Christmas Connection on Friday, Nov. 19 through Sunday, Nov. 21 will mark the Cleveland icon’s formal revival.

Everyone’s favorite key-keeping holiday harbinger is returning to ClevelandMr. Jingeling will greet his adoring public at Downtown Cleveland Winterfest on Saturday, Nov. 27—he’s also scheduled to revisit his old Halle Building hangout on Nov. 27 and Saturday, Dec. 4 from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.

“It’s been a rough two years—Mr. Jingeling excites people, and many folks have memories of him from when they were kids,” says Jimmy Langa, chief creative officer for Mr. Kringle & Company, whose outfit acquired the character’s usage rights and is spearheading the relaunch of Santa Claus’ right-hand man. “After all we’ve been through as a community, the timing of his return is going to take people back to their childhood and inspire the imaginations of new children and believers.”

For the uninitiated, Mr. Jingeling was appointed “Keeper of the Keys” by Santa himself, a reward for saving Christmas when the big guy lost the key to the Treasure House of Toys. Making a new key put Mr. Jingeling in Santa’s good book forever—he’s now never without his ring of special keys that open locks to fantastical spaces.

The character was created in 1956 by advertising executive Frank Jacobi for Halle’s department store. Each year, Mr. Jingeling visited children on the seventh-floor toy department, moving down the street to Higbee’s when Halle’s shuttered in 1982.

The character was created in 1956 by advertising executive Frank Jacobi for Halle’s department store. Each year, Mr. Jingeling visited children on the seventh-floor toy department, moving down the street to Higbee’s when Halle’s shuttered in 1982.

The role of Mr. Jingeling was played by various Clevelanders over the years before Earl Keyes took over the role in 1965. After Keyes’ death in 2000, John Awarski of Lakewood-based Traditions Alive wanted to keep the Cleveland tradition of Mr. Jingeling going and hired Jonathan Wilhelm to carry the keys at guest appearances around Northeast Ohio until 2012, when Greg Benedetto took over the role.

While not part of Langa’s direct childhood, he knew that Mr. Jingeling brought merriment to family members who affectionately recalled visiting Halle’s during the holidays. Spurred by the Inventionasium’s success, Langa started lobbying for the character’s rights in 2006.

Fifteen years of “knocking on doors and sending emails” paid off in fall 2020, when Langa expanded on his vision for bringing Mr. Jingeling to a new generation.
Jimmy Langa, chief creative officer for Mr. Kringle & Company, on Mr. Jingeling’s right, acquired the character’s usage rights and is spearheading the relaunch of Santa Claus’ right-hand man.
Finally getting the nod made Langa a bit misty-eyed, he notes.

“I was overjoyed to help bring Mr. Jingeling into the households of younger families,” Langa says. “It’s a delicate balance to honor the character’s intent. But we also need to have something that will appeal to the modern-day kid that will provide that magical persona right off the bat.”

Not to worry, as Mr. Jingeling still carries his ever-present oversized key ring. He also has a newly designed suit of green, velvet, and gold—complete with buckle-adorned black belt. Curled-toed shoes finish what Langa calls a regal “guardian of the gate” look.

Veteran Santa Claus player Don Beck will portray the character, a gig that will include private events and appearances. Beck, who has played Satna in Northeast Ohio for more than 26 years,  shaved the long, white beard he has worn for 40 years to portray Mr. Jingeling. He says he also plans to style his own hair into the character’s upswept style.

Beck will make the seventh portrayer of Mr. Jingeling. The complete list is: Tom Moviel (1956); Max Ellis, television appearances (1956-1964); Karl Mackey (1964); Earl Keys (1965); Jonathan Wilhelm (2003); Greg Benedetto (2012); and Don Beck (2021).

For his part, Langa is glad to revive those golden-hued memories of yesteryear, while showcasing Mr. Jingeling for a wide-eyed audience of newcomers.

“I’m not only honored to own a piece of Cleveland history,” he says. “I’m happy to be the one who’s bringing it back with the integrity it deserves.”

Editor’s note: Some the history of Mr. Jingeling portrayers and the character’s history were inadvertently omitted from the original story. It has since been corrected.  

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.