Saturday, August 18, 2018

Here's Billy--Billy Carter's fifteen minutes of fame

In 1976, Jimmy Carter of Plains, Georgia was elected President of the United States, ushering in a new era of culture and politics. President Carter had a seemingly more humble background than the typical politician, with small-town southern roots, a disarming quality of casual informality that was reflected in his name, and a family of colorful folks that charmed and captured the imagination of the American public, including liberated mother Miss Lillian, and beer-swilling younger brother Billy.

“I’m a real Southern boy,” Billy said to a gathering of reporters at his gas station in Plains. “I got a red neck, white socks and Blue Ribbon beer.” The press and the public were charmed with his wit, looking to him as something of a country philosopher, but with a lot more bite than Sheriff Andy Taylor.

While Jimmy Carter personified the tolerant, liberal New Southerner, Billy Carter personified the hard-drinking, hard-smoking good-time Southern redneck. Part good ol’ boy, part businessman, part huckster. Not particularly political but very opinionated. And he didn’t give a damn who he offended, or if his boisterousness was an embarrassment to the president. “Jimmy’s staff may bitch but that don’t bother me. To hell with his damn staff,” he eloquently told Newsweek.

Billy Beer

Billy had been living a relatively quiet, simple life in Plains for his first 39 years, raising a large family, and running the Carter family peanut warehouse and the town’s Amoco filling station when he was catapulted into the national spotlight. It “complicated the hell out of my life,” he said at the time, but it also opened up some new business propositions. An attempt to ride the coattails of his brother’s electoral success didn’t quite pan out. He lost his bid to become mayor of Plains one month after Jimmy won the presidency, but a big marketing opportunity opened up: Billy Beer.

As tourists and press people began to flood into Plains, eager to find out more about their folksy new president and his family, Billy was rarely seen without a beer in hand and a beer belly to go with it. A sizable segment of the population saw him as something of a kindred spirit, someone they could have a beer and shoot the shit with. Officials from the Falls City Brewing Company in Louisville, Kentucky approached Billy with the idea of marketing a beer with his name, and the First Brother took them up on it.

“I had this beer brewed up just for me,” read the endorsement that bared his signature on bottles and cans. “I think it’s the best I ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot.” The label went on to describe Billy as “One of America’s all-time great beer drinkers.”

“I’m a businessman,” Billy said at the time, “and I was itching to find something else to get into. For me the beer thing was a natural, ’cause I know a good beer better than anybody. Who knows? Maybe I’ll become the Col. Sanders of beer.”

In coming up with a brew that would suit Billy’s discriminating tastes, marketers of Billy Beer explained that they had him sample several brews and the one he liked best was “a heavier beer, very unlike the light beers now coming on the market.” Billy’s special brew was described as “more malty and flavorful.”  It will be “drinkable, and you’ll be able to enjoy more without explodin’,” Billy was quoted as saying.

Falls City was a regional brewer whose territory included Georgia, but to market Billy nation-wide, other regional brewers in places such as Cold Spring, Minnesota, Utica, New York and San Antonio, Texas signed deals to brew and market it in their own territories. Billy said he preferred to support the smaller businesses around the country rather than a giant corporate marketer, allowing him to have close, personal involvement with people at all levels to maintain quality. Of course, Billy was to receive a substantial royalty with the sales of the product.

Billy Beer was introduced with a big outdoor beer bash in Plains on October 31, 1977 featuring Billy, lots of good ol’ boys, two of his attractive grown daughters, mother Miss Lillian and plenty of reporters, although no presidential appearances. The brew came in bottles and cans with a slick-looking orange, blue and white label, designed by his wife Sybil, and soon posters and point-of-purchase displays proclaiming “Billy Beer is Here” were appearing in bars and liquor stores in different parts of the country. The media gave it enough free publicity that Billy didn’t need to buy expensive TV spots during NFL games.

The presidential brother quickly became a celebrity in his own rite, appearing on the TV talk show circuit and entertainment programs such as Hee-Haw, along with county fairs and car dealerships willing to shell out enough to meet his appearance fees. He was referenced in newspaper cartoons, comedy monologues and quiz shows, and he was even made a member of the Beer Can Collectors of America club. But neither Billy Beer nor Billy himself was without controversy.

