Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Fan Mail From Some Flounder

Does anyone send fan mail anymore?

In this age of social media, where stars communicate with their fans, maybe fan mail is obsolete. Or it’s changed into something else.

I’ve stumbled across a couple of newspaper columns from the same time frame in Hollywood talking about fan mail. The first one is from the North American Newspaper Alliance, December 5, 1937.

Fan Mail No Longer Awes Film Chiefs
Producers Like to Collect Cash, Not Stamps, From Stars’ Rooters.
By Harold Heffernan.

HOLLYWOOD (N.A.N.A.).—One of the sprouting buds on the contract list of a leading studio confided proudly to an intimate a short time ago that 17 “fan clubs” were sponsoring her throughout the country and that her fan mail total had leaped some 500 letters within a month. “My fans are my protection," she boasted. “If my contract were not renewed my clubs would start a young revolution.”
Fan clubs and a heavy letter total were promising omens to this starlet—an open sesame to better roles, richer financial rewards. Yet, when her contract came up for renewal a few days ago the bosses passed her up. Her mail count, one of the heaviest on the lot, didn’t mean a thing in her favor. The fellow wearing the brass hat didn’t inquire about her letter total. He merely sent word to the legal department to pass the option because the girl had no drawing power at the box office. And, to date, there has been no hint of a fan revolution.
A few years ago, under the same conditions, the young lady’s contract would have been renewed and boosted long before it had a chance to expire and she might have received a nice expensive gift from the boss to make her even happier. But studio attitude toward fan mail has undergone a radical change in recent years. Producers no longer scan their players’ letter totals with the avid interest once manifested. They’ve come to the conclusion that gate receipts, rather than the mail man’s load, is the most accurate measure of a player's popularity. What’s more, the Hollywood postman doesn’t groan today under the staggering pack he once lugged through studio gates. Inquiries at all fan mail departments reveal a reduction of approximately 40 per cent over the number of letters received five years ago.
NO STAR ever has or probably ever will approach Clara Bow's record-breaking total of 10,560 letters received in a month. That mark was established by the “It” queen back in 1929, when she was at the apex of her career. Extravagant claims are made for many of today’s favorites, but inasmuch as studios now refuse to release official figures, most can be written off as plain bunk. The truth is that most of the fan mail nowadays comes from children. Comparatively few adults write to the stars and those who do are usually asking for something—if not money, then photographs, autographs or trinkets and wearables seen in pictures. Bing Crosby still pays more attention to his fan correspondence than any other player in Hollywood. He encourages folks to write by maintaining an expensive organization that peruses each missive and offers an individualized answer in each instance.
Crosby’s signature appears at the bottom of each note; at least it’s a beautiful imitation of Crosby’s scrawl because three secretaries have been trained to relieve him of this arduous job. Otherwise, Bing would have no time to make pictures, perform his radio chores and look after the horses.
Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Mae West and Marlene Dietrich are not so high as you’d suppose their popularity would warrant in the list of Paramount letter recipients. A young man named Ray Milland, who seldom gets out of “B" pictures, but who nevertheless has inspired a widening interest among correspondents, is found trailing close behind Crosby in letter totals. Shirley Temple is conceded to be the leading letter-getter of all the stars, her vast mail accumulation, reported in the neighborhood of 8,000 a month, coming from all parts of the world. Mrs. Temple estimates about 95 per cent of the writers are children of about Shirley’s age.
At Warner Bros., Errol Flynn has slowly taken first place, pushing Dick Powell out of the spot he held for more than three years. Oddly, the player receiving third largest amount of mail at that studio is Marie Wilson, an actress whose name seldom makes the marquee lights. Robert Taylor is still head man in a correspondence way at M-G-M, although he has fallen off somewhat during the past year. And since her marriage to Arthur Hornblow, Jr. a year and a half ago, Myrna Loy is not attracting nearly the number of letters she once did from admiring and lonesome males.
GINGER ROGERS remains far out in front at R-K-O. Fred Astaire and Jack Oakie lead the men there, although Wheeler and Woolsey, who are usually unmercifully panned by the critics and not particularly favoured by producers, draw a heavy load, especially from foreign countries. Katharine Hepburn's few fan writers are either very much for or equally against her, but she seldom asks to see any of her mail. Fan clubs seem to help fan mail totals, but it is all "repeat” business, the same “members” writing again and again. Many important stars whose box office ratings are higher than fan mail favorites receive scant attention from writers. Leslie Howard is one who doesn’t excite many letters. Jack Benny and Edward G. Robinson are others. However, they are established stars. It is the young players just getting started who really clog the Hollywood mails.

