Saturday, July 7, 2007

Advertising Mascots Part Two

While advertising mascots associated with breakfast cereals proliferated in the late Twentieth Century, even then they were nothing new. Whether peddling food or gasoline, advertising mascots had been around for a long time before Tony the Tiger ever appeared on a box of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes.

Among the oldest is Mr. Peanut, the Planters Nuts mascot. In 1916 Planter's Nut & Chocolate Company of Sulfolk, Virginia held a contest for the right image to promote their product. Antonio Gentile, a 14 year old from Virginia, won the award of $5 for his simple design of a "peanut person" standing cross legged. A commercial artist expanded on his design, adding the familiar top hat, monocle, white gloves, and cane. Mr. Peanut underwent some changes over the years, for much of his history looking like a somewhat realistic presentation of a peanut. In 1960 he was re-designed as a more cartoonish character, closer to the Mr. Peanut we know today. Over the years a huge number of promotional items bore his likeness (everything from salt and pepper shakers to dolls). And he has long been a fixture on television, making his first appearance in commercials in the Fifties.

Mr. Peanut was preceded a few years by another advertising icon, the Morton Salt Girl. The Morton Salt Girl was introduced in 1911 along with their popular slogan, "When it rains, it pours." The image of the Morton Salt Girl has always been that of a girl between seven and nine in the rain with an umbrella and a salt container with its contents pouring onto the ground. She has undergone changes over the years. The original Morton Salt Girl simply stood in the rain. When the character was revamped in 1921 she was shown as walking, which she has been doing ever since. The Morton Salt Girl would be updated in 1933, 1941, 1956, and 1968 (she's stayed the same since then). She is one of the few advertising mascots to undergo fairly drastic changes over the years.

Other old advertising mascots are Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo, the mascots of Cracker Jack Candied Popcorn and Peanuts. Introduced at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, Cracker Jack did not gain its familiar mascots until 1918. The two characters were initially modelled after Cracker Jack inventor and founder Frederick William Rueckheim's grandson and his dog. Like Mr. Peanut and the Morton Salt Girl, Sailor Jack and Bingo have been made over from time to time.

The Campbell Soup Kids are even older than Mr. Peanut, the Morton Salt Girl, and Sailor Jack. They were created by cartoonist Grace Wiederseim Drayton (whose most famous comic strip was the The Pussycat Princess) for a streetcar advertising campaign. Pictured as a pair of chubby, rosy cheeked twins, the two were an immediate success and would make their way into a number of promotional items, including pinback buttons, dolls, postcards, and so on. In the Fifties they made their television debut, singing the familiar jingle "M'm! M'm! Good! M'm! M'm! Good!, That's what Campbell's soups are, M'm! M'm! Good! (itself dating to the Thirties)." The two stopped singing in 1958, but they would remain Campbell Soup's mascots to this day. For the most part they have remained unchanged, although in 1998 the Campbell Soup Kids became less chubby and more slender due to changing conceptions of health.

Not as old as Mr. Peanut, Sailor Jack, or the Morton Salt Girl is the Jolly Green Giant. That having been said, the big emerald man has been around for awhile. In 1925 the Minnesota Valley Canning Company introduced the Giant as part of the commemoration of a new variety of pea. Originally the giant was the same colour as human beings of European descent and dressed in a shabby bearskin. In 1930 both he and the bearskin were coloured green. He was changed again in 1936, given a more sophisticated look and his familiar leafy wardrobe. It was also in this year that he officially became, well, "jolly." The Jolly Green Giant would be updated again in 1960, 1976, and 2003. Through the years he remained popular, although his first TV commercial was not a rousing success. First airing in 1953, the commercial featured rough stop motion animation with the Giant moving through the countryside. It was decided that the commercial was too frightening for children. Thereafter the Jolly Green Giant (played by Olympic long jump skier Keith Wegeman in the Sixties) would simply stand over the valley and utter his trademark, "Ho! Ho! Ho!" Len Dresslar (who was also the voice of Snap of Rice Krispies fame) provided the Giant's voice. In 1973 the Green Giant was given a sidekick in the form of Little Green Sprout. Arguably, the Green Giant is one of the most successful mascots of all time. In 1950 the Minnesota Valley Canning Company changed its name to "Green Giant." In 1978 Blue Earth, Minnesota erected a statue of him.

While many advertising mascots are associated with food, the petroleum industry has had its share of mascots as well. I've already written about Dino, the dinosaur mascot of Sinclair Oil in this blog, but Dino was not the only such mascot. Esso (now known in the U. S. as Exxon) has long been associated with the tiger. The association began in the early 1900s when Esso stations in Norway featured tigers on their gas pumps. It was in 1936 that Esso in the United Kingdom started featuring a tiger in their newspaper advertising. The campaign ended with World War II, when petrol rationing was the rule of the day. The tiger made a comeback, this time in the United States, in 1953. That year Esso started featuring tigers in its ads. Eventually, in 1959 to be exact, this would result in the company's famous slogan: "Put a tiger in your tank." By the Sixties realistic looking tigers had given way to a cartoon character, who would continue to appear until 1973. Since then Esso/Exxon in the States has been associated with tigers. In fact, they would even bring back the cartoon character in 1996 as part of their campaign for their TigerMart convenience stores. This resulted in a lawsuit from Kellogg's insisting this infringed on Tony the Tiger, even though the Esso Tiger looks nothing like Tony and the two had co-existed since the Sixties.