Beltway elitists and political snobs wrote editorials denouncing in the strongest terms what they perceived as the younger Carter acting in a manner unbecoming to a president’s brother, and the state of Virginia banned Billy Beer outright, citing a law it just happened to have prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages bearing the endorsement of any well-known living person on the label.

Archer L. Yates of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission of Virginia said it was “highly improper for Mr. Carter to endorse a label selling beer in Virginia” and that the Billy brand is “downgrading to the office of the president of the country.”

“It has always been and continues to be the feeling of the commission that endorsements for alcoholic beverages by any prominent person is contrary to good public policy in the control of alcoholic beverages,” the humorless commissioner stated.

As it turned out, Billy Beer was a flop. Within months of its introduction, liquor retailers were deep-discounting the brand “just to get rid of it” and they were not ordering more.

Even Billy himself apparently didn’t think much of the brew in spite of his endorsement. The beer he was usually seen drinking before his namesake product was introduced was Pabst Blue Ribbon. An article years later in Beer Cans & Brewery Collectibles magazine told the story of how he autographed each can of a six-pack of Pabst for the young beer can collecting son of a business acquaintance, commenting “PBR is the only brand I’ll drink. That Billy Beer tastes like shit! I was paid a lot of money to put my name on it, but I don’t have to drink it.”

Billy Beer ultimately sank the troubled Falls City Brewing Company, which had invested so much into its promotion. Less than a year after its introduction, the Louisville brewery went out of business, was closed down and the assets were sold to the G. Heileman Brewing Company of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, which was growing by leaps and bounds at the time by buying out regional brewers across the country. Heileman wanted no part of Billy Beer and consequently 8.8 million unused Billy cans ended up in the smelter at the Reynolds Metals Company recycling plant.

Foreign Agent Billy

Billy Beer was dead by the end of 1978 but Billy Carter shed few tears. He was seeking new business ventures in the country of Libya, leading a group of Georgia legislators and businessmen in a trade delegation to that rather hostile country.  If the mission itself didn’t raise enough eyebrows, he commented that he was interested in doing business with Libya because “there is a hell of a lot more Arabians than Jews.” Regarding charges that the nation sponsored terrorism, he said a “heap of governments support terrorists and [Libya] at least admitted it.” President Carter publicly distanced himself from the whole thing.

Meanwhile, Billy’s hard-drinking reputation began to catch up to him, in part from the stress of being thrust into the limelight and in part because he felt the need to live up to the public perception that people expected of him. Eventually he checked himself in to an alcohol addiction treatment facility in California and sobered up for good.

As President Carter campaigned for reelection in 1980, Billy’s ties to Libya increasingly became a headache for the Administration.  He registered, belatedly, as a foreign agent of that country after he admitted to receiving a $220,000 payment for oil sales he was to facilitate. Allegations began to fly that the Carter Administration had asked Billy to use his influence with Libya to help out in the American hostage crisis in Iran, that Libya sought aid from Billy in acquiring C-130 transport planes embargoed by President Carter, and that Billy illegally received access by the White House to State Department cables, among other things. A scandal was brewing, dubbed by the media as “Billygate,” an investigation by the Justice Department was triggered and Congress announced plans to hold hearings on the matter.  The old image of Billy Carter as the loveable beer-swilling redneck was but a distant memory.

“Billygate” was just one of many problems weighing down President Carter’s reelection bid, and when voters went to the polls in 1980, Carter lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan. As Reagan took office the following January, all remnants of the folksy president from Plains and the culture of the late 1970s were swept away for a new era.

Revenge of Billy Beer

With a new era of Reaganomics, eighties attitudes and new-wave fashion, Billy Beer became something of a collectors’ item, a novelty from the not-so-distant past that nevertheless seemed like such a long time ago.

Beer can collecting continued to be a popular, if waning, pastime, especially with younger guys, and rumors began to snowball that Billy cans had become incredibly rare and valuable, worth up to thousands of dollars for a still-full six-pack and at least $50 or $100 for even a crapped-out empty. There were news reports about this so-called phenomenon and even Johnny Carson talked about it on the Tonight Show.