The next story is from the International News Service, January 12, 1938.

Fan Mail For Stars Comes Principally From Children
Importance of Players Has Little Bearing On Amount of Letters.
By Carlisle Jones

HOLLYWOOD, Jan. 12. (INS)—Although fan mail is no longer considered an absolutely accurate measure of a star's popularity, it is regarded as important by the studios, and much time and money is spent in seeing that the writers are supplied with the information and pictures they desire.
The truth is that most of the fan mail that floods the mail bags addressed to Hollywood comes from children. When schools start the amount of fan mail drops off. When vacations start, it picks up again. But all told, the quantity now is much less than it was eight or nine years ago when Colleen Moore was receiving, on an average, more than 15,000 letters each week an amount generally considered the high spot in fan mail received by any motion picture star.
Flynn Ahead of Powell.
At the Warner studios, Errol Flynn has slowly taken first place in the fan mail rating, pushing Dick Powell out of the spot he has held for more than four years. Flynn's mail averages some 4,000 letters and cards each month now, and was much higher than that before the public schools started this fall. Dick Powell now trails this figure, his average being about 3,500.
Oddly enough, the player receiving the third largest amount of mail at Warners is now Marie Wilson. She had better than 3,000 letters in December. The Mauch twins are fourth and Bette Davis is fifth. From there on the players rank as follows: Anita Louise, Olivia de Havilland, Dick Foran, Joan Blondell, Kay Francis and Wayne Morris.
The importance of the player has little bearing on the amount of fan mail addressed to him. A new star collects an enormous amount of fan mail the first few weeks or months after his initial appearance; and then this invariably drops off to a steady flow that maintains an average over a long period of time.
The fan mail of Wayne Morris and Fernand Gravet followed this average "curve." Wayne received more mail than any other player on his lot for many weeks after his first appearance in “Kid Galahad.” Now he gets about 1,200 each week since the release of “Submarine D-l,” with the prospects of another boost in reading matter with the forthcoming “The Kid Comes Back.”
Gravet got a good deal of attention right from the first, and his allotment has not fallen off as much as might have been expected with a personality who has made only one American picture. “Food For Scandal” should send his rating up again.
Fan Clubs Help.
Fan clubs help fan mail, but it is all "repeat" business, the same "members" writing again and again. However, it boosts the totals.
Many important stars, whose box office ratings are higher than that of the fan mail favorites, receive comparatively small amounts of mail. Leslie Howard is one who does not evoke many letters, and Edward G. Robinson is another. However, they are established stars. It is the younger players, just getting started, who really clog the Hollywood mails.
The care a star gives his fan mail is always reflected in the amount he receives and the way the "curve" keeps up. Dick Powell has undoubtedly taken more care with his mail than almost any other Hollywood star of recent years, and the result has been that he is still the second ranking favorite on the lot.
Probably 80 per cent of the fan mail received by any other star is made up of requests for a picture together with a brief complimentary note. A smaller proportion of the letters praise or complain about the sort of pictures the player is making. There are some begging letters, mostly asking for clothes. Even these have fallen off, however, because the public is gradually learning that stars will not (in fact they cannot) answer such requests.
A very small amount of the fan mail is objectionable as to content. This is occasionally turned over to the postal authorities, but is usually destroyed by the studio before the player sees it. Christmas invariably brings many presents, some of them of considerable value, to the more popular players.
The depression years brought about a severe drop in fan mail totals, but this is new being slowly rebuilt back toward the old records. Studios do not pay their stars by the amount of fan mail each receives, but in the long run the popularity that fan mail indicates is important to a player's career.

The funny thing is you can find pretty much the same story before this. The headline in one paper in 1930: “Fan Mail No Longer Governs Producers.” Of course, it was the producers who supplied fan mail numbers to the columnists.

Still, I wonder if a general tweet to a K-Pop fan equals the thrill in 1960 of a cartoon lover getting an autographed picture in the mail of Bullwinkle J. Moose.

