Television may have had the Mouseketeers in the 60s, but some Allentonians were proud to be known back then as what I’ll refer to as 'Pippeteers' on the great main way of Hamilton Street at Hess’s Department Store. They were willing volunteers from the community trained to work behind the scenes in bringing smiles to the thousands of faces who viewed the holiday puppet show, "The Mouse Before Christmas."
The star of the show was Pip the Mouse, a character created by Dr. George R. Creegan, of the Creegan Company of Steubenville, Ohio, in 1960. Creegan partnered with the Bliss Display Co. of New York to market the project as "The Mouse Before Christmas" holiday puppet show. It captured the attention of Max Hess, and on Oct. 27, 1962, Pip was introduced to Allentown from the front window of Hess's at Ninth and Hamilton streets.
Yes, Virginia, 50 years ago there was an honest-to-goodness Hess's School for Puppeteers and a set of rules for those learning to maneuver the Pip puppet. That included keeping hands and fingers physically fit and fingernails trim. And yes, even in 2012 – though no longer an existing school for puppeteers – volunteers still come forward, willing to train in an effort to preserve the holiday tradition of presenting "The Mouse Before Christmas." The holiday puppet show takes place at the Liberty Bell Museum, located in Zion's United Church of Christ at 622 W. Hamilton St., where it's been staged since 2003.
Since then, the museum restored and digitized the show's original audio soundtrack, which was written and recorded by Creegan and his wife. Although his company produced stages for 15 department stores across the country in the 60s, the Liberty Bell Museum has the only surviving stage and puppet show. Volunteers from Civic Theatre of Allentown were responsible for restoring the puppet show stage in 2001-2002.
Earlier this year, Pip marked his milestone 50th birthday since arriving in Allentown, which coincided with the jubilee anniversary of the founding of the Liberty Bell Shrine (Liberty Bell Museum) and the semiquincentennial anniversary of Allentown. For the latter, Pip was designated "Allentown's official mouse" by Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
At 50, even Pip the Mouse illustrator Kathryn Schaar Burke of Allentown saw it fitting that the little character needed a makeover for the occasion. He now dons a scarf and holds a slice of iced chocolate cake with a single candle as he peeks through the ‘0’ of ’50.’
Early in her career, Burke was employed as a fashion illustrator at Hess's. In December 2008, she illustrated the book, "Pip's Night Before Christmas," with text by Zion's Senior Pastor Robert T. Stevens. The book tells the story of Pip's roundabout journey from Hess's to his present home just two blocks away at Zion's "Liberty Bell" Church. Using the same meter as Clement Moore's famous poem, the story follows Pip into the church as he discovers there is more to the Christmas story than he learned in the department store.
His new look will debut Nov. 15, at an opening reception at the Liberty Bell Museum, where Burke will do a book signing. There also will be the photo exhibit, "A Mouseum of Memories: Pip the Mouse Celebrates Fifty Years."
According to Pastor Stevens, the exhibit will feature a host of photographs, newspaper clippings and ads from Hess's early days, including 1962 images from the holiday season. There also will be a memory book, where people can share their Pip experiences, and where children can create birthday cards.
"I can remember standing in the cold waiting for the puppet show to begin," Stevens recalled. "Fifty years later, this is about as low-tech a production you can give to kids. They’re absolutely delighted by the hand puppet and laugh at the old jokes."
Opening ceremonies for the public will be Nov. 23 at noon, with holiday puppet shows running hourly through 2 p.m. Shows will be presented Monday through Saturday through Dec. 29.
A special New Year's Eve celebration in downtown Allentown will feature Pip's "return home" with a puppet stage show every half hour in a front window on ground level at the PPL Plaza, site of the original Hess's. The evening will feature "kids korner" activities beginning at 6 p.m., and a family "bell-raising" countdown at 8 p.m.
According to Stevens, approximately 5,000 visitors walk through the museum in the peak holiday season from mid-November to mid-December. It takes a bit of manpower to keep the show running, and those interested in assisting as volunteers and puppeteers are encouraged to contact the museum.
"The shows, eight minutes in length and requiring two puppeteers, are not technically difficult, but you do have to pay attention to what you’re doing," said Stephanie Burke, museum tour guide and "Pippiteer"/trainer for two years. She finds audiences almost as fun as the show.
"Kids like to talk to Pip and cheer when he makes his entrance. It’s the greatest thing ever to them," she said. "You don’t have to have kids to come experience the show. We have adults who come because they remember the show when they were young and want to experience the magic once more."
For further info: PipTheMouse.org
It may be the end of the "Christmas Spectacular," but that doesn’t mean the music will stop for Camelot for Children. According to board president Andrew Pestcoe, "After 25 successful years of entertaining the Lehigh Valley and raising funds for the 'Camelot Kids,' it was decided by the board to replace the Christmas Spectacular to pursue other opportunities."
The music is continuing, this time with a new event, "The Shindig," at a new venue, the Agri-Plex at the Allentown Fairgrounds. The action kicks off Saturday from 8 to 11 p.m., with music by The Large Flowerheads. And this time, people won’t be sitting in their seats but will be dancing to the classic tunes of the 60s and 70s.
Camelot House, located at 2354 W. Emmaus Ave., Allentown, provides a gathering place for children who are seriously, chronically or terminally ill or disabled, and for their families to share experiences and information. Jo Ellen Moll, executive director, describes it as "a place where children can forget their illnesses or differences and develop a comradery with one another." Year-round activities include Teen Nights, summer camp, children’s activities and special events.
Camelot for Children fundraisers brought some great music and artists to the Lehigh Valley at Christmas time for more than two decades -- The Lettermen, Herman’s Hermits, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, The Association, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Box Tops, and The Turtles, to name some – and much joy to the faces of the Camelot Kids.
"It will be the same type of music we’ve enjoyed through the years, but now there will be dancing," Moll said. "We can accommodate up to 800 guests whose tickets indicate what table they'll be seated at. Each table has a theme of a tribute band of the 60s and 70s, and guests are encouraged to dress accordingly. We ask that they bring their own food and drink, and that they bring their party to us."
Every year, Camelot for Children continues to raise awareness for its kids by showing a video produced by The Media People of Alburtis. This year debuts a new video, "Faces of Camelot," which highlights the Camelot Kids participating in activities interspersed with reflections by their parents. Last year’s video, "Camelot: 25 Years of Love," was recognized with the Videographer Award of Distinction, and honorable mention in the video/nonprofit category, by the international organization of the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals. Media People's Scott Stoneback was the executive producer and writer on the project, while Ellis Stoneback was the videographer and non-linear editor.
For further info: camelotforchildren.org