Sunday, November 18, 2012

Marijuana at Your Supermarket

   On Election Day 2012 two US states, Colorado and Washington, voted to legalize the sale and use of marijuana for any purpose, contrary to long-standing federal law. The controversy continues to rage and is far from being ironed out. The day when one will be able to buy commercially produced marijuana packaged and sold in everyday retail stores like tobacco is a long, long ways away, but more than four decades ago, a stodgy grocery industry trade magazine contemplated that very possibility – and the marketing opportunities that would come with pot legalization.

   The January 1970 issue of Supermarketing (page 86), in a piece attached to an article about tobacco sales, suggested that legalization “no longer seems so remote as it once was.” It pointed out that the Nixon Administration had moved to differentiate the penalties between dealing and mere possession, as well as the penalties between marijuana offences and those of “harder” drugs.

One of many pro-pot "underground"
publications in 1970.

   The “underground” press, Supermarketing reported, was claiming that “major tobacco companies already have acreages laid out and marketing plans on tap against the time when ‘grass’ becomes legal. But at least one marketing executive snorted, ‘That’s the biggest damn lie I ever heard.’”

   Still, a tobacco magnate who chose to remain anonymous admitted, “Let’s face it – marijuana is already an American phenomenon spearheaded by youth and the middle classes. It’s growing day by day. I think that once we get away from the emotionalism that surrounds the subject now, the Government will in time realize it’s missing a good tax bet.”

   An ad agency creative exec (think Mad Men), who also chose to remain anonymous, speculated, “In the absence of any conclusive scientific evidence one way or the other as to whether ‘pot’ is harmful, I think it’ll eventually become legal. Prohibition demonstrated that you’re not going to make something disappear by making it illegal – and that’s part of the problem. Drugs today are what alcohol was in the 1920s, namely sin. And what legislator wants to go on record as being in favor of sin? But if everyone does it, it becomes less sinful.”
"Natalie" might have been even more excited
if National Food Stores started selling
packages of marijuana next to the cartons
of Tareytons and Luckies.

   The ad exec went on to speculate, “Even with legalization, there’s every probability of an advertising ban – which would make ‘grass’ the first ‘new’ product with mass-market potential to emerge unaccompanied by advertising. Which will be very interesting to watch.”

   The 1970 Supermarketing article concluded, “All of this may be so much conjectural blue haze. The opposition to marijuana remains strong among legislators, educators and parents. Its delights and dangers are still largely uncharted and it may indeed, in some cases, lead to an urge for stronger and more harmful drugs. Nevertheless, it may one day be sold across supermarket counters.”

   If one were to travel back in time to 1970, and tell the people from then about "the future," would they really believe that America in The Year Two Thousand and Twelve is still battling over the issue of marijuana legalization?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Grain Belt beer punch recipe

   This recipe actually appeared in the October 1962 issue of the Grain Belt Diamond, a newsletter for the employees of Minneapolis Brewing Company/Grain Belt Breweries, Inc. in Minneapolis. (The company is long gone but Grain Belt Premium is still around, brewed by August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, MN.) Whip up a batch of this for your next holiday party…if you dare.


   Get an oversize bowl and mix the following ingredients in the order given. Stir well, and add as much ice as possible. Serve when chilled.

   Grapefruit Juice, 2 quarts
   Weak black tea, 1 quart
   Lemon Juice, 1 cup
   Light Puerto Rican Rum, 1 quart
   Strong Grain Belt Premium Beer, 8 twelve-ounce bottles

   Sugar to taste, about a cup. Remember, always put the beer in just ahead of the sugar.

(Left: Stanley and Albert were cartoon mascots for Grain Belt Premium in the late 1950s and early 1960s.)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Richard Dawson and the worst TV special of all-time

   With the passing of Richard Dawson on June 2, 2012 at age 79, there were many tributes reflecting on his career as an actor and as the smooching game show host of Family Feud. Forgotten in the tributes, a 1979 ABC-TV prime time special that marked a low point in his career, the “Playboy Roller-Disco Pajama Party.’ The program was so dreadful, a news anchor in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area slammed it on the air during a local update.