Tuesday, 3 August 2021


Screwy Squirrel wants to know from Meathead if he’s the guy who chases the screwy squirrels that bust out of a mental hospital? After getting an affirmative answer, Screwy whips out a Napoleon hat (the symbol of insanity) and tells him to start chasing.

Screwy heckles the dog, whipping out a mallet and a kid’s stick horse before galloping out of the scene.

The scene is from Happy-Go-Nutty (1944), a cartoon animated by Ed Love, Preston Blair and Ray Abrams. There are some great in-betweens of Screwy in this scene, too. The Independent Film Journal of July 22, 1944 simply said “Laughs galore.”

Monday, 2 August 2021

Squiggly Fears

An old animation trick to show fear was to draw characters with wavy outlines and alternate the drawing with another with smooth outlines.

Here’s an example from Van Beuren’s The Bully’s End, a 1932 cartoon directed by Harry Bailey.

The animation is vastly inferior to the average Fleischer cartoon made across the street from Van Beuren. The story has some structure, though. A runty duck takes on an arrogant, abusive rooster. The hero duck wins by cheating!

Gene Rodemich sticks “Hold That Tiger” in the background behind the fight scene.

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Tobacco Leaf Carusos

It was a case of advertising the advertising.

“Have you heard the chant of the tobacco auctioneer?” asked print ads in 1938 for Lucky Strikes. The question referred to F.E. Boone, who spieled his auctioneer pitch during radio commercials for the cigarettes.

Billboard liked the idea, at least as a sales tool. In its May 8, 1937 edition, an unbylined writer opined:
Best commercial heard in moons is the Lucky Strike presentation of the tobacco mart auctioneer selling his wares. These auctioneers open their spiel on the final bid slowly, then work to an unbelievable rapidity of speech with a definitely liquid effect. It’s impelling was a fine display of technical perfection, and education for those who go in for that sort of thing. Same material, presented from a studio, would have been terribly dull.
The spots were effective, but Boone almost lost his job. Boone’s chant emanated live from Lexington, Kentucky and it cost American Tobacco $1,200 a week to plug Lexington into the network feed. Several papers in late 1937 talked about having someone else do the chant in New York. But Variety reported “Boone has few successful imitators” so the solution evidently was to have Boone go to New York.

Presumably, Boone started off on the “Hit Parade” shows but he also appeared in 1938 on a five-minute syndicated show called Lucky Strike Presents along with two other auctioneers: L.A. Speed Riggs and Joe Cuthrell. Riggs later joined him on the Lucky spots on the various network shows.

The success of the ads brought up the obvious question among listeners: “Who is this guy?” It was answered in a syndicated newspaper column that appeared starting around Nov. 26, 1937.

Descendant of Daniel Boone Does His Pioneering at Microphone
NEA Service Radio Editor
New York, Nov. 26—The “Tobacco Leaf Caruso” whose rapid-fire chant has become radio’s newest novelty is a Kentucky Boone, all the way back to Daniel of the coonskin cap. Forest Boone is his name and he’s a nephew four or five generations removed of the famous Indian scout of the history books.
Daniel Boone probably never suspected, when he began raising tobacco out in Kentucky, that his line would produce a new kind of radio announcer. But that’s what happened when Forest Boone began opening the “Hit Parade” program on the Columbia network with his weird chant.
Actually his announcing rigamarole is perfectly intelligible. It consists of a series of numbers and the words “dollars” and “bid.” The secret of the confusion is the speed at which tobacco auctioneers, of which Boone is one of the best known, have to talk. Tobacco auctions are carried on at break-neck tempos in order to accommodate all the farmers who bring their crops to the big selling warehouses.
Has to Work Fast
A fair day’s selling for Boone is between 300,000 and 400,000 pounds of tobacco. He has been known to auction as high as 700 piles an hour. The auction takes place in a huge warehouse with about a dozen buyers grouped near the auctioneer. An appraiser sets the original figure. Then Boone begins his work. The buyers seldom speak. Competition is keen and they’d rather not say what they’re bidding. Each buyer simply indicates, by a series of almost imperceptible gestures, whether or not he accepts the figure Boone is chanting. One may wiggle the little finger on his left hand. Another twitches a muscle in his jaw. A third may wink, or tug at his coat lapel.
Boone never misses such a gesture of acceptance. Immediately he raises the price. His eyes are so well-trained that he follows this by-play with the greatest of ease, although he finds it difficult to focus his eyes on his own name on a calling card. He considers himself a sort of umpire between the warehouse and the tobacco buyers.
“I call the strikes,” he told us.
He is also a little like an opera singer. He has a practical and instinctive knowledge of voice production. Although he never took a lesson, he talks about keeping his throat “open” and never “forcing a tone.” He has learned to say “hawlf” just like a singer. “Forty” is also a danger word. It closes both lips and throat Boone modifies it to something that sounds like “whorty.”
Must Get Back on Job
He started in the field when he was 19. His only training was listening to all the auctioneers at the tobacco warehouses near his home in Lexington, Ky., until he could imitate some of them.
Then he went to a Lexington warehouse and asked for a job. The warehouse manager let him put on a mock sale. Afterward the manager took Boone regretfully aside and advised him to take up some other line of work. He’d never make an auctioneer. Two months later he was auctioneering at Mt. Sterling, Ky.
His radio experience began several years ago. He has never been the least bit nervous before the mike, though he says he does miss the excitement of studying the reactions and the pantomime of his tobacco buyers.
Next month he’ll be going to the biggest burley tobacco market in the world at Lexington to handle the sales. However, his chant will still be on the airwaves as it will be picked up from his hotel room. It’s a voice you can’t forget.