If it seems odd for gasoline companies to have advertising mascots, then consider that for many years the electric power industry had its very own spokesman in the form of Reddy Kilowatt. Reddy Kilowatt was an antropomorphic lightning bolt with a light bulb for head, created by Ashton B. Collins Sr. for the Alabama Power Company in 1926. The character was quickly licensed to other power companies and proved very popular. The character appeared not only appeared in ads, but promotional items (including comic books) and animated, educational films often shown at schools. He was more or less retired in the Seventies with the Energy Crisis, but has maintained a high degree of popularity ever since.

The Fifties and Sixties were not only the Golden Age of cereal mascots, but of advertising mascots in general as well. Much of this was no doubt due to television, a medium which was suited to whimsical and humourous characters. Certainly, the mascot for Alka-Seltzer, Speedy Alka-Seltzer, was perfect for TV. First introduced in a magazine ad in 1952, by 1953 he was appearing in commercials that mixed live action with Pixilation (a form of stop motion animation), alongside the famous jingle, "Plop, plop, Fizz, Fizz Oh, what a relief it is!" Speedy Alka-Seltzer proved to be a big success, although he would be retired in 1964. Since then he has been revived from time to time.

Just as Quaker Oats sought to create a product with a built in mascot in the Sixites (namely, Cap'n Crunch), so too did Proctor & Gamble in the Fifties. The company wanted to enter the liquid cleanser market and hired the firm of Tatham-Laird, Inc to develop an advertising campaign. The end result was a character named "Mr. Clean," a bald man in a T-shirt with an earring in his left ear (many have presumed he is a sailor). The character was designed by animator Hal Mason, perhaps best known for his work at Walter Lantz Studios. Mr. Clean made his debut in a TV commercial in 1958, alongside his famous jingle (which begins "Mr. Clean gets rid of dirt..."). Mr. Clean has changed very little over the years and his jingle has even survived, appearing as recently as this year.

In 1961 Charlie Tuna, the spokesman (spokesfish?) for Starkist Tuna, was introduced. The character was created by legendary ad man Tom Rogers of the Leo Burnett Agency, who also took part in creating the Keebler Elves and Morris the Cat. Charlie Tuna was portrayed as a hip fish wearing a beret and glasses who, for whatever reason, wants to be canned as tuna for Starkist. Thinking that he has good taste, Charlie was always disappointed when told,"Sorry, Charlie" and that Starkist doesn't want tuna with good taste, but tuna that tastes good. In commercials Charlie was voiced by character actor Herschel Bernardi, perhaps best known for his role in the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. Charlie would be retired in the Eighties, although he would return in 1999. He has been a spokesfish for Starkist ever since.

Of course, as legendary as the creator of Charlie Tuna was, he could not match a claim held by the creator of the Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy. In 1940 Martin Martin Nodell, with writer Bill Finger, created the superhero Green Lantern for All-American Comics. Having created one of the most popular superheroes of all time, Nodell was set to make history again in 1965. C.A. Pillsbury and Company wanted a stop-motion character for their commercials. Copywriter Rudi Perz at the Leo Burnett Agency came up with the initial idea for Poppin' Fresh, while art director Nodell and his team developed the character's design. The character made his television debut in October 1965, his original voice being voice actor Paul Frees. Attempts were made to give Poppin' Fresh a family, from Poppy the Pillsbury Doughgirl to Flapjack the Pillsbury Dog, but none of them proved the lasting success that the original Pillsbury Doughboy did. He continues to appear in commercials to this day.

As successful as the Pillsbury Doughboy is, his success may be dwarfed by Ronald McDonald, the clown who serves as spokesman for McDonald's. Two different stories exist regarding the creation of Ronald McDonald. In one he was created as a promotion at a Los Angeles McDonald's by a professional clown. In the other he was created for TV spots by a Washington D. C. McDonalds franchise, with Willard Scott (best known as weatherman on Today) first playing the role. Regardless, the two stories agree on this much. It was a local franchise rather than an advertising agency or McDonald's Corporation itself that created Ronald McDonald, making him rather unique among advertising icons. Willard Scott's appearance as Ronald was not that far off from that of Bozo the Clown (whom he also played), but it would not be long before the clown would take on the look by which he is known today. Regardless, by the mid-Sixties Ronald McDonald was appearing nationwide and has been a McDonald's mascot ever since.

It would be in 1967 that the Keebler Elves were created by the Leo Burnett Agency for United Biscuit Company's Keebler line of products. According to the commercials, the Keebler Elves bake cookies in a hollow tree. Their leader, dressed distinctively in green, yellow, and red, is Ernie the Elf, originally voiced by Parley Baer (who played Chester Gunsmoke on radio and Mayor Stoner on The Andy Griffith Show). Over the years a number of other elves have appeared, including Doc (the elves' physician), Flo (their accountant), Fryer Tuck (spokesman for Munch 'ems), and Elmer, an apprentice baker. The Keebler Elves are featured in commercials to this very day.