The truth was, most beer can collectors had several Billy cans saved, the cans were common if obsolete and not much more than a novelty item. But that didn’t stop scam artists and more than a few plain dimwits from thinking they could make a fortune selling the Billy cans they horded up back in 1978.

When the Beer Can Collectors of America (BCCA) held their national “Canvention” in Chicago in 1981, the dimwits and scammers saw a huge money-making opportunity, running ads in local papers offering “mint” Billy cans for an average price of $250 a can or $1,500 a six-pack. One even thought he could get $9,000 for a six-pack.

The BCCA, who once claimed Billy as a member, responded to the ads directly by giving away over 300 Billy cans to passers-by on the streets of Chicago during their convention as a means of promoting the club to the public and exposing the scam for what it was, effectively destroying the dreams of would-be millionaires. Some of the “valuable” cans were tossed into Michigan Avenue and crushed by oncoming busses.

Billy Carter, meanwhile, returned to the quiet, private life he enjoyed before his brother’s ascension to the White House, staying off the booze and staying away from controversy. However, pancreatic cancer took the lives of his two sisters and mother Miss Lillian, who also had bone and breast cancer. Billy himself died of pancreatic cancer on September 25, 1988, almost ten years to the day from his first visit to Libya, at the age of 51. Billy Beer still did not increase greatly in value with collectors.

The Billy Carter Museum

His legacy did not end with his death, however. Almost twenty years later, in May 2008, the old gas station and watering hole in Plains that had famously been Billy’s official headquarters, reopened as the Billy Carter Service Station Museum. Operated by the Plains Better Hometown committee, of which Jimmy Carter is a board member, the idea was suggested by the former president himself, who contributed $50,000 to get the project rolling. Another $200,000 was raised in private funds.

The museum displays many of Billy’s personal possessions, including clothing such as his cowboy boots and a Billy Beer T-shirt, documents, diplomas, commendations, magazine covers, even a letter he wrote to his older brother, the future president, as a young boy. There is also a history of the service station itself, provided by the Jennings family of Plains, from whom Billy bought the station in 1972.

“Well, I think all of you know Billy Carter was the one who put me on the map,” President Carter told a crowd of about 300 at the grand opening of the museum. “Mother always believed—and she convinced the rest of us—that Billy was the most brilliant member of the family. And I don’t think anybody would doubt that.”

"Redneck Power: the Wit and Wisdom of Billy Carter, compiled by Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard, Bantam Books, 1977
“Brother Billy” by Pete Axthem, Newsweek, November 14, 1977
Beer Can Collectors News Report, November-December, 1977
Beer Can Collectors News Report, January-February, 1978
Beer Can Collectors News Report, May-June, 1978
Beer Can Collectors News Report, March-April, 1979
Beer Can Collectors News Report, November-December, 1981
Beer Cans & Brewery Collectibles, February-March, 1999
“Billy Carter Museum shows ‘whole man’” by Susan McCord, Albany Herald, May 4, 2008
Associated Press report on Billy Carter Service Station Museum, May 5, 2008

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Zum-Zum-Zum, a Stein Song

In honor of National Tavern Month, we present the lyrics to "Zum-Zum-Zum, a Stein Song." Written by Oscar F. G. Day to accompany original music by Elmer Olson, this song was published in 1914 as sheet music by Minneapolis Brewing Company, to promote Zumalweiss beer. There was also a recorded version on a 78 r.p.m. record. 

Kind of a precursor to the radio and TV commercial jingle, it was a song that could be sung in the tavern while beering away the hours by the old piano. A pre-Prohibition classic. Minneapolis Brewing Company was best known as the brewers of Grain Belt beer until it went out of business in 1975. 


With your day's work completed,
With friends you are seated, 
In rathskeller, home or cafe,
What pleasure so pleasing,
From care your brain easing, 
As sipping the hours away

With joke and clear laughter, 
Who cares what comes after,
Dull care we have banished away

Each jolly good fellow,
Joins in with a mellow
“Here's ho” for it's time to be gay.