If you’ll pardon the pun, the auctioneer chant was a boon to Lucky Strike. It got all kinds of free publicity in parody form on radio shows and animated cartoons.

Boone was already famous when Jack Benny switched sponsors to American Tobacco in 1944 and suddenly found two auctioneers (and several announcers) from New York opening and closing his show. His last appearance on the Benny radio show was Nov. 21, 1948. Riggs went solo after that. The commercials had moved to the West Coast in 1947; Variety reported the switch from New York saved $100,000 a year.

Boone’s wire service obituaries indicate he was still working until about the end of 1951 when he retired because of illness. He died of heart problems in Robertsonville, North Carolina, on July 1, 1954.

As for Riggs, he loved show biz. When The Hit Parade’s Lanny Ross appeared on stage in New York in 1939, Riggs was part of his act, demonstrating how he sold tobacco. He toured selling bonds during the war. The Associated Press profiled him in 1952.

Auctioneer Chanter Has Envied Job
By Bob Thomas
HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 29—(AP)—One of the most envied jobs in all of show business is that of L. A. Speed Riggs, the tobacco auctioneer.
For 15 years his work has consisted largely of delivering his gibberish chant at the beginning and close of his sponsor’s radio and television shows. The stint takes eight seconds. Lately he has not even been required to come to the studios. His chant is inserted by tape or film and his salary check comes in as usual.
Riggs is paid well for his eight second performance. He said he could not reveal his salary because of the possible jealousy of the other performers for the sponsor. But he admitted that he earned more than the $40,000 annual salaries which top tobacco auctioneers can draw in their normal pursuit.
But even such a handsome deal can have its drawbacks.
“For 15 years I was under exclusive contract,” he explained. “I couldn’t do anything else. The inactivity is almost enough to drive you crazy.”
For sidelines he had a ranch in the San Fernando Valley where he raised Palomino horses and white- faced Hereford cattle and invested in a print shop and a furniture factory. But even these interests weren’t enough to keep him busy. So when his contract came up for renewal recently he insisted on a non-exclusive pact. The new seven year deal permits him to make outside appearances as long as they aren’t for another cigarette.
“Now I can do some of the things I had to pass up before,” he remarked. “I’ve had many offers to do film roles in the past and now I can take them. I also have some ideas for a TV show for myself. One of them, called ‘Beat the Auctioneer,’ is being considered by CBS.”
Speed is a likable leather faced man of 39 years and no stranger to appearing before the public. He first developed a yen for his profession at the age of seven when his father took him to a tobacco auction in his home town, Goldsboro, N.C. Speed was intrigued by the chant and began practising it. At 17, he was a full-fledged auctioneer, the youngest in the business.
Fate intervened in a promising auctioneering career when Speed was 25. The tobacco advertising genius, George Washington Hill, decided to put auctioneers on his radio shows and sent talent scouts to the tobacco country.
“I was chosen after they had listened to 42 other auctioneers,” Speed recalled. “I noticed these men following me around all morning, but I didn’t know who they were. Afterwards they made me an offer. It was much more than I was making—$45 a week a an auctioneer and $12 a week as a disc jockey, so I took it. I’ve been working for the company ever since.” Also chosen was F. E. Boone who has since retired.
Speed hasn’t done an actual tobacco auction for a couple of years but he hasn’t lost his touch.
“When you learn the job you don’t forget it,” he remarked. “It’s straining work, not only on the voice, but on the eyes and mind. For instance, I would have to know at least 15 men who represent the buyers and keep my eyes on them for their signs. I have to know all the farmers and remember the tobacco that I had already sold and who bought it.
“I trained myself so I could look at you and also see what was going on many feet away. My eye doctor has told me that’s the reason I have to wear glasses now.”

