'Billie the Brownie' Holiday Radio Show Still Holds A Sweet Spot For Milwaukeeans
Editor's Note: This story originally aired on May 21, 2021.
It’s not quite time for the holidays, but for people who grew up in Milwaukee between the 1930s and 1950s, Billie the Brownie is a familiar character.
For more than 20 years, families gathered around their radios during the holidays to hear the Billie the Brownie show, featuring Billie, Santa Claus and Captain Larry.
Mary Pat Vigil, who grew up on the northwest side of Milwaukee in the '50s, remembers anticipating every broadcast with her siblings. She was the youngest of three.
"We would be sitting at our kitchen table, but we knew Billie the Brownie was coming on at a certain time so we would finish our dinner and run to the radio. And I still picture," she says, "whoever got there first, we had a little chair and just one little chair, so whoever got there first got the chair. But otherwise, we would sit on the floor and put our ears right up to the radio."
Mary Pat says it was like a storytelling session. Her memories of the Billie the Brownie radio show prompted her to submit this question to Bubbler Talk:
Was Billie the Brownie a local radio program in the early '50s or was that a national radio program?
Well, the short answer is Billie the Brownie was not broadcast nationally. It was broadcast locally, and the show was quite popular here in Milwaukee.
Schuster’s Department Store introduced the Billie the Brownie character in 1927 to promote its annual Christmas parade. Billie was based on Palmer Cox’s Scottish folk characters called 'Brownies.' They're little elf-like people invisible to humans.
Turnout for Schuster’s Christmas parade was lackluster, so management decided to create a radio show with Billie as the star. The 15-minute show aired Monday through Friday, and on Sundays from 1931 to 1955.
Ben Barbera, curator of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, says the Billie the Brownie show was the highlight of the Christmas season for a lot of Milwaukee children.
"So, the Schuster’s holiday parade was always the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, and they would start running the Billie the Brownie show about 10 days before that. And so, the first 10 days of this show he would be chronicling Santa's trip his journey to Milwaukee for the parade and there would always be some sort of disaster whether it be a storm or a sick reindeer or something dramatic would happen," he explains.
Ben says once Santa Claus arrived for the parade, the show continued until Christmas Eve.
Billie also read children’s letters to Santa and short stories on air. Ben says Santa received 50,000 to 70,000 letters annually. In 1947, they received 100,000.
When the Billie the Brownie radio show ended in 1955, Billie went on a trip around the world — so the story goes. He came back under new management.
"Gimbels acquired Schuster’s in 1961 and all the rights to Billie the Brownie in the process and so then in 1973 Gimbels decided to bring Billie the Brownie back. They kind of recreated Billie, they made him much cuter more of a sort of a Pixie like character — more similar to like we would think of as an elf," he says.
But Billie did not return to radio. Ben says Gimbels thought radio wouldn't have the reach, and television was too expensive. So, Billie mostly appeared in print ads, and if he was in person, a teenage boy dressed as him.
Gimbels donated its Billie the Brownie collection to the Milwaukee County Historical Society in 1984.
Ben says he thinks the Billie the Brownie show was popular because it took off just as radio popularity was growing, and during its run, it made people feel good during difficult times in the United States — like the Great Depression and World War II.
He says Billie the Brownie hit a sweet spot for people.
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