   Airing on Friday, November 23, 1979, the “Playboy Roller-Disco Pajama Party” was described by a reviewer in the St. Paul Dispatch as “plotless, pointless crap” and “one of the most preposterous and insulting programs in the history of television.”

   The show took place at one of publisher Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansions, and opened with Dawson, dressed in a brown turtleneck and tan sport coat saying, “Welcome to Hef’s Place... Everything around here is well built.”

   Featuring the “top Playmates of 1980,” Dawson was described in a review as “drool(ing) and sigh(ing) as Bunnies and Playmates frolic at a pool and waterfall at Hefner’s Playboy Mansion West in Los Angeles.” The first part of the program included shots of “young women gently smoothing oil on their well-tanned skin” and others roller-skating in “skimpy swimming attire” to the disco hit sung by special guest Donna Summer. “Tops and bottoms swing in slow motion. A Bunny in a blue, star-bedecked bra gasps in athletic rapture as a camera approaches for a close-up…Hefner, in a pale-blue jumpsuit and unexplained Indian headdress, leads a long line of disco skaters. Two women duel with Popsicles.” Disco might have been pronounced dead in 1979, but it was alive and well at “Hef’s Place.”

   The Village People and Chuck Mangione were among other guest entertainers appearing in the show, and meanwhile Dawson pursues a lil’ blonde cutie named “Dorothy,” (the late Dorothy Stratten, as a matter of fact) who at first rejects his advances because she’s only interested in roller-disco. It might have been Playboy but there wasn’t anything all that sexual outside of innuendo and mild titillation, as this was still network television in the late 70s.

   The “pajama party” part would come in the second half of the hour-long special, after “a word from your local ABC stations.” In the Twin Cities, KSTP-TV Channel 5 anchorman Ron Magers appeared live for an “Eyewitness News Update,” starting off with a statement that was not in the script.

   “I want to assure that this is a local news update and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Playboy Roller-Disco Pajama Party,” he proclaimed. He read a couple news headlines and then said, “For those of you who may have turned off your television sets in disgust, I want to assure you we’ll be back in 30 minutes with local news.”

   Within seconds, KSTP’s switchboard was inundated with calls that came in for more than thirty minutes, most of them supporting Magers’s comments, according to a switchboard operator there in a news story. The New York Times and Associated Press picked up on the story, which was in turn picked up by news outlets across the country. In the ensuing days the station received calls from all over giving kudos to Magers.  KSTP general manager Ralph Dolan had no comment about the incident.

   Magers told the Associated Press that he was required to appear with a news update during the show and he wanted people to know he was not part of it. “In my opinion, the program was blatantly sexist and of no redeeming social value,” he told the AP.

   Ron Magers was at the time the most popular news anchor in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market and so he could get away with such a bold move. Anyone else who tried that most likely would not have made it to the late-evening newscast that followed the Playboy special.

   Today Ron Magers calls Chicago home, arriving there from the Twin Cities in 1981 and working for two different network-owned stations through the years. He remains as one of the most popular—and occasionally controversial—anchors in that city.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Cops vs. reporters, 1970s style

   Dennis Anderson had a long and storied career at WDIO-TV Channel 10 in Duluth, Minnesota and satellite station WIRT Channel 13 in Hibbing that spanned from when the stations first went on the air in the volatile mid-1960s until his retirement in May 2011. Spending most of his years as the lead anchor on the station’s newscasts he was known for his signature sign-off, “Good night everybody, and be kind.” But as a reporter-photographer for the station in 1971, he was caught in a tangle between the TV station and city police, resulting in a confiscated camera, allegations and counter-allegations of harassment and a lawsuit that determined the rights journalists have in the face of police power.