By the time the article was published, Riggs was off the Benny show. He was phased out in October 1951. Eventually, sponsor announcer Del Sharbutt got the boot, too. American Tobacco already had Don Wilson on the show. He began plugging the tobacco (oh, there’s another unintentional pun) with a chorus and then contractee Dorothy Collins chirping about it in song. It meant more money saved on radio to spend on television.

Riggs did some acting with Benny. He found himself part of the plot of the second-last show of the 1950-51 season where he gently kidded himself and his tobacco hawking style.

Tobacco advertising ended on TV in the U.S. on New Year’s Day 1971. Lee Aubrey Riggs had retired by then and moved back to North Carolina about 13 months before his death in 1987. Something you may not have known was the charity work he was involved in. You can read that story on this web page.

Saturday, 31 July 2021

Mister Lookit

Bill Golden’s lasting contribution to television is the CBS Eye logo. He created it as the network was growing in the early ‘50s and it’s still on the air. Why tamper with success?

Golden was the network’s chief designer, and came up with something else around the same time which wasn’t as lasting, but is still charming to anyone who likes puppets. He’s the creator of “Mister Lookit.”

The stop-motion jester showed up in short promos in the 1953-54 season. He was made by Lou Bunin, noted for a feature-length version of Alice in Wonderland, two years before Walt Disney, who took Bunin to court to stop its release. The character was voiced by Phil Kramer, whose distinctive whine could be heard a few years later on Paramount cartoons. (He was the emcee in the 1939 Warner Bros. cartoon Hamateur Night).

Perhaps inspired by a CBS ad in the New York Times in November 1953 announcing the character, Broadcasting magazine wrote about Mister Lookit on January 18, 1954, along with a local station promo puppet on the New York NBC station.

Messrs. 'Lookit' & 'Four' Make the Break
Puppets at WCBS -TV and WNBT (TV) now are trying their hands with commercials at station breaks promoting shows and stars that appear on their respective stations.

PUPPETS, which from the first days of television have shared the spotlight and the public favor with live entertainers before the tv cameras, have now expanded their operations into the field of commercial announcing. New York viewers in recent weeks have become well acquainted with "Mister Lookit," who pops up between shows on WCBS -TV to plug other CBS video programs, and "Mister Four," who performs similar chores for NBC's teleshows on WNBT (TV).
"Mister Lookit" is a jester puppet, wearing the traditional cap and bells, who, according to CBS-TV, "lives in your television set ... just leave the dials turned to WCBS-TV and he'll be along in no time.
"He may seem impertinent at first, but don't let his manner throw you. Like most show people, he's merely trying to be entertaining. Admittedly, he's a ham, but we think you'll find him pretty valuable to have around. He'll keep the inside of your picture-tube clean, he'll battle the static and he'll help to unscramble the ghosts in your set. Most important of all, however, he'll keep you posted on the best shows on television-the shows on the CBS Television network."
"Mister Four" is a puppet "but he's no dummy," WNBT said in its introductory ad for him in New York newspapers. "Actually, he's real smart," the copy read. "Without moving a muscle or ever touching the dial on his tv set, he watches the finest in all television ... He pops into sight between programs on ch. 4 and calls your attention to NBC shows so spectacular they excite even his mahogany heart.
"Rather stylish is Mister Four. Always dresses for the occasion. Describes a western program wearing chaps. Chats about our fancy evening-time shows garbed in white tie, topper and monocle, and trousers."
Noting that "Mister Four" is not the only "symbolic puppet in New York television," the WNBT ad reported "there's a new puppet too on one of our delightfully competitive tv stations. And while we would be the last in the world to start a Hatfield-McCoy between two puppets, we must report that our puppet thinks our neighbor's puppet has sawdust in his head."
This slur has so far been ignored by "Mister Lookit" and by William Golden, creative director of the CBS Television advertising dept., which brought the jester puppet into the world of television and promotion. Filmed by Punch Films in a series of 132 different 20- second trailers for CBS video programs, "Mister Lookit" is available to all of the network's tv affiliates.
In contrast, "Mister Four" is strictly a WNBT employe, confining his activities to the New York area served by that station. He is the brainchild of Max Buck, director of advertising, sales promotion and merchandising for the station.

