ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Christmas in the Lehigh Valley without Pip the Mouse? Unthinkable!
On November 15, Pip the Mouse celebrated his 50th birthday with a celebration and an exhibit at his current home, the Liberty Bell Shrine Museum at Zion's Reformed UCC Church in Allentown.
It was not the furry little creature's actual birthday. That should probably be marked on Oct. 27, 1962. That Saturday in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis was Pip's debut in a store window of Hess's Department Store.
Like many a Baby Boomer, Pip, without having to worry about gray hair or an occasional creak in the joints, has seen much change. The holiday fairyland of Hess's Department Store that was once his home is just a memory that disappeared under the wrecker's ball. Orphaned in 1996, the fate of this little mouse along with Mr. Moon, Santa, his reindeer, and the house with its now wonderfully anachronistic television antenna, was in doubt.
Fortunately those who loved him as a child were willing to take Pip in. As another holiday season rolls around parents and, dare we say, grandparents who saw the colorful display as children in 1962, will be there sharing a laugh with the youngsters.
How did a department store display get to be immortal? Well like other things involved with Christmas it is necessary to assume some holiday magic. Pip's "father" was Dr. George Creegan- an Ohio puppeteer. His wife put together the script that was recorded and still is used as the voice of Pip. Although the Lehigh Valley likes to think of its Pip as the one and only, when they first went out of Creegan's workshop, in partnership with the Bliss Display Company of New York, there were at least 20 of them. As far as is known, this region's Pip is the only one to have reached a ripe old age.
While Creegan may be Pip's father, Max Hess Jr., Allentown's merchant prince, was his godfather. It was Hess who purchased Pip for the store. What attracted Hess to Pip is unknown. He apparently never said specifically.
But Hess seemed to have an uncanny knack for knowing what would please his customers and giving it to them. Like Ed Sullivan, the era's variety show TV impresario who brought Elvis, the Beatles and jugglers who could skillfully balance six whirling pie pans on six separate sticks at once into America's living rooms, by 1962 Hess had managed to burnish the image of his store into a magnet for shoppers. Flower shows, celebrities, high fashion and low price bargains were all a part of it.
The week Pip made his debut the Morning Call reported on the charter bus loads of shoppers that were coming from as far away as Maryland to shop in Allentown. "Allentown has everything," one out of state shopper exclaimed to a reporter, perhaps unaware she was repeating almost word for word the Hess's "has the best of everything" slogan.
Pip was not alone in the Hess's extravaganza of 1962. A wide variety of puppets were on display. And Creegan himself came to the department store to conduct a class in being a puppeteer. Later Max Hess would import exotic mechanical toys from Italy done by skilled craftsmen to add to the holiday atmosphere. Like the exotic gowns that wafted through the Patio Restaurant on the bodies of high toned models who would breathlessly whisper there outrageous prices, they were for sale, but the price tags, sometimes as much a $3000, put them beyond reach.
At some point it was decided that Pip come in from the cold and he was moved inside to the toy department. Here he continued to entertain generations of children each Christmas. But unfortunately department store fairy tales sometimes run into economic reality.
Downtown stores were gradually being replaced by indoor malls in the suburbs.
They offered plentiful parking and seemed to be the wave of the future. The closure of Hess's downtown store with Max Hess Jr. long dead and his fantasy land a pile of shattered concrete left many people convinced that they had seen the last of Pip.
But it takes more than that to keep a good fairy tale mouse down. The Bon Ton, the new owners of Hess's, donated Pip to the Allentown Economic Development Corporation. In the holiday seasons of 1996 to 2001, under the direction of the Allentown Downtown Improvement District Authority, Pip and the gang appeared at the Allentown Public Library.
In 2002 Pip and his pals underwent a makeover/restoration at the Civic Theater in Allentown. That November Chris Bauder of ADIDA and Joshua Fink, then-curator of the Liberty Bell Shrine Museum, began discussions that culminated the following year in Pip the Mouse being shared in joint custody with the museum and the Allentown Public Library.
Pip has proven a hit at his new home. Today though Hess's and the throngs of shoppers are gone school buses pull up outside the Liberty Bell Shrine and the simple story of Pip delights another generation.
Allentown, PA 18102