   When WDIO came on the air in January 1966, it was the scrappy newcomer in a small city with two well-established TV stations; CBS affiliate KDAL-TV Channel 3 and NBC affiliate WDSM-TV Channel 6. WDIO was the area’s first full-time ABC affiliate and it was clear from the get-go that the station came to shake things up in the Duluth media establishment.

  The approach to news was hard-hitting, with an emphasis on exposés and investigative reporting. Critics variously called it bombastic, sensationalistic and muckraking, but the approach grabbed the public’s attention, the solid journalism behind it kept that attention, and by March 1971, the upstart television station in Duluth was number one at 10 p.m., with an astounding 56 percent audience share.

   After working for the station early on as a reporter, Dennis Anderson left WDIO in 1968 to accept a job as news director and lead anchor at another ABC affiliate, KTHI-TV Channel 11 in Fargo. But the departure didn’t last and in 1969 he returned to WDIO to anchor a new consumer watchdog segment on the newscasts called Action Line.

   As the lead investigator for Action Line, Anderson looked into, and attempted to resolve complaints written in by viewers. But in 1971, the mild-mannered reporter was caught in the middle of a sometimes intense, sometimes bizarre feud between the TV station and Duluth police.

   It started with a couple of different Action Line segments uncovering alleged misconduct within the ranks of the Duluth Police Department. The first involved a viewer complaint about a used car dealership. The subsequent investigation found a few police officers were repairing and selling used cars to an unlicensed dealership in their spare time, and were allegedly circumventing state law by falsifying title transfers. The City of Duluth had also been investigating the case, but WDIO-TV brought it to the public’s attention and it eventually resulted in the conviction of one officer.

   A second Action Line investigation turned up police documents, provided by a confidential source, that were found to have been tampered with to protect a prominent local citizen who had been arrested for drunken driving.

   Then just after midnight on March 29, 1971, there was a report of a break-in at the Ski Hut sporting goods store in Duluth. Serving as both reporter and cameraman, Dennis Anderson hustled to the location, armed with a portable film camera and a Sylvania Sun Gun lamp.

   Police were on the scene and soon captured two suspects inside the building while Anderson at first kept his distance, staying behind the building. When he got word that the suspects had been captured, he went to the front of the building and began filming through a store window.

   As the arresting officers lead the two suspects out of the building in handcuffs, Anderson stood about eight to ten feet away on a public sidewalk and began filming, using the Sun Gun lamp to provide light. Sgt. Richard Gunnarson, who was holding the door open as officers walked out the suspects, shouted “No pictures!” twice at Anderson, who then turned off the lamp. The police sergeant then demanded the WDIO camera from Anderson, and he handed it over.

   Lt. Alexander Lukovsky, who was also at the scene, talked to Anderson and offered to give back the camera under the condition that Anderson check with the Detective Bureau to determine that the film he had shot did not contain information that could possibly harm the case, and that the suspects were not juveniles (which state law prohibited being identified) before going on the air with it. When Anderson told the police lieutenant that he couldn’t guarantee any of that, the camera was taken down to police headquarters.

   WDIO news director Richard Gottschald was furious. He went to police headquarters and demanded to know why the camera was confiscated. Police claimed that the bright lights being used by Anderson were impeding the officers in their line of duty but Anderson claimed they said nothing to him about the lights and that an officer in fact had asked him to turn the light on to aid the police.

   WDIO reported on the controversy in its newscasts and the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union got involved on the station’s behalf, while a police union president accused the station of conducting a “subtle, continuing campaign to deride, humiliate and persecute us,” in a lengthy article that appeared in the November 13, 1971 national section of TV Guide titled “Hassle In Duluth.” The union called for a sponsor boycott of WDIO newscasts, which proved to be largely unsuccessful.

   The camera was returned to the station within days, unopened and the film inside unprocessed, but that wasn’t the end of the controversy. The station (then not owned by Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc.) filed suit in US District Court (with Dennis Anderson also named as a plaintiff) and the feud between the station and the police only escalated.