Zum Zum Zumalweiss
That is the music we all love to hear,
Room, room, room for good fellows
And welcome each one with a cheer

Let us join in a smile
For the beer that's worthwhile,
So here's to good old 
Zumalweiss and here's a health to all of us
With a laugh in each sip,
As it passes the lip,
That's the Zum Zum Zum Zumalweiss beer.

You may boast of your tipples,
Of champagne that ripples,
Or fizzes that fuddle your brain

Or urge of the bouquet,
Of sauterne or tokay,
Or sparkle of burgundy strain

Give me the pure shine and
The health from the stein-land,
That came when they taught how to brew

And I will be wiser
Than king, prince or kaiser,
Get wise to that Zumalweiss too.

(Repeat chorus)

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Fred is Dead: Recalling Flintstones Bedrock City

You've seen them on TV and in comic books. Now -- visit the Flintstones in their own Bedrock City at Custer, South Dakota, on highways U.S. 16 and 385.

You'll see Fred and Wilma - Barney and Betty and, of course, Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm. Visit the firehouse, the Bedrock bank, city jail, oodles of stores and The Bedrock Theatre, where you'll enjoy Flintstone films showing continuously. Dino is twenty feet high, perched on one of the many rocky ledges that add to the fabulous beauty of the sixty acres that comprise Bedrock City and camping area. Modern bath houses and rest rooms add to the comfort of campers and travelers and a drive-in and souvenir shop add to the enchantment of Bedrock. The cool dry nights and balmy days assure you a delightful vacation in the heart of the beautiful Black Hills, just a short distance from Mt. Rushmore and the buffalo herds. Remember!! There is only one Bedrock City in America!

--1967 Flintstones Bedrock City brochure

Soon there would be another Bedrock City, in Arizona, plus two in Canada, making a total of four Bedrock City theme parks in North America. All of them are gone now, victims of changing times, licensing issues and new generations of kids disinterested in such schmaltz.

I never did make it out to Flintstones Bedrock City. It's a shame too. The original Flintstones-themed park in Custer, South Dakota was in a state that bordered my home state of Minnesota. But when my family went on a trip, at least when I was in tow, we either went up north or out to Wisconsin. Never west. Come to think of it, I never saw nearby Mount Rushmore in person either.

Being enamored with Fred and Barney from age five on, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it as a kid, and would have still gotten a kick out of seeing it as an adult. I heard about it when I was a kid. I knew some kids who had been there, some telling me it was pretty neat, others saying it wasn't all that good and I wasn't missing anything. Certainly it was no Disneyland. It was a roadside attraction, not a destination. It had cement "Stone Age" buildings and cement statues of Flintstones characters that weren't exactly to Hanna-Barbera's specs. Postcards feature employees posing in character costumes that look rather hideous, or shall we say, primitive.

The first Bedrock City park in Custer, SD opened in 1966, the year the Flintstones left prime time network television after six seasons. But the show became even more popular in syndicated reruns, usually running in late weekday afternoons to the delight of millions of children coming home from school. Myself included. In my home town of Minneapolis, for a time in the early 1970s, it was shown twice a day by independent station WTCN-TV Channel 11, mornings and afternoons, plus two back-to-back episodes on Sunday mornings. I wanted to hang out with Fred and Barney, and be their pal. In a way, I was kind of able to do that when I watched the show. But if I had been able to go to the Bedrock City theme park, I'd be able to walk into their homes, stroll down their main street and ride in their cars. I could have acquired inexpensive Flintstones merchandise at the souvenir shop, and I could have enjoyed the local cuisine, Bronto Burgers and Dino Dogs. Truly a three dimensional version of a one dimensional cartoon.

Here's a few postcards from the park in South Dakota, circa 1969.

"In front of a skyscraper under construction stand Barney and Fred waiting for their families to take a ride in their sports job (sic). They stand on the main street of Bedrock City, Custer, South Dakota."

"Stopping in front of the Souvenir Shop, Fred and Barney chat awhile before leaving for work."

"Pebbles rides the saber-toothed tiger to visit Bamm-Bamm at Barney Rubble's home."