While many advertising mascots are created by ad agencies and the companies themselves, many were actual people. Contrary to recent urban legends, Chef Boyardee was an actual person, Ettore Boiardi. He served as the spokesman of his company for decades. Harland David Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, gained fame as Colonel Sanders. To this day his image is associated with the company. Both Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's, and Orville Redenbacher, founder of Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popcorn, also served as the mascots of their respective companies.

Of course, there are times when advertising mascots invite controversy. Aunt Jemima, Rastus of Cream of Wheat fame, and Uncle Ben have all come under fire as ethnic stereotypes. Perhaps the most notorious example of a controversial advertising mascot was the Frito Bandito, a spokesman for Frito Corn Chips and a character lingering in the memory of many younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers. The Frito Bandito was developed by the advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding, but was given life by two legends of animation. It was legendary animator Tex Avery, veteran of both Warner Brothers and MGM, who designed the Frito Bandito and Mel Blanc, voice of the classic Warner Brothers characters. who provided his voice. The Frito Bandito was the sort of Mexican bandit seen in numerous Westerns. He was heavily armed with bandoliers and pistols, unshaven, and his smile prominently featured a gold tooth. Debuting in 1967, he ended his first commercial by drawing his guns and demanding the audience hand over their Fritos Corn Chips. Needless to say, many Hispanics were not amused. Frito-Lay gave into the outcry and cleaned the Bandito up. He was given a shave, his teeth were fixed, and he no longer held people up for their Frito Corn Chips, but instead tried to get their Frito Corn Chips through guile and trickery instead.

Unfortunately, for Frito-Lay, this did nothing to assuage the anger of various Hispanics. In 1968 two activist groups formed to fight ethnic stereotyping in the media: the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee (NMAADC) and Involvement of Mexican-Americans in Gainful Endeavors (IMAGE). Both groups launched an attack on the Frito Bandito. Initially they approached broadcasters, actually succeeding in convincing KNBC-TV in Los Angeles and KRON-TV and KPIX-TV in San Francisco to boycott the Frito Bandito's commercials by December of 1969. That same month the NMAADC announced that it would file a complaint with the FCC. By February 1970 Frito-Lay announced that they would stop using the Frito Bandito as a spokesman. This appears to have simply been a stop gap measure, however, as new Frito Bandito commercials continued to air into 1971. The NMAADC then announced that it would file a $610 million lawsuit against Frito-Lay for "for the malicious defamation of the character of the 6.1 million Mexican Americans in the United States." Threatened with a lawsuit, Frito-Lay at last retired the Frito Bandito. In the Nineties, Taco Bell would also come under attack for their mascot, the Taco Bell Chihuahua, whom some Hispanics saw as a thinly veiled stereotype.

Controversy of a different kind was created by Joe Camel (officially "Old Joe"), the anthropomorphic camel who served as the mascot of Camel cigarettes. Initially conceived for a T-shirt campaign in the Fifties, Joe Camel was revived by R.J. Reynolds in 1988 in an effort to make the brand appeal to a younger crowd. The strategy backfired insofar as many viewed the use of a cartoon character as a means to entice children into smoking. An American Medical Association study even claimed that more children recognised Joe Camel than Mickey Mouse or Fred Flintstone (I've always doubted the validity of this study, as most children I knew at the time had no idea who Joe Camel even was...). In 1992 a San Francisco lawyer, Janet Mangini, even sued R. J. Reynolds for targeting minors through Joe Camel. Coming under fire from activist groups and even Congress, R. J. Reynolds settled the suit in 1997. They also voluntarily retired Joe Camel.

While Joe Camel generated a great deal of controversy, he was not the first cartoon character to sell cigarettes. Indeed, if the anti-smoking lobby was angered by Joe Camel, they would have been terrified by Willie the Kool Penguin. With the introduction of Kool cigarettes in 1933, Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company decided to use penguins in marketing. That year somewhat realistic representations of penguins appeared in ads for the cigarettes. It was the following year, 1934, that a cartoon penguin first appeared. Created by the Ted Bates Advertising Agency and eventually called "Willie," the penguin changed over the years, growing more cartoonish as time passed. He also produced a large number of promotional items, including salt and pepper shakers, countertop figures, and match holders among other things. From April 1952 to April 1953 there was even, horror of horrors, a Willie the Penguin comic book published by Standard Publications! Willie made his television debut in commercials in 1954. In 1960, after 27 years of serving as the mascot for Kool cigarettes, Willie the Kool Penguin was retired. Although largely forgotten today, he would have a lasting impact on pop culture. An image of Willie in a top hat and monocle inspired Bob Kane to create Batman's enemy, The Penguin!

In the past few years it seems as if only a few advertising mascots have lasted. The Taco Bell Chihuahua was retired after only three years. The Dell Dude (played by actor Ben Curtis) lasted only three years (although his arrest for possession of drugs probably had more to do with the Dell Dude's career ending than anything else). Of mascots, I can only think two in recent years that have lasted some time: the Snuggle Bear (since 1983) and the Energizer Bunny (since 1987). It is left to see whether advertising characters of more recent vintage will last or not.

That having been said, it does seem to me that lately it is insurance company advertising mascots who are the most popular. While neither the AFLAC Duck nor the GEICO Gecko have the sex appeal of Erin Esurance, they have both proved successes. The AFLAC Duck (AFLAC stands for American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus, for the curious--the company was founded in 1955) first appeared in 2000, the creation of Amico and Eric David of the Kaplan Thaler Group. The Duck himself was designed by special effects company Stan Winston Studio (that's right--he's not a real duck). In his commercials the Duck has appeared with Yogi Berra, Chevy Chase, and basektball player Yao Ming.

The GEICO Gecko is as well known as his rival at AFLAC, although he was created out of necessity more than anything else. The GEICO Gecko (GEICO stands for the Government Employees Insurance Company, founded in 1936) was created by the Martin Agency during the 1999 Screen Actor's Guild strike (which prohibited live actors from appearing in commercials). Originally voiced by Kelsey Grammer, in his first spot the Gecko complained about people confusing Gecko with GEICO. The Gecko soon lost Kelsey Grammer's cultured tones. Initially, it was thought it would be funnier if the Gecko spoke with an Australian accent. Voiced by Richard Richard Steven Horvitz in one spot, it was Irish actor Dave Kelly who provided the Gecko's Aussie voice. More recently, he has shifted towards a more working class, British accent, now being voiced by English actor Jake Wood. Regardless of his voice, the GEICO Gecko has remained popular, so much so that part of the GEICO website is dedicated to him.

Advertising mascots have been in use in America for well over 100 years. Some have become lasting successes (Mr. Peanut and the Campbell Soup Kids). Some have been abject failures (anyone remember Herb, the mascot for Burger King for less than a year?). Some have even generated a great deal of controversy (I don't think the Frito Bandito or Joe Camel will be back any time soon). Regardless, advertising mascots are definitely here to stay. It will be interesting to see which ones are still around in one hundred years.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Advertising Mascots Part One

Okay, I hate to admit it, but I have a bit of a crush on Erin Esurance, the sexy superspy featured in animated commercials for Esurance Inc. I am apparently not alone. Google her name and one will find a number of people who are fans of the cartoon hottie. Indeed, Erin even has her own website, Erin's World. where one can read her blog, watch her commercials, and look at artwork.

Erin Esurance was created by Esurance's in-house advertising team and her commercials animated by W!ldbrain (the folks who also did the animation for Lamisil and Honda spots). She first appeared in July 2004 in some markets. By 2006 the cmapaign had went nationwide. Essentially, Erin is a superspy, often termed a "special agent." She often encounters the Mysterious Stranger, whose name appears to be Erik and who is revealed to be her handler in "Carbon Copy (see below)." She also owns a black cat (I think he is named Jackpot--at least in one blog entry she speaks of her "Jackpot-the-Cat backpack"). The commercials have been so successful that Esurance has starred Erin in a 3 minute animated short titled "Carbon Copy," featuring mad scientists, clones, and quite a bit of action. Interestingly, Esurance is mentioned only once in the entire cartoon!

The success of Erin Esurance should be no surprise. In the United States, advertising mascots have been around since the 19th century. And the number that have gone onto lasting fame are considerable. I have no idea what the oldest, trademarked advertising mascot is, but the oldest advertising mascot for a breakfast cereal is the Quaker Oats Man. The character was registered in 1877 by Quaker Mill in Ravenna, Ohio, one of the mills that would eventually merge to become the Quaker Oats Company. Although Henry Parsons Crowell, owner of the mill, was not a Quaker, he felt that the image of such would reflect purity, honesty, and integrity. Initially, the Society of Friends were not happy to be associated with the cereal and even sued Quaker Mill; they lost. The success of the Quaker Oats Man would lead the rise of other advertising mascots in the late 19th century, from Baker’s Dutch Chocolate girl to Aunt Jemima.

Speaking of Aunt Jemima, it is notable that some of the 19th century advertising mascots would be considered racist by today's standards. Aunt Jemima pancake syrup debuted in 1889, the inspiration for the name coming from a minstrel show song of the same name (sung by a performer in black face and red bandanna). The character of Aunt Jemima was created and trademarked in 1893. Aunt Jemima was conceived as the stereotypical "Mammy" character, As early as the 1920's African Americans would complain that the character was a stereotype, and eventually the character would be brought up to date in the Fifties and Sixties and completely overhauled in 1988. Not as well known as Aunt Jemima, but considered nearly as offensive is Rastus, the advertising mascot for Cream of Wheat. In fact, the character's name even has its roots in racism. Following the War Between the States, European Americans often used the name "Rastus" as a generic, derogatory name for African American men. The characer was a familiar one in minstreal shows. Introduced in 1893, Cream of Wheat started using the character, essentially a stereotypical, idealised African American chef, in print ads in 1896. Initially the character was portrayed as holding a bowl of Cream of Wheat in one hand and a skillet in the other, but he would be updated in the Twenties to be given a more "wholesome" look, complete with chef's hat. Insofar Rastus has not been updated since then, many today still see him as a symbol of racism.