   According to the TV Guide article, employees of the station were claiming police were engaged in a “campaign of petty harassment” against them, with radar speed checks set up on the road leading to WDIO’s hilltop studios on 10 Observation Road, and near the home of news director Richard Gottschald. Station employees said they were stopped and ticketed for minor infractions on a regular basis, and the news director, who made an extra effort to watch his speed knowing police were laying in wait, happened to let down his guard one night and sure enough was nailed for going a few miles over the limit.

   Police in turn complained the TV station was harassing them with reporters tailing squad cars in hopes of catching police committing some small infraction. “For a while, the squad cars and TV cars were chasing each other’s tails around Duluth in kind of a Marx Brothers game of tag,” according to the article in TV Guide.

   Finally on February 7, 1972, United States District Court Fifth Division ruled in favor of WDIO and Dennis Anderson, saying that the seizure of the camera “was wrongful, and in violation of plaintiffs' rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, because [it was] not made pursuant to a valid warrant or arrest. Also, despite defendants' argument, it is clear to this court that the seizure and holding of the camera and undeveloped film was an unlawful ‘prior restraint’ whether or not the film was ever reviewed.”

   The Court went on to rule that “Plaintiffs' right to use a light in the taking of photographs at night should not be restricted except, and unless and until so ordered to the contrary by police in their reasonable belief that such is interfering with or endangering them in their work…There was no evidence of such interference by plaintiff Anderson here.”


Friday, February 24, 2012

The Grain Belt Guys--Where are they now?

     In the spring of 1975, Grain Belt Breweries, Inc., the Minneapolis-based regional brewer that had dominated beer sales in its upper-Midwest marketing area for decades, was facing some new and difficult challenges.

   Nationally advertised beers such as Budweiser, Schlitz, Pabst and Miller were getting more aggressive in their marketing, especially in parts of the country where there was a dominant regional brand with a loyal customer base. The big bad boys of the industry challenged those local loyalties with saturation advertising and deep discounts on their package and tap beers. 

   As Grain Belt struggled to remain relevant, let alone maintain and expand market share, a young businessman with a wheeler-dealer reputation named Irwin Jacobs was buying large quantities of Grain Belt stock and was making a pitch to other stockholders and the Board of Directors to sell the entire company to him.

   As the Board entertained thoughts of selling out to Jacobs in March 1975, the decision was made, as a means of brightening Grain Belt’s future, to embark on a whole new advertising and promotional campaign to be launched in time for the summer beer drinking season.

   The company hired New York-based advertising agency Batton, Barto, Durstine & Osborne, Inc. (BBD&O) and the campaign they came up with was called “Thirst Things First” featuring a trio of fun-loving beer drinking buddies known as the Grain Belt Guys.

   On May 1, 1975, Grain Belt shareholders voted to sell to Jacobs, a move that would prove to be a fatal mistake. As the 36-year-old businessman with no experience in the brewing industry took over as owner, chairman and CEO, the new Grain Belt Guys campaign was launched with seven television and seven radio commercials of varying lengths scheduled to run from May until December of 1975, billboards, posters and point-of-purchase displays featuring the Guys. It would be the company’s last ad campaign.

   Portraying the Grain Belt Guys were three California-based actors: Renny Roker (the black guy), Archie Hahn (the white guy) and Mark Giardino (the mustached guy). The three men had appeared separately in other TV commercials and had bit parts in a few TV shows and movies. Roker also had a recurring role in the CBS comedy series Gomer Pyle, USMC a few years earlier and before that worked for singer Nat King Cole, and Hahn made a few appearances as one of Oscar’s poker playing buddies on ABC’s The Odd Couple. The guys were flown in, and the commercials were shot in Minnesota.