CBS figured there was merchandising money in Mister Lookit. “Operation Quietly Efficient” was set up to push CBS-owned items, such as Charlemagne the Lion on The Morning News, in the form of toys, games, books, clothing, even newspaper syndication. A set of Mister Lookit party clothes was yours for the proper cash payment.

For whatever reason, Mister Lookit was cancelled. Maybe there wasn’t enough promo time available for him. Maybe the network thought puppets were for kids only. Maybe they thought he wasn’t classy enough for CBS.

I’m sure you’ll want to see Mister Lookit in action. Rick Prelinger’s archives can make it possible. The first promo below is for Lucy, the second plugs You Are There and the third pushes Red Buttons. There are others on the site for Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason and some forgotten shows like Medallion Theatre with Janet Gaynor.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Radio References in the South

Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera indulge in some radio star references in The Goose Goes South, a 1941 non-Tom-and-Jerry short.

In a little mountain cabin in Virginia, a hillbilly father gesticulates to his lazy son to “get up and get to work.”

Cut to a close-up of Zeke. “Why daddy?” he says coyly, just like Baby Snooks.

“Why, it’s the songbird of the south!” exclaims narrator Frank Bingman, as a hefty canary whistles “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” on a tree branch. “Hello, anybody!” she says to the camera, spoofing Kate Smith. (Yes, she was known as the ‘Songbird of the South’).

There are no animator credits on this cartoon. You can hear Mel Blanc, Sara Berner (as Zeke/Snooks) and Cliff Nazarro doing his double-talk routine. And if you’re wondering where the title came from....

Thursday, 29 July 2021


Hare Tonic is a funny cartoon that seems lost when praise is heaped on Chuck Jones’ outings involving Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. No coyness. No cutsy held poses. Just comedy that barrels along.

This is the cartoon that brought you “Rabbititus.” Bugs (disguised as the brilliantly-named “Doctor Kilpatient”) convinces Elmer he has it. When he “weal-wizes” he’s been had, Fudd gets taken in again again by Bugs, who convinces him the theatre audience watching the cartoon has it. “The lady there with the long ears. They’re getting longer all the time! And the guy back there in the 17th row with the cute tomato. He’s getting all fuzzy!”

Bugs screams. Anticipation drawing, then the extreme.

Elmer turns around and runs back into his house. I wish Jones had moved the camera back a bit.

The cartoon ends with Bugs having a little fun with the audience, trying to convince THEM they have Rabbititus.

Tedd Pierce is credited with the story. Ken Harris, Lloyd Vaughan, Ben Washam and Basil Davidovich are the credited animators.

But Wait! There's More!

They’re the TV shows everyone knows, they’re ridiculed constantly—and they make an awful lot of money.

They’re infomercials.

Crowning a King of Infomercials is a task too daunting for someone such as me, but I imagine Ron Popeil would be somewhere in the royalty. (Someone has suggested the Queen of Infomercials would be Richard Simmons. I roll my eyes and carry on).

You have likely heard Popeil passed away this week. He was 86.

If you watched television in a certain era, even if you didn’t buy any of it, you knew all the stuff he was pitching. In the days before half-hour demonstrations, he bought 30 and 60-second spots. He first got noticed in the “Pipes For Pitchmen” column in Billboard of January 28, 1956. “We understand that,” wrote columnist Bill Baker, “Ron Popeil, a newcomer to the pitch business, is kinda knockin’ them for a loop in Woodworth’s five and dimer opposite Macy’s, New York, with the Do-It-Yourself Plastic Plant Kit.”

Yes, Popeil started out as one of those “Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up” guys on the sidewalk. Here’s a syndicated story from August 10, 1973; it’s been edited to focus on the Popeil parts.