The Quaker Oats Man and Rastus were two of the earliest breakfast cereal advertising mascots, but they would not be the last by any stretch of the imagination. Also among the oldest was a character called Sunny Jim, created to promote Force Toasted Whole Wheat Flakes. It was in 1901 that the Force Food Company first started making the cereal. Sunny Jim was created in 1902 by writer Minnie Maud Hanff and artist Dorothy Ficken as the cereal's mascot. Sunny Jim appeared in ads for Force Toasted Whole Wheat Flakes, along with various, humourous jingles relating how "Jim Dumps" was transformed into "Sunny Jim" by eating the cereal. The advertising campaign proved to be a rousing success, and Force became the first successful wheat-based cereal product since Shredded Wheat and Cream of Wheat. As to Sunny Jim, he took the nation by storm. A writer at the time said he was " well-known as President Roosevelt or J. Pierpont Morgan." Eventually Force Toasted Whole Wheat Flakes would cease using the character, but the link between the cereal and its popular spokesman was never completely severed. Sunny Jim would be revived in 1932, primarily because of the success both the character and the cereal saw in Great Britain.

In fact, Force Toasted Whole Wheat Flakes saw more success in the United Kingdom than it ever did in America. Force Toasted Whole Wheat Flakes was introduced into Britian in 1910, complete with Sunny Jim. Over the years a large number of premiums featuring the character were offered. "Sunny Jim" even became a part of English slang as a patronising insult. The cereal, with Sunny Jim as its mascot, has continued to be produced there to this day. The United States was a different story. The cereal would change hands frequently, undermining its initial success. Production of Force cereal would end in 1985 in America.

As to long running cereal mascots still in use, Snap, Crackle and Pop, the elves who serve as the mascots for Kellogg's Rice Krispies, have been around since the Thirties and Forties. Created by artist Vernon Grant, the inspiration for the characters came from a radio ad which emphasised the sound of "snap, crackle, and pop" made by Rice Krispies. Snap was the first to appear on boxes all the way back in 1932. Crackle and Pop would later join him in print ads before making their way to Rice Krispies boxes as well. In 1939 they would appear in their own animated short, "Breakfast Pals." Naturally, the characters were animated for television, where their commercials appeared on such shows as Howdy Doody. Snap, Crackle and Pop were the first humanoid characters to serve as spokesmen for a Kellogg's cereal.

If there was a Golden Age for breakfast cereal mascots, it was perhaps the Fifties and Sixties. There were such characters as Smaxey (1957 Kellogg's Sugar Smacks), The Trix Rabbit (1960, General Mills Trix), Lucky the Leprechaun (1964, General Mills Lucky Charms), Sugar Bear (1964, Post Sugar Crisp), Lovable Truly (1964, the postman who pitched Post Alpha Bits), Quisp (1966, Quaker Oats Quisp), and Quake (1966, Quaker Oats Quisp). The whole trend towards breakfast cereal mascots was perhaps started by one of the most famous. Tony the Tiger first appeared in 1951 as the mascot for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. He was designed by children's book illustrator Martin Provensen. Voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft in the animated ads on television, Tony became one of the most success advertising mascots of all time. He was given a son, Tony Jr., in 1952. Over the years there have been a large number of merchandise featuring the famous tiger. He is currently one of the longest running cereal mascots of all time.

Of course, Tony's fame is matched by one other breakfast cereal character. It was only a matter of time that a breakfast cereal would be created with its own spokesman as part of the creation process. In the early Sixties Quaker Oats decided to make a cereal with lots of crunch, believing this to be a quality desired by kids in their cereal. They approached Jay Ward's animation studio to create a mascot for this new cereal. Writer Allan Burns created the new character, named Cap'n Crunch, an older but still very energetic sea captain. Both the cereal (also named Cap'n Crunch) and its mascot debuted in 1963. Cap'n Crunch came with his own mythos from the beginning. His ship was the Guppy and his first mate was a canine simply called Seadog. His crew were four kids (Alfie, Carlyle, Dave, and Brunhilde). Cap'n Crunch was even given his own archenemy in the form of Jean Lafoote the Pirate (who first appeared in 1968). The success of Cap'n Crunch would lead Quaker Oats to ask Jay Ward Productions to create more characters for their cereals: Quisp, Quake, and others.

Of course, Linus the Lion Hearted, the mascot of Post Crispy Critters, would achieve things not even Tony the Tiger or Cap'n Crunch would. First appearing in 1962, Linus proved to be such a hit that by 1964 he was appearing in his own Saturday morning cartoon. Linus the Lion Hearted debuted in 1964, not only featuring Linus, but Post cereal mascots Sugar Bear, Lovable Truly, So Hi, and Rory Raccoon as well. Including its initial Saturday morning run and a subsequent run on Sunday mornings, it lasted for five seasons. It ended its run in 1969 when the FCC ruled that children's show characters could not appear in commercials on the same show. Linus would also have his own balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day. The balloon was still featured in the parade long after the cartoon left the air and even after Post had stopped making Crispy Critters!

While Linus the Lion Hearted may have been the star of the cartoon and had his own Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloon, arguably the most successful Post mascot was Sugar Bear. Sugar Crisp had been introduced in 1949. Sugar Bear would not come around until 1964. He may have evolved out of the cereal's earlier mascots, three identical bears called Dandy, Handy, 'n' Candy. The trio were popular in their time, inspiring a comic strip and a Rosemary Clooney song. As the Fifties progressed, however, their popularity apparently declined. They were Sugar Crisp's mascots from 1949 to 1960.

