Imagine a chilly December afternoon in Milwaukee in the 1950s. Young girls and boys gather around the radio, listening with baited breath. Soon Santa and his helper Billie the brownie will come on the air and read letters from children all across the city. If you’d sent in a letter, you would be on the edge of your seat. Would Santa read yours? Would you get what you asked for in the letter?
Billie the brownie was an elf created by Schuster’s department store in 1917 to boost holiday toy sales. He wasn’t the first brownie though. Brownies began appearing in Victorian tales in the 1880s. They were mischievous little creatures. Palmer Cox wrote a number of stories about brownies.
Beginning in 1931, Santa and Billie made an appearance on WTMJ radio for fifteen minutes every day at five o’clock p.m. from shortly before Thanksgiving through Christmas eve. In addition to reading letters, Billie would give an update on what was happening at the North Pole, and he would read part of a storybook. And you’d better watch out! Billie was known to peek into windows to see which children were naughty and which were nice.
Santa wasn’t the only frequent visitor to Billie’s show. There was also me tick, the reindeer and Willie wagged tail, the dog. Milwaukee children were known to leave treat not only for Santa, but also for me tick and Willie and Billie.
Billie was actually played by well-known Milwaukee radio personality Carol Cotter from the 1940s until the end of the show’s run. A host of other Milwaukee stars voiced Billie over the years.
With the advent of television, Billie the brownie faded into Milwaukee lore. He continued to appear in the annual Milwaukee Christmas parade through the 1960s, and he endures in the imaginations of those who remember fondly gathering around the radio, hoping to hear Billie read the letter they sent Santa.