A second Flintstones park opened in Arizona in 1972. It was smaller, but some say it was better. Two more eventually popped up in Canada, but they were fairly short lived. Over time, the parks were updated, but not too much. The twenty-foot Dino statue at the South Dakota park was repainted in different colors over the years. The cement character statues were replaced with fiberglass ones that were more to specifications, at the demand of the current owners of the Flintstones intellectual properties of the time.  The franchise had changed corporate hands a number of times over the years, eventually ending up under the auspices of Warner Bros, originator of the Looney Tunes cartoons.

The Flintstones continued to be seen in perpetual reruns on local stations, including WGN in Chicago and its vast cable network, well into the 1990s. Eventually, the show would become an exclusive of Turner Broadcasting's Cartoon Network, later being shuffled over to the Boomerang channel, which is seen on far fewer cable and satellite outlets. As this happened, the Flintstones began to fade from the public consciousness. Recent generations of kids have little clue and no curiosity about the Flintstones. There are still Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles cereals featuring Fred and Barney on the box, and Flintstones Vitamins remain the best-selling children's chewable, but that has more to do with the buying decisions of the parents than the demand of the kids, as had been the case when those products came out decades ago.

The Bedrock City parks in South Dakota and Arizona finally closed in 2015, and perhaps it's amazing they lasted that long. People lost interest, kids no longer care, and the current owner of the Flintstones intellectual properties, Warner Bros, had no interest in renewing the licenses to use the characters. The Stepford Children of today don't give a damn about such things. Same reason why Toys R Us and most other toy stores went out of business. If it's not an app they are completely lost and clueless. They're not even kids anymore, they are mutants.

An interesting and in depth history of the Flintstones theme parks can be found here:

Saturday, December 2, 2017

What Goes Best With a Hot Dog?

"What goes best with a HOT DOG? Right...Beer or ale the way you like those easy-to-open CAP-SEALED CANS!"

In the summer of 1940, a war was going on somewhere in Europe, and there was talk of some mad man taking over countries and slaughtering millions. But far away in the heartland of America, the main concern was rolling out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. Those days of soda and pretzels and especially beer. And Continental Can Company wanted to convince people that their Cap-Sealed (cone top) beer can fit best with summertime activity.

The year before, six and a half million of the 30 million cases of canned beer sold had been consumed in July and August alone. With a recovering economy, all indications were that 1940 would be the biggest season yet, and the brewing and beer can industries were gearing up to meet the expected demand. For Continental and the 83 breweries using cone tops, it was a matter of convincing consumers that theirs was the superior package.

Continental embarked on an aggressive print advertising campaign, paid for through a cooperative arrangement with those brewers and beer distributors using their Cap-Sealed cans. Lively two-page spreads ran in popular magazines such as Life, Collier's and Liberty, featuring people having fun and discovering for themselves the advantages of the Cap-Sealed can.

There were nine spreads in all, pointing out the convenience of taking the can along for picnics, outings, cook-outs, parties and other occasions, stressing that no special opener was needed, unlike other types of beer cans that required a "church-key" opener ("opens just like a bottle"). You could drink from a "clean, cap-protected surface," and there were no empties to return. No environmental regulations, either.Once you consumed the contents, you could simply throw the can into the outhouse pit, sink it in the lake, toss it into the campfire or add it to a pile somewhere, where excited collectors could find it decades later. One of the ads depicted a young man, with his sweetheart, letting his empty float away in a stream.

Continental put a considerable amount of market research into the campaign. They sent their men out to beer distributors and beer drinkers across the country to get their views on the package and how to market it. When asked, 2,032 distributors said they preferred the Cap-Sealed can to the flat top can. Only 102 chose the flat top, and 232 had no opinion. With flat tops, distributors had to handle the special openers, thus making the cone top more desirable. In addition, in nearly every survey taken, two out of three beer drinkers said they preferred the cone top.

The distributors and brewers were enthusiastic about the summer ad campaign and the local sales promotion that was given to them in their own territories, and they told Continental that the combination helped build package sales and volume.

The campaign paid off handsomely. In the first eight months of 1940, the distributors were reporting sales overwhelmingly ahead of those in all of 1939. The year 1941 also saw banner sales (until the U. S. entrance in the war put canned beer on hold). After the war, the Cap-Sealed can was eventually phased out, ending up being regulated mostly to automotive additives, and even those eventually went to plastic bottles. You can't buy anything in cone tops anymore, unfortunately.