Sugar Crisp would not be without a bear for long. Introduced in 1964, in his original incarnation Sugar Bear wore no clothes and carried a banjo. He would appear with the other Post characters on Linus the Lion Hearted. Voiced by Gerry Matthews (Sterling Holloway on the cartoon), he sounded somewhere between Bing Crosby and Dean Martin. In the early days Sugar Bear often tried to get Sugar Crisp from Granny Goodwitch (voiced by Ruth Buzzi), although their relationship was hardly adversarial. Sugar Bear would sometimes come to her rescue. In 1965 Sugar Bear was given his familiar sweater (originally green, but later changed to blue). At some point Sugar Bear would lose his banjo, and Granny Goodwitch ceased to appear in the commercials, replaced by such opponents as the Sugar Crisp Fox and The Blob (the stereotypical petty hoodlum). He was given a companion in the form of Honey Bear in the Seventies, and even appeared with his own band (The Sugar Bears) on records that were free on the back of Sugar Crisp boxes. But Sugar Bear himself only changed a little through the years, despite the fact that the cereal's name changed from Sugar Crisp to Super Sugar Crisp to Super Golden Crisp (when sugar became a dirty word on television) to Golden Crisp. Curiously, Sugar Crisp has always been called "Sugar Crisp" in Canada! Regardless, Sugar Bear remains the cereal's mascot to this day.

While breakfast cereal mascots may be the best known advertising mascots around, they are by far not the only ones. Everything from oil companies to soup companies have felt the need to create their own spokesmen.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

More Celebrity Deaths

While I don't believe that celebrities die in threes, they do seem to die in groups at times. This week has already seen several celebrity deaths.

Among the most notable was opera diva Beverly Sills, who passed on July 2 at the age of 78 after a battle with lung cancer.

Sills was born in Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn on May 25, 1929. As a child she earned the nickname "Bubbles," which she kept all her life. She started performing while still a very young child. At age four she performed on the radio show Rainbow House. By age seven she had adopted her stage name and sang in the movie short Uncle Sol Solves It. Her big break came October 26, 1939 when she won the weekly talent contest on the radio show Major Bowes' Amateur Hour. Afterwards she became a semi-regular on the radio show Capital Family Hour (also produced by Bowes).

She entered the world of opera in 1945 as part of a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company. In 1947 she received her big break as an opera star as the Spanish gypsy Frasquita in Bizet's Carmen in Philadelphia. Sills' reputation would only increase with each passing year. She would become the star of the New York Opera, having first performed there in 1955 in Die Fledermaus.

What separated Sills from many opera stars was that she was approachable. In fact, she was known as "the diva next door." It should be no surprise, then, that she would appear on television often. Sills appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffith Show, The Tonight Show, The Muppet Show, and The Wonderful World of Disney. She also appeared in TV adaptations of operas ranging from The Barber of Seville to La Traviata, and specials which displayed her talents. If she had a home in the world of television it would be the unlikely venue of The Carol Burnett Show. Close friends with Burnett, she appeared on the show frequently.

Sills retired from the stage in 1980 when she was 51. She was general director of New York City's opera for a time. While its director she provided the opera with supertitles, titles in English projected onto a screen above the stage. She would also be chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, both the first woman and artist to hold the position.

Never having been a big fan of opera (I like some opera, but not all of it), I can't say that Beverly Sills had a huge impact on my life. But I always did like her. While many opera stars seem to belong to a different world, Sills seemed to be on of us. For all her success, Sills still seemed like a simple girl from Brooklyn. Indeed, how many other opera divas would appear on The Muppet Show? I certainly will miss her.

Saturday Will H. Shaefer passed at the age of 78 from cancer. For those of you who have never heard his name, Shaefer was a Pulitzer nominated conductor, composer, and arranger who wrote much of the incidental music for classic TV shows (that is, he did not write the theme songs, but the music one hears during an episode).

Schaefer was born November 28, 1928 in Keosha, Wisconsin. He earned degrees at De Paul University and Northwest University. In the Korean War he served as assistant conductor and arranger for the 5th Army Band, Special Services at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. It was during his tenure there that he wrote music for various local stations, as well as Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America.

Following the war he made his way to New York. He soon found himself composing and arranging music for TV shows and commercials. He also arranged music for no less than thirteen Broadway musicals, as well as Buddy Rich and Count Baisie. In 1966 he made the move to Los Angeles and went to work for Walt Disney, composing music for episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney, as well as such Disneyland attractions as Pirates of the Caribbean and Bear Country.

Over the years Schaefer worked on many classic TV shows. His first work in network television was as an orchestrator on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. Over the years he composed music for TV shows such as The Phil Silvers Show, The Flintstones, Hogan's Heroes, and I Dream of Jeannie. He also composed music for movies, including the original Shaggy Dog, The Aristo-Cats, and Forgotten Heroes. Although not the best known composer to work in television, Schaefer was one of the most prolific and one of the most talented.

Yesterday saw the passing of Bill Pinkney, the last surviving member of The Drifters. He was 81 years of age.

