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 (imdb.com) 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 imdb.com, 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.