Christmas this year started back in February for me when I sat down with Kate from All Saints Church and we reviewed how the Christmas workshops from the year before had gone. It was one of those hilarious conversations that form the opening number of a 50s American Musical – by the end of it I was ready to write a show. I left the church doing drag runs, Kate singing Hallelujah and shaking her jazz hands like there was no tomorrow.
But doing a show wasn’t enough. Writing and delivering the story of King Athelstan has been such a wonderful and satisfying experience on a personal level, but it’s also been a real privilege to tell one of the stories of this amazing town that I live in. The history of Kingston is extraordinarily rich and I wanted to mine it for a nugget of Christmas joy upon which to base my first Christmas show.
A bit of research later I came across Jimminy Jingles, Kingston’s very own Christmas Elf.
Starting in 1949, way before the town centre had Christmas lights, Bentalls used to put on a big parade which ran from the Hawker Centre all the way down to the Bentalls Store. This excerpt from the Surrey Comet in 1957 captures the spirit of the time perfectly.
Half the population of Kingston and district seemed to have gathered along the route on Wednesday night when Bentalls Christmas procession once more stopped the traffic, filled the road with a glittering array of fairy tale characters and set the children laughing and cheering.
It was a fine, clear evening with just enough nip in the air to give a feeling of Christmas and to make parents wrap children in bright wool scarves against the effect of staying up late.
Any tiredness the young ones felt as they waited along the route sometime before the procession was due to leave Hawkers in Richmond Road melted away as the sound of the Steadfast Sea Cadet band was heard in the distance. They grew more and more excited as, perched on the shoulders of patient relatives, they saw toy soldiers, cowboys and Indians, pirates and spacemen, followed by storybook characters from “Treasure Island.” “Cinderella” and “Snow White” waving gaily from sparkling, colourful floats.
Small boys craned forward as a huge train bedecked with coloured lights chugged along and bigger boys cheered appreciation as some of the store’s prettiest girl assistants pranced by in swinging short skirts as TV Toppers.
At the back of the procession were two very special floats. Father Christmas of course as this was how he arrived at the grotto. But the penultimate float was for Jimminy Jingle, Father Christmas’ right hand man, played by an employee of Bentalls called Jerry Joyce. Jimminy was the creation of Bentalls exec Roger Pryer named after the tune Jingle Bells and based on ‘Mr Holly’, a Christmas creation by Marshall Fields of Chicago. Jerry worked in the music halls by night as a song and dance man and I have no doubt was a brilliant showman. During this time Bentalls held a Christmas toy fair and Jimminy was part of the Grotto experience. In 1950 the front page ad on the Surrey Comet shows Jimminy on a flying carpet, promising children a ride on his carpet before seeing Father Christmas when they visited the Bentalls Toy Fair. Jimminy Jingle also took the form of a 38 foot high model that stood on the store front with the Christmas trees. He had to be hoisted up over the doorway with a crane he was so big!
But of course time moves on. Jerry retired. The electric lights came to town, and Jimminy has been forgotten…..almost. I’ve taken inspiration from Jimminy and created a new one for the kids of Kingston called Cracker Chimes. Cracker lives in the Children’s library which is full of magic – when you read the books the characters come to life! This year Kingston will once again have it’s very own Christmas elf played by a local actor on an adventure with fairytale characters.
Although our show tells the story of Cracker Chimes we’re also keen to tell everybody in Kingston the story of Jimminy Jingle in the program and through our ‘Find Cracker’ trail which will run through Kingston Town Centre through November and December. After all, this is a part of Kingston’s history and such a wonderful story that we think you’ll enjoy hearing it too.
I’ve done some research into Jimminy at the local history rooms by looking at old copies of the Surrey Comet and the memoirs of Rowan Bentall. I found a fantastic picture of the 38 foot giant Jimminy being hoisted onto the Bentalls store front but what I’ve not managed to find is a picture of Jerry himself dressed as Jimminy. Jerry has unfortunately now left us but I believe he has family in the area and I would love to hear from anybody who knew him so that I can put together a better picture of the man who played the part. If you worked with Jerry at Bentalls or are a family member then please do contact me on 07758 449196 or firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to give you a postal address but I can’t publish it here for obvious reasons (I’ll have a load of elves round asking for jobs!!!)
I’d also be interested to see any pictures that anybody might have of the Bentalls parade or toy fair from the 1950s.
And even if you don’t know Jerry please share this as much as you can. We’re all so linked nowadays with modern technology that I can’t believe we can’t have him found by the end of the week if everybody shares!
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SARAH CANTRILL is a woman on a mission to inspire every young child to become a reader for pleasure. She is the Artistic Director & Founder of STORY STORKS, a social enterprise that delivers interactive story workshops to early years children and their grown ups, that help kids to fall in love with stories and develop their early language skills meaning that they have an easier time of learning to read when the time is right. Infact 85% of the kids who come through STORY STORKS are right where they should be or ahead in terms of progression through the reading book scheme once they get to school and the ones who are behind are trying hard because they know that it’s worth it – that to read is to unlock a whole world of fun and adventure and learning and imagination and they might take a bit longer to get there but they’re determined that get there they will.