Pinkney was born August 15, 1925 in Dalzell, South Carolina. He grew up singing in the church choir. During World War II he served in the United States Army, receiving a Presidential Citation with four Bronze Stars. Following the war he was pitcher for the New York Blue Sox of the Negro baseball league. He would also sing in various gospel choirs.

It was after Clyde McPhatter had left The Dominoes in 1953 that Atlantic Records to form a new group. After a single session with members from his old group, the Mount Lebanon Singers, Atlantic asked McPhatter to form yet another group. For the original incarnation of The Drifters, McPhatter recruited Gerhart and Andrew Thrasher, Bill Pinkney, Willie Ferbee, and Walter Adams. Pinkney was with The Drifters on their earliest hits, including "Honey Love," Ruby Baby," and their version of "White Christmas." Pinkney and nearly the entire group was fired in 1958 when their manager decided to form a whole new group with The Drifters' name. Pinkney then formed "The Original Drifters" with other original members of the group. Pinkney toured for decades with the group. In fact, he was scheduled to perform with The Original Drifters the day he died in Dayton Beach.

While Pickney was not with incarnation of The Drifters which had the biggest hits ("There Goes My Baby," "Up on the Roof," and "Under the Boardwalk," among others), there can be no doubt of his talent. The original Drifters' version of "White Christmas" is my favourite rendition of that song. Indeed, Pinkney receive many awards, including the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award and an Honourary Doctorate of Fine Music from Coastal Carolina University. He has also been inducted into thee Vocal Group Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,and the Beach Music Hall of Fame. There can be no doubt that with Pickney's passing we have lost a talented artist.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Art Stevens and Boots Randolph

Two men who were important to their respective professions recently passed on. One was Art Stevens, longtime animator at Disney. The other was Boots Randolph, a saxophonist who played with some of music's biggest stars.

Animator Art Stevens passed on May 22 following a heart attack. He was 92 years of age.

Stevens was born in Roy, Montana on May 1, 1915. He started working at Disney in 1939 as an in-betweener, the artist who creates the drawings between key poses made by an animator. The first project to which he was ever assigned at Disney was Fantasia. He would work as an in-betweener on most of Disney's features in the Forties.

It was with Peter Pan, released in 1953, that Stevens became a full character animator. He would work on Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, and Robin Hood. Stevens would also direct two features at Disney: The Rescuers (with John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman) and The Fox and the Hound (with Ted Berman and Richard Rich).

Stevens would also provide story concepts and animation for Disney's various space documentaries made for the TV show Disneyland in the Fifties. He also created the title sequences for several Disney projects, including No Deposit, No Return and the original version of Freaky Friday.

Boots Randolph passed today after having suffered a brain haemorrhage on June 25 which left him in a coma.

Boots Randolph was born Homer Louis Randolph III in Paducah, Kentucky on June 3, 1927. He grew up in nearby Cadiz, Kentucky. His brother gave him the nickname "Boots" when he was very young; since his father was also named "Homer," his family followed his brother's example. The Randolph family was musically inclined, and young Boots had learned to play ukelele and trombone when his father brought a saxophone home when he was 16. Randolph then took up the saxophone. Following graduation from high school, Randolph enlisted in the U. S. Army, where he played in the band.

Randolph played nightclubs before being signed by RCA in 1958. He would continue to play nightclubs in Nashville for many years, and toured with the Festival of Music. In all Randolph released over 40 albums. His biggest hit on his own was the instrumental "Yakety Sax" in 1963 (many might remember it as the closing theme of The Benny Hill Show.

Boots Randolph also worked as a session musician and played on some of the biggest hits in the rock era. Among the songs he played on were "Return to Sender" by Elvis Presley, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee, "Oh, Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison, and "Little Queenie" by REO Speedwagon. Over the years Randolph played with some of the biggest musicians in history, including Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Doc Sevrinsen.

Monday, July 2, 2007

This Summer's Box Office

This weekend the release of Pixar's Ratatouille and the latest movie in the adventures of John McClane, Live Free or Die Hard, broke a downturn in box office receipts that has lasted the past four weeks. That having been said, it was still a disappointing weekend, even if the weekend total was up from it has been for nearly a month.

Quite simply, Ratatouille only took in $47.2 million. This gives the movie the second worst opening for a Pixar film and the worst since A Bug's Life. This was below expectations--predictions had ranged from $50 million to $65 million. At $33.15 millions, Live Free or Die Hard was closer to its predicted box office take for the weekend, although some of us would have liked to have seen it done better (it's a good popcorn movie--honest!). While both Ratatouille and Live Free or Die Hard did relatively well, they did not do well enough that we can expect 2007's box office to do anything more than match that of 2006. The past four weeks have seen to that.

The disappointing box office receipts for this movie season are interesting as initially pundits were predicting that this summer would result in a record $4 billion at the box office. By the end of June, it was clear that this was probably not going to happen. It seemed as if film after film this summer earned less than what many expected them to: Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and so on. To me the reasons for the poor box office performance aren't hard to find. First, it seems obvious to me that most people were disappointed by the first two of the threequels this season. Both Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third were not nearly as good as the other movies in those franchises. This probably sabotaged the chances of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End performing any better than it did, as people had grown cautious of the various sequels this summer following both Spider-Man 2 and Shrek the Third. It may have even affected the performance of yet other sequels, from Ocean's Thirteen to Live Free or Die Hard.