   The roving Grain Belt Guys, wearing big red Grain Belt diamond logos on their T-shirts, would rescue other guys from uncomfortable situations in a series of humorous commercials by calling out “Pssst—Hey you! Let’s have a Grain Belt!”  In one of the commercials, for example, the Grain Belt Guys crash a wedding and call a nervous bridegroom away for a beer just as he’s about to tie the knot. In another, the Guys lure a bored young man, who is accompanying his snobbish rich boss and boss’s wife, away from his seat at the opera for a Grain Belt in the middle of an aria.

   Other commercials were filmed at various spots around the Twin Cities area, including the IDS Building (then the only modern skyscraper in Minneapolis), Naegele Outdoor Advertising Company (Grain Belt was one of that company’s biggest clients), a barber shop and at the beach. The Guys were happy non-conformist partiers who confounded the conformist snobs in the commercials, and as it would turn out, in real life as well.

   While the commercials undoubtedly played on youth appeal, at a time when states including Minnesota were lowering their drinking ages to 18, the actors portraying the Grain Belt Guys were all hovering around age 30, so they themselves weren’t all that young, but not all that old either. A perfect fit to attract the targeted 18-34 year old male beer drinker.

   In addition to commercials, the Guys were brought in for personal appearances around Minnesota in the summer of 1975, including the Minneapolis Aquatennial, where they rode the Grain Belt float and waved to enthusiastic spectators in the Torchlight Parade.

   According to an article in the October 1975 Grain Belt Diamond, a company newsletter, “Everywhere the Grain Belt Guys went they were recognized by thousands of fans…The three Grain Belt Guys enjoy their role and popularity in the Upper Midwest. Every place they would go they would hear “Psssst, hey you” from thousands of fans. They’re neat guys and are helping to sell Grain Belt Beer.”

   The Grain Belt Guys were even parodied in a Richard Guindon cartoon panel published in the July 2, 1975 Minneapolis Tribune. In it, the Guys are drunk, sick and in the gutter, while a young boy asks his mother as they pass by, “What’s the matter with the Grain Belt guys, Mom?”

   But not everyone was a fan of the Grain Belt Guys. The United Presbyterian Church filed an official complaint with the Federal Communications Commission as well as Grain Belt owner Irwin Jacobs over the wedding commercial, finding the church setting in which the Guys do their “Pssst—Hey you! Let’s have a Grain Belt” routine sacrilegious. The Presbyterian organization also complained that a Grain Belt radio spot featured religious music, but Grain Belt officials insisted it was “soul music.”

   The opera commercial also drew protest, this time from a culture lady from the Twin Cities Metropolitan Arts Alliance who complained that particular spot seemed to “reinforce the notion that only rich, society people can go and enjoy the arts” and that “there could have been a lot of other ways to make the commercial without putting down not only the opera but the people who attend it,” she was quoted in the Minneapolis Star. Others complained the commercials promoted youth drinking.

   Then, as 1975 came to a close, owner Irwin Jacobs, who hoodwinked a majority of Grain Belt shareholders into selling the company to him just eight months earlier, announced he would be closing down the brewery and selling off its assets. The Grain Belt brands would be sold to the competing G. Heileman Brewing Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the Grain Belt Guys died with the Grain Belt brewery.

   The guys portraying the Grain Belt Guys went their own separate ways continuing their acting careers. Renny Roker went on to have the most impressive accomplishments of any of the former Grain Belt Guys. He served as the International Sports Youth Representative for the Coca-Cola Company from 1978 to 1984, he produced BMX Racing on ESPN and America’s Paradise Triathlon for NBC Sports, he founded Teens On the Green, described as a multi-ethnic program that motivates inner city youth to excel in their academics through an appreciation of golf, and he appeared as a semi-regular on NBC’s Hill Street Blues in the 1980s. His last acting credit, according to the Internet Movie Data Base ( was a 1999 TV movie, “Kidnapped In Paradise.”

