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In Holiday Guide

A holiday Milwaukee classic ... in doll form. (PHOTO: Milwaukee County Historical Society)

Remembering Billie the Brownie


The 1950s were an idyllic time to be a child. We didn't need bike helmets and we traveled all over our neighborhood, and nobody worried about us.

The holidays were also a very special time in our house. I grew up with a Jewish father, an Episcopalian mother and a Roman Catholic grandmother. Talk about confusion.

In the spirit of ecumenical harmony, we always celebrated Christmas in our house, complete with family traditions, like my Jewish dad going out alone at night and returning with our tree for the season.

But there was no tradition that could match Billie the Brownie.

Billie was the creation of Schuster's Department Store. Their flagship store is now a vacant building on Martin Luther King Drive.

He was an elf who made his appearance a few weeks before Christmas every year.

The show, which came on about 4 p.m. on WTMJ radio, was simple. Billie and Santa came on the air and chatted a bit about whether the boys and girls listening had been good. Billie got the report from Santa how all the work at the North Pole was going.

Then came the biggest thing. Billie read letters to Santa sent by children from all over the area. there were thousands of letters. Really, thousands.

When I was 5 or 6 my brother and I would sit on the floor around the radio and listen to Billie. Danny and I would listen carefully as Billie's voice came out of that radio. My grandmother sat in a chair watching us and smiling.

The first time I actually sent a letter I asked for my own record player. That year the magic took on a new dimension.

The show started and Billie said, "The first letter today is from little David Begel in Whitefish Bay. David says he's been a good boy and would like a record player. Then he says again that he's been a good boy."

It was like a bomb going off in our house. On our feet, hollering at the top of our lungs. I couldn't wait for my mom and dad to get home so I could tell them.

Well, for the next five or six years the story repeated itself. My letter was first, and Danny's was second. My friends were very jealous.

When I was 10 or 11, my mom told us one night that she wanted to talk to me and my brother. I remember this so vividly it's like it happened yesterday. We sat on a couch and my mom was on a chair just feet away. "Boys," she said, "I have something to tell you."

She closed her eyes for a second and I could see her swallow. She opened her eyes and looked at the two of us.

"I am Billie the Brownie."

It's funny, I don't remember how I felt. It couldn't have been too traumatic, because I don't remember. But it explained so much.

It explained how my letter got read first every year. It explained why my mom disappeared every afternoon and left us in the custody of our grandmother. It explained why mom and dad helped us write our letter to Santa well before Christmas.

And I remember being amazed at my mother, whose name was Carol Cotter. I'm sure lots of little boys are amazed by their mothers.

But I'm the only one who had Billie the Brownie for a mother.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Talkbacks

hardgeminiguy | Nov. 26, 2012 at 12:13 p.m. (report)

Why can't WTMJ radio re-broadcast these great programs every year? They must have the tapes. Yes, i listened every day as a child. They were 15 minute programs as i recall. YES, WTMJ?

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ASCook | Nov. 26, 2012 at 9:49 a.m. (report)

Hi Dave: Well, my mom was Billie the Brownie, too! She wasn't on the radio, she was "Santa's helper" at Schuster's when the kids came to see him in person. This happened when she was in high school. Not even sure which Schuster's it was, we had one in Cudahy where we lived, but from the stories I think it was the downtown one because she talked about being in the Christmas parade. Thanks for sharing the great memory!

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