Sunday, November 18, 2018

Thanksgiving Story, 1948

In the 1940s, two of the most popular, and powerful entertainers in the country were Gene Autry and Arthur Godfrey, although the two men seemed to have little in common.

Gene Autry was best known as the ultra clean-cut singing cowboy whose primary fan base was pre-teen boys. Working for Republic Pictures, a studio renowned for B westerns, he was not the kind of cowboy who moseyed into saloons, knocked back shots of whiskey, rolled smokes, brawled and shot bad guys dead. Instead, he was the kind of cowboy who rode around on his horse, strumming his guitar, singing prairie songs. He worked hard, warned bad guys to go straight, rescued those in dire predicaments and engaged in such wholesome activities as singing around the campfire with friends or joining in barn dances. His philosophy as an entertainer was, “Make it clean, make it simple, and remember the little feller.”

In addition to the eight motion pictures he made a year for Republic, he was also big on the rodeo circuit and he had a popular radio program, which followed a similar format to his movies. The radio show was sponsored by Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum, which he personally endorsed, a common advertising practice at the time. In real life, Gene Autry was almost as wholesome as his character. He was faithful to his wife, he didn’t smoke and he seldom drank. He admitted what he presented was corny and he was proud of it, as it made him millions.

Arthur Godfrey’s primary audience was adults who by the millions were enchanted with his folksy style on his talk-variety show on CBS Radio. At a time when radio was king and television was just coming out of the laboratory, Godfrey was one of the most listened-to and beloved men in America — although that popularity would tank later on as he became known for on-air firings, public feuds with other entertainers and overall arrogance. 

Godfrey’s success before all that went down was said to be due to his (seemingly) honest personality and the spontaneity of his program. He proved to be a great asset to advertisers, who clamored to be on his show both for the exposure and his convincing delivery of their sales pitches. 

He most famously advertised Chesterfield cigarettes at a time when tobacco advertising was both legal and common on the airwaves. When he touted the benefits of smoking Chesterfields and purred “They Satisfy” with his deep, smoke-cured voice, stores would sell out their supplies of Chesterfields within hours of his broadcast.

When Gene Autry and Arthur Godfrey teamed up for a star-studded Thanksgiving special CBS radio broadcast on November 25, 1948, the combination of sponsor endorsements and spontaneity lead to a classic faux pas in the golden age of radio.

 The singing cowboy and the folksy emcee bantered and played some songs together. Godfrey even threw in some plugs for Autry’s radio sponsor, Wrigley’s gum. Then it came time to plug his own sponsor.

“After today’s Thanksgiving dinner, it will be mighty nice to light up a Chesterfield. And then, to make it taste better, chew a stick of Wrigley’s,” Godfrey suggested. “Isn’t that right, Gene?”

Responded the non-smoking Autry in his Texas drawl, “Yes, there’s nothing like sitting back and chewing on a Chesterfield.” The studio audience laughed. “I don’t mean that. I mean sitting back and chewing a stick of Wrigley and lighting up a Lucky,” referring to another brand of cancer sticks. 

Godfrey was taken back for a moment, but then retorted, “Happy Beechnut to you too!” as the audience laughed uproariously. 

CBS, to their credit, did not edit the program when it was rebroadcast later for the Pacific and Mountain Time zones.

“It Is Corn But They Ask For It” by Howard Sharpe, Liberty, September 6, 1941
America’s Man Godfrey,” by Jonathan Kilbourn, Look, February 1, 1949
“Light Up, Chew Up, Tangle Up—Godfrey and Autry both snafu” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, November 25, 1948

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Marijuana In Your Supermarket (Updated)

In October 2018, Canada stunned the world by legalizing recreational marijuana. The move was controversial to say the least, but in some quarters, people wonder what took so long. Meanwhile, the controversy continues to rage in the United States 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 still presumably a long way away, but almost five 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. 

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.”

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 the United States some fifty years later is still battling over the issue of marijuana legalization?

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: