In ‘Uncle Mistletoe,’ TV ephemera from Marshall Field’s golden age

March 10, 2012

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Despite its 2006 name change, Marshall Field’s place in Chicago’s history is secure. The beloved and much-vaunted department store was so crucial to the city’s early years that in the 1880s it was said Chicago boiled down to just two things: the Stockyards and Marshall Field & Co.

The grand Midwestern temple of shopping built its reputation of service and elegance with its central light well, its vaulted Tiffany ceiling, the warm wooden panels of the Walnut Room and its signature Frango Mints. It also survived not one but two major fires; destroyed though it was each time, the store was always rebuilt, grander than before. In the days before suburban malls siphoned off shoppers, you could buy a Marshall Field’s exclusive Dior gown in the store’s separate “28” boutique, have silver engraved or kid gloves repaired, send a telegram or buy a theater ticket. Then you could steal a moment of repose on one of the chaise lounges in its “silence room” if the shopping became too much.

But the city’s beloved department store was also responsible for at least one strange bit of media ephemera:  a brand-extension meets Howdy Doody-style semi-animated children’s TV show called The Adventures of Uncle Mistletoe:

Uncle Mistletoe was the store’s Christmas mascot, a hand puppet that looked like a cruder version of Monopoly's Uncle Moneybags, who apparently held the thankless-sounding job of office manager in Santa’s workshop. According to Chicago historian Leslie Goddard, author of Remembering Marshall Field's (Arcadia Publishing, 2011) Mistletoe served as some kind of a liaison between Santa and the youngest Field’s shoppers. Though the TV show ran for just a few seasons starting in the late 1940s, Uncle Mistletoe’s top hat crowned the famous Walnut Room Christmas tree for many years.

Marshall Fields created the character to compete with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, who was introduced by competitor Montgomery Ward in 1939. But unlike Rudolph, who had his own 1960s Rankin/Bass Claymation specials and became so embraced by the culture as a whole that today we’ve lost sight of his commercial origins, Uncle Mistletoe faded into obscurity. He was always exclusive to the store, and one might argue Fields mismanaged the brand. You know your Christmas mascot is in trouble when he’s seen carving jack-o-lanterns as Halloween mist rolls past your store’s iconic brass clocks.

Goddard spoke at an event in early February. You can hear her expound on the Uncle Mistletoe origin story in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Leslie Goddard spoke at an event presented by the Chicago Architecture Foundation in February. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.