Once upon a time, as children’s stories usually begin, there was a brownie named Billie.  No, this is not a children’s fairy tale, but a story of a radio character called Billie the Brownie.  Although not a real person, he certainly was to children of that era, as real as their imagination and dreams could make him.


    2012 marks the 85th anniversary of his appearance in area newspapers and the beginning of a Christmas tradition for a generation of Milwaukee children.


    No story of Billie the Brownie would be complete without rekindling memories of Schusters Department stores and its famous Christmas Parade.

Palmer Cox


    Billie the Brownie was created in the art department by one of their unnamed artists.  This artist must have been familiar with the stories and pictures of Palmer Cox (28 April 1840 - 24 July 1924), as the first drawings of Billie closely resemble those of Mr. Cox’s brownies.


     The brownies were the invention of Cox who received his inspiration from the folk tales of the Scottish immigrants he listened to as a boy growing up in Granby, Canada.  He had a series of books published in the 1900’s featuring the antics of the little characters.


    Before we continue with the story of Billie, let’s explore a little bit of world of brownies.

Brownies, Elves and Dwarfs


    They have been around for hundreds of years and have gone under various names depending upon the country that are from.  In Celtic folklore they were associated with farm steads and were known to haunt the countryside.  They were known as elves in Germanic mythology.  They supposedly dwelt in forests, in the sea and in the air.  Richard Wagner wrote a series of operas with them living in the depths of the Rhine river.


    The brothers Grimm told many tales about eves and dwarfs.  In 1937, Walt Disney produced the first feature length cartoon about these little creatures, called ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’.  In Norway, they talked of trolls and gnomes, and in Ireland they believed in Leprechauns.  There were also fairies associated with these little people and were the center of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’.


    Closer to home elves are featured on the walls and in the windows of Usingers Famous Store on Old World Third street in Milwaukee, WI.


    Whatever the country or name they have been known as, they have come to be associated with Santa Claus and Christmas.

The Reindeer News


    Billie the Brownie was brought to life to publicize the Schuster’s Christmas Parade.  This he did both through the newspapers and on radio.  The name “Billie” was either a stroke of luck or brilliant planning on the part of Schusters.  No other name fit his character and personality as well.  Whatever the reason, I suspect it might have been chosen for its euphonious sound.


    Although Billie the Brownie became better known when he was given his own radio program in 1931, he first appeared as the Editor-in-Chief of something called ‘The Reindeer News’.  In the years before the radio program, these daily bulletins served the same purpose - that of informing Milwaukee area children of Santa’s return to Schusters Department store’s Toyland and the great Christmas Parade.


    The bulletins were authored in the publicity department of Schusters.  They were written with children in mind as the following example explains:  The headlines read -


                LIVE REINDEER COMING;

                A THRILL IN STORE FOR ALL MILWAUKEE;

                BOYS & GIRLS, TOY FAIRYLAND RINGING WITH EXCITEMENT.


    Then Billie explains: ‘Boys and girls - listen!  Far from the north comes the distant sound of prancing feet.  The mighty polar bear stops in his tracks to listen.  In-You-Gee-To, the great Eskimo hunter, pauses in his chase after the Arctic wolf, ravenous dog teams yowl and the Auk soars swiftly across the plains of ice and snow.  Something unusual!  Shall we tell you what it is?  Well you might know now.  Santa Claus is driving his reindeer to Milwaukee.  Yes, sir - live reindeer pounding down from the north headed straight for Milwaukee - that’s the thrill in store for you.  Santa is on his way to Milwaukee!  Steeds of the north wind, the reindeer, bear him swiftly onward.’


    This was written for children to read or for their parents to read to them.  It is not the hype of the commercial huckster.  These daily bulletins would begin about the middle of November and end on the evening of the parade.


    Schusters explains it best in their history of the company:  “Whatever may be said of the travels of Santa Claus on the night before Christmas, as he glides over the rooftops, his pre-Christmas activities in Milwaukee are certainly the talk of the town.  His arrival in Milwuakee, according to this annual custom since 1927, is an event that looms large on the horizon of a rapidly approaching Yuletide.”


    “Almost a month before his far-famed midnight ride as superintendent of deliveries he comes to Milwaukee to get ready for his peak load.  He rather looks to Schusters to arrange for his coming and to put on Schusters Christmas Parade.”


    “Along about the last Saturday in November Santa Claus arrives in his sleigh, with six prancing reindeer.  It’s a long way down from Alaska where the live reindeer make their home, from whence they come every year to Milwaukee.  Along with them comes Santa’s faithful helper, Me-Tik, a real honest to goodness Eskimo, who knows all about feeding and harnessing reindeer.”


    “The great Christmas Parade begins about 7:30 in the evening and proceeds along a seven mile route along the lines of the Milwaukee Street Railway Company (TMERL).  Santa and the reindeer, and Me-Tik are mounted on a big flat car in float formation, with hundreds of electric lights to illuminate the scene.  In the parade are several other floats, such as Cinderella, Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf, Peter Rabbit, Peter the Pumpkin Eater, and the Cow That Jumped Over the Moon.  A loud speaker system from the float plays the theme song on the evening, ‘Jingle Bells’.  No Schuster advertising appears on any of the floats.”


    “The crowd, thickly packed along the seven mile line of march, has been officially estimated by the Police Department as more than 150,000 persons.”


    “Santa Claus, so the new made-to-order legend goes, mindful of the extensive arrangements necessary for his months stay in Milwaukee, sends before him his faithful helper and advance agent, Billie the Brownie.”