But imagine for just one moment that it's the summer of 1940 once again. A beautiful day, kind of humid, but there's a nice breeze. The women are setting out food and talking, the men are playing a friendly game of baseball, the children are running abound. You get yourself an ice-cold cone-top can of beer, grab the opener and pry off the cap. Shhhhlock. A little bit of foam rises. You bring the metal surface to your lips and swallow down the wonderful liquid refreshment. Ahhh!.

Meanwhile, a war rages on in the rest of the world.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Mysterious 1960s Korean Pop LP

I found this unusual foreign gem in the $2 bin at a record collectors' show in Minneapolis a few years ago, and had to snatch it up, even though I couldn't read a word on it except for "Oasis Records," "Seoul, South Korea," "High Fidelity," "Side 1," and "Side 2." Fine print on the back cover also references RCA and "Telefunken U-47," a type of microphone that Frank Zappa referenced on one of his records with sexual innuendo. ("You'll love it.")
On the front cover, a color photo of an attractive young Asian woman singer looking rather Westernized, wearing a halter top, bracelet and necklace with a flower in her hair above her left ear, a lit cigarette in her right hand, while standing at a microphone caressed by her left hand. A cloud of exhaled tobacco smoke hovers over her. That in itself seemed unusual, as I have heard that South Korean culture is quite conservative, and even now, women who smoke publicly are looked down on. The Oasis Records logo appears in the lower left corner, and a Shin Films logo in the lower right, suggesting it might be a movie soundtrack.

Listening to the record, the style was kind of early 1960s nightclub Asian jazz-pop, full orchestration, with kind of torch singer vocals, sung in Korean, sounding sweet and melodic. Not really a throaty smoker's voice.

After posting an image of the album cover on Flickr, someone commented, tipping me off that the singer's name is Jaeran Park (or Park Jae-ran), and the album title translated into "My Darling Has Passed Away, but His Song Still Remains." Upon further research, I found that she was born in 1938, and that this album came out in 1964, so she would have been about 26 years old at the time. She is actually well known in South Korea, putting out albums from the late 1950s until at least the early 1980s, and making numerous appearances on Korean television, some of which can be found on YouTube. The musical genre is called "K-Pop" in the trade, or Korean Popular. Apparently she also did some acting, which might help explain the Shin Pictures logo (wonder if the cover picture is from a movie). She looks a lot more conservative/traditional in most of the other images I have been able to find of her. The label, Oasis Records, in now an EMI subsidiary.

The other mystery would be, how did this copy end up in the United States, and ultimately in a $2 bin at a record collectors' show in Minneapolis?

A track from the album can be found here:
Another track from the album can be found here:

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Facts About Fallout

With recent talk about nations expanding nuclear capabilities and a renewed arms race, we take a look at a booklet issued by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, issued in 1957 and directed at average Americans, called "Facts About Fallout."

Going back to 1945 with the end of the Second World War via the atomic bomb, there was always a looming threat that another nation with more sinister intent might turn the tables back on the United States.

The Soviet Union, although a U.S. ally during the war, soon figured out how to make its own atomic bomb, threatening the United States and democracies around the world, thus triggering what came to be known as the Cold War. With the Soviet threat, and U.S. troops battling communists in Korea in the early 1950s, there was serious worry that the Cold War could turn red hot and that U.S. cities could be the target of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. With the lives of millions of U.S. civilians at risk, legislation creating the Federal Civil Defense Administration was signed by President Harry S. Truman and enacted on January 12, 1951.

The government wanted Americans, who had lived through two world wars without ever seeing a direct attack on the homeland, to know that this threat was damn serious. Air and missile bases would be likely targets of an atomic bomb, as would major cities. The blast, heat and radiation would kill millions of Americans at or near ground zero of such an attack. Millions more would be injured or killed by radioactive dust — fallout — kicked up by the blast and blown to all parts of the land by wind, so no one was safe. A plan needed to be put in place, and a citizenry needed to be informed on how to handle such a dire situation.