Second, it seems to me that early predictions for this summer may have been exaggerated to begin with as there were simply too many sequels. This summer has seen or will see the release of Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Ocean's Thirteen, Live Free or Die Hard, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix among many others. This is more sequels than usual, even for the summer movie season, and I rather suspect more than the average person necessarily wants to see at the theatre.

There are those who think that Transformers could save this summer's box office. I have even heard of a few who have proclaimed that this will be the big movie this summer. I personally have serious doubts that it will save the summer box office or especially that it will be the summer's big movie. My reasons for this are simple. First, it seems to me that the audience for Transformers is limited to begin with. It more or less consists of men under 30 who are nostalgic for the cartoon from the Eighties and/or toys as well (that I believe haven't gone out of production since the Eighties). It seems to me that most people over 30 (like my best friend and myself) have almost no interest in the film. Second, Transformers has some very stiff competition. This July 4, and perhaps the following weekend as well, might see a lot of young men electing to see Live Free or Die Hard instead. Little boys who might be inclined to see Transformers might just beg their parents to take them to Ratatouille. And then one has to consider the many other movies still playing at theatres: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, 1498, Ocean's Thirteen, and even Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. The rather fierce competition this holiday will naturally undermine the potential box office of Transformers.

Now don't get me wrong. I do think Transformers will do well. I rather suspect it will take the top spot, beating both Ratatouille and Live Free or Die Hard. But ultimately I think it will drop very dramatically and very rapidly in its box office after its first week of release. In fact, I daresay that both Ratatouille and Live Free or Die Hard will still be in the top ten movies each week long after Transformers has faded away. Quite frankly, I don't see that it has enough of an audience to give it any lasting power.

That having been said, unless Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and/or The Simpsons Movie, or even some other film, does extremely well, I don't think this summer has any hope whatsoever of surpassing 2006 in box office profits. I guess the only good news for Hollywood could be that there is always next summer...

Anyhow, given this is a movie related post, I should perhaps let you know what my blog's rating is. Personally, I was rather surprised as I thought it would at least be rated "PG." I guess maybe I need to throw in more sex and violence...

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Sunday, July 1, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

It has been a summer of disappointing sequels. Spider-Man 3 was not up to par with the first two. Shrek the Third also did not measure up in quality to the previous two movies in that franchise. It seems that the rule of diminishing returns that holds true with sequels had finally been enforced when it came to those two otherwise stellar series. Despite the fact that Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and Ocean's Thirteen delivered the goods, and that its trailers looked very good, I must admit I went in to see Live Free or Die Hard with some concern for its quality.

I need not have been worried, as it turns out that Live Free or Die Hard is easily the best movie since the original Die Hard (which was released all the way back in 1988--where does the time go?!). The plot of this movie takes the original's premise (which, for those who have never seen it or forgotten it somehow, involved the seizure of a skyscraper by terrorists) and places it on a national scale. To give you an idea, the movie is based on the article "Farewell to Arms" by John Carlin, which appeared in the May 1997 issue of Wired. In the article Carlin posits an attack on the United States through its information technology (which runs nearly everything today). On the surface this might not sound like it would make for a particularly exciting action movie, but it actually does. Live Free or Die Hard contains some truly spectacular action scenes, including one in which John McClane (played by Bruce Willis, who else?) faces down a fighter jet while driving a semi truck. There are also some great fight scenes, particularly between McClaine and the deadly Mai Lihn (played by Maggie Q, whom folks might remember from Mission: Impossible III). As might be expected of a Die Hard movie, John McClane takes an outright beating well before the movie is halfway over, but goes right on ticking like a Timex watch.

One doesn't often think of performances when it comes to action movies, but Live Free or Die Hard actually has some fairly good acting. Often after playing a part so many times actors tend to sleepwalk through performances, but Bruce Willis still breathes life into McClane, delivering his exchanges with the villain with the same conviction as he did in the first movie. Timothy Olyphant (whom some of you may remember as Seth Bullock in Deadwood) makes an excellent villain as Thomas Gabriel, the man who essentially holds the whole country hostage. Two welcome additions are Justin Long and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Long plays hacker Matt Farrell, who has the misfortune to find himself McClane's sidekick throughout the movie. Long convincingly plays a relatively ordinary person who is sometimes dumbfoudned by not only the sort of mayhem that McClane attracts, but the actions of McClane himself. Winstead plays McClane's daughter Lucy, who is every bit her father's daughter. No mere damsel in distress, she actually gets some blows in on the villains herself. Director Kevin Smith (who, when it comes to acting, is probably best known as Silent Bob in many of his own movies) does a humourous turn as Warlock, a hacker who seemingly never leaves his basement.

Live Free or Die Hard is essentially a thrill ride, where the thrills come almost nonstop. In some respects it is also a throwback to the action movies of the late Eighties and early Nineties, movies in which the heroes as often engaged the villains in a battle of words as they did battles involving bullets. As such Live Free or Die Hard is a fun movie, the kind that I feared they might have stopped making long ago.