   In August 1975, at the height of the Grain Belt Guys campaign, Archie Hahn was a regular on a four-week summer variety show on CBS fronted by recording group Manhattan Transfer, doing comedy relief as a character called Doughie Duck (he had been renowned for his ability to talk like Donald Duck).  In his later career, he continued to act in numerous TV shows and commercials. He appeared in the theatrical movie “Meatballs Part II” (1984) and got into a relationship with co-star Misty Rowe, a former “Hee Haw Honey.” He was the first American to appear in the original British version of Who’s Line Is It Anyway, and most recently played the agent in “Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” (2009).

   Information on the post-Grain Belt Guys career of Mark Giardino is a little harder to come by. According to, his most recent acting credits were an episode of NBC’s Knight Rider in 1985 and the movie “Invaders From Mars” (1986).

   Postscript: the old Grain Belt brewery building in Minneapolis remained standing and boarded up for more than two decades after Irwin Jacobs shut it down. The building was long rumored to be “haunted” and indeed, the spirit of the Grain Belt Guys was discovered in the early 2000s when renovations began to convert the giant building into offices for RSP Architects. A full-size outdoor type billboard featuring the Guys and the slogan “This is our kind of place” remained installed on a wall of the old engine room. Instead of preserving it, however, it was removed and trashed by the construction firm responsible for the building renovations, to the relief no doubt of Presbyterians and opera lovers everywhere.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Politics In Advertising (Non-Partisan Variety)

   As we embark on a presidential election year that promises to be the most volatile, nastiest and potentially violent of any in recent memory, in a political climate where you express a view somebody else might disagree with at your own risk of life, limb and dignity, it is heartening to find examples of political views just about everyone could agree with, or at least not passionately disagree with. You have to go back in time and look real hard for that.

   Turning the clocks back to the early 1930s, things were still pretty volatile in the United States, not to mention the rest of the world. There was a Great Depression going on while dictators stormed through Europe. In the U.S. millions were out of work, companies and banks were going out of business, there was labor strife in the cities and in 1932 voters were ready to run the current occupant of the White House, Herbert Hoover, out on a rail. Franklin D. Roosevelt would end up winning the election that year on the Democratic ticket but the American Oil Company of Maryland (Amoco) ran its own candidate for president, the Hon. I. Save-On-Gas, on the Economy ticket. He looked like a stereotypical gasbag politician too.

   Amoco, then an east coast regional subsidiary of Standard Oil Company of Indiana, used a combination of political humor and patriotism in their advertising during the 1932 and 1936 presidential election years. In 1936 the theme was "Join the American Party," complete with campaign buttons given out by service station dealers, a party that people could get behind regardless of which side of the political aisle they came from. Amoco also distributed booklets, ink blotters and other items full of presidential trivia and history.

   Other marketers also used humorous political campaign themes in their advertising in the 1930s. The H.J. Heinz Company declared the Aristocrat Tomato Man character who appeared in ads for the company's ketchup and tomato juice to be "elected" as "the People's Choice" in a November 1936 advertisement that included a realistic-looking picture of the oversized tomato-headed character with a monocle and top hat at a victory rally, surrounded by enthusiastic crowds and press photographers, with CBS and NBC radio microphones before him.

   "LEADER in every taste test, winner of every digest poll, Heinz aristocrat tomato juice is overwhelmingly elected by flavor connoisseurs everywhere!" the ad proclaimed.

   And in another political campaign themed ad from about the same time, the John F. Trommer Brewing Company of Brooklyn, New York issued a novelty postcard depicting a newspaper with the banner headline: TROMMER'S ELECTED! CARRIES EVERY DISTRICT.

   "Reports from all over the City indicate that Trommer's beer has been elected again as New York's finest all-Malt beverage. Running on an all-Malt (hops and malt only) platform, Trommer's took the lead early and retained it throughout the balloting. Voters were heard to declare 'Here's a beer that tastes like the finest imported. We vote for Trommer's -- and it costs no more!'"

   I guess we can all drink to that.