Through the Civil Defense Administration, regional offices were set up, civil defense directors were appointed in communities across the land, informational booklets and posters were published, films were produced, and civil defense experts appeared on radio and television programs, to let John Q. Public, his wife and his children know how serious the threat was and what they can do to protect themselves.
"Facts About Fallout" (1957) describes what fallout is and how citizens can protect themselves, in layman's terms. Click the images to enlarge.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Squirt Soft Drink Subjective Color Acid Test

On July 25, 1967, television viewers with black-and-white TV sets were startled to see flashes of color on their monochrome screens for about ten seconds during a 60-second soda-pop commercial. A letter to a columnist in the September 14, 1967 Detroit Free Press asked, "Before I see an eye doctor, let me ask Action Line: Is it possible to pick up color TV on a black and white set? I SWEAR I saw a Squirt soft-drink commercial in color. Not pink elephants Green Squirt!" The image was described in the newspaper column as a red, green and blue sign that had flashed on the screen.

A viewer in Chicago told Popular Photography magazine (July 1968), "I saw pink! It knocked me for a loop...the letters S-Q-U-I-R-T looked greenish or light turquoise...and it kept up for maybe 10 seconds." (Meanwhile a viewer in San Francisco claimed he didn't see anything colorful.)
It was the national debut of an experimental television commercial using a special production process that would give the optical illusion of color. The commercial first aired a few months earlier locally on KNXT, the CBS-owned television station in Los Angeles, and viewers there were just as stunned. Squirt and its advertising partner Color-Tel Corporation of Los Angeles, at the time decided to make no prior announcement of this experimental commercial, preferring to see just how viewers would respond. And respond they did. Within hours, thousands of viewers were asking if they really saw what they thought they did, color on their black-and-white TV screens, according to Popular Electronics magazine (October 1968).

The burst of color was not "living color" (as NBC frequently touted in the 1960s), but something called "subjective color." The process was developed by James F. Butterfield of Color-Tel, a corporation founded in Los Angeles in early 1966. It gave the illusion of color by pulsating white light in a particular sequence for each color with a rotating device attached to a regular black and white TV camera lens. Butterfield had found in his many years of research that the human brain perceives colors through complex electronic codes. Butterfield was able to figure out the individual codes for the colors red, green and blue, and by pulsating white light in predetermined patterns with the device on the camera lens, could induce the brain of the television viewer to perceive color. Beyond that, ordinary monochrome equipment could be used in filming or taping, broadcasting and viewing.

There were a few drawbacks. The images were nothing at all like true color TV. It didn't have the intensity or range of colors. As the technology currently stood, the effect could only be used on still images. The "subjective color" could only be seen in about one-fourth of the TV screen area, and, because it relied on flickering light, there was a lot of flickering. It was also found that some people could not perceive the colors at all, yet some people diagnosed as color-blind could see the colors.

Nonetheless, Popular Science, in its August 1968 issue, saw many possibilities for the technology, particularly for special effects. "Color will appear in cartoons, commercials and special presentations. Polka-dots on a clown's suit will be seen as red flashing dots. You'll see the designs and lettering on a cereal box in pulsating green and blue. A girl will plant a kiss on a boy's cheek--and a red lipstick print will appear on your screen."

Popular Electronics (October 1968) went on to report, "Right now, Color-Tel engineers are checking into the possibility of using electronic color for such things as color radar displays, color computer readouts, and perhaps even color sonar pictures. It may be true that, in its present stage of development, Butterfield's process is nothing but a scientific curiosity — however, 25 years ago, so was television."

Popular Science predicted, "You can expect color on your black-and-white TV by this fall [1968]." But there was one giant flaw in that rosy prediction. By 1968, black-and-white TV was well on the way out. The vast majority of programming (outside of old movies and TV shows) were being broadcast in "living" color by then, and while most U.S. households still had black-and-white TV sets (color sets were big, bulky and expensive in those days), more and more homes were purchasing color television sets every year. Had James F. Butterfield perfected the process ten or fifteen years earlier, in the 1950s when 90 percent of television broadcasts were black and white, it might have had more of a serious impact.

Although James F. Butterfield had many patents to his credit before his death in 2013, it appears this experiment didn't go as far as the press of the time might have suggested it could. Color-Tel last renewed as a corporation in 1972, and we can not find any evidence of other "subjective color" broadcasts beyond the Squirt commercial.