Pitchmen Chop Their Way to Your Wallet

Ron Popeil is a millionaire today because he learned at the age of 15 to make a perfect rose from a radish. Then he learned to fascinate folks with his tricks. Ron, who is now president of Ronco Products, Inc., has been known to create roses for 12 hours at a stretch—demonstrating paring knives at county fairs and dimes-stores, from the Atlantic City Boardwalk to the California shore. Now he has switched to 30-second spots on your late night TV.
Recently, Ron recalled the old days: “It took strong kidneys, and my lungs were actually sore at the end of a working day.”
If you haven’t seen Ron work, you’ve watched others like him and at least been tempted to buy their products—vegetable choppers and fancy glass cutters, for instance, garbage compactors that double as kitchen stools, and magnetized window washers that clean both sides of your pane at the same time.
The gadgets are endless and endlessly appealing. Never mind that you suspect they’re worthless or at best unnecessary. . . .
When Ron Popeil worked on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, he said he spent six minutes on a demonstration, with four minutes allotted for collecting money. He gave six spiels an hour. “You have to keep the momentum going,” he says. . . .
“You also have to create a need,” Ron instructs. “If it’s two weeks to Thanksgiving and you’re making the traditional rose from a radish, you say ‘I know a woman who fixed these for her Thanksgiving dinner.’ ” . . .
Then there’s the classic case of the woman who says loudly, “I bought one of those last year and it didn’t work.” The thing to do at that point, says Ron, is to ask her to pick one for you to demonstrate. Chances are, the crowd will just think she’s inept—and probably she was. . . .
Pitchmen all over the country seem to know each other. Often the trade runs in families. Ron’s father, S.J. Popeil, is one of the best known oldtimers. He, too, has a gadget company, Popeil Brothers, which operates in direct competition with Ronco. . . .
Ron Popeil, not known for his modesty (what pitchman would be?) claims he was one of the best. “I’ve cajoled people out of their last penny,” he brags. “I’ve left them without bus fare home.”

Popeil and his dad had a falling out, reported the Chicago Tribune in a February 14, 1973 story, basically because of the competition. Popeil, by this time, had dropped the beloved Veg-O-Matic from his line-up. That was after the FCC ordered him to reduce the claims of how well it sliced tomatoes.

The Associated Press profiled him, with the photo below, in papers published in November and December of 1982.

Late-Night Fast Talker Sells to a Targeted Audience
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — Remember how your eardrums were assaulted by blaring late-night television advertisements for Veg-a-Matic, the device that slices, dices and shreds its way through your cooking chores?
How about more recent commercials for Mr. Dentist ("The Plaque Attacker"), Pocket Fisherman ("rod, reel, line and hook the whole thing!") or the Vibrating Back Massage Air Cushion ("Bye-bye backache! Yes, it's concentrated massage where you need it most")?
If so, you might wonder who is behind the commercials that for years have jarred late movie viewers frequently with ads for any given product repeated night after night and several times during any one night.
The voice is that of Ron Popeil, founder of Ronco, the firm that uses TV hard-sell to push its assortment of gadgets and gewgaws.
"Ronco wants to hit the viewer two or three times an hour and hit the same viewer every night in the same time period," said David Woodcock, general sales manager for KCOP-TV, an independent Los Angeles-area station. "It may cost $1,200 for one 30-second spot on the 'Tonight Show,' but maybe only $100 at the same time for a spot with us or another independent," Woodcock said. "They get 12 for the price of one."
Popeil got his business started and cut his first commercial in 1964, and has been doing a land-office business ever since.
"And I started with zero," Popeil said during an interview this month at his Beverly Hills homes where all his commercials are now filmed at a cost of up to $20,000 each. "I was working in a dime store in Illinois six days a week doing product demonstrations. I would buy other people's products and practice my marketing technique," said Popeil.
Popeil's first-year sales in 1964 were $200,000. By the time he went public and started selling Ronco stock in 1968, his annual sales were $8.8 million. Now, at age 47, Popeil presides over a Ronco empire that he said accounts for $35 million in annual retail sales with its current line of 17 products.
Popeil says 85 percent of his products are sold during the month of December.
Ronco spent more than $6 million on TV advertising during the first two weeks of December 1981, and prepared an even more expensive blitz this month.
“When you go out to buy a Christmas present, you wonder what you can get that the person doesn’t have,” Popeil said. “You know they’ll have a toaster and color TV, but what are the odds they’ll have a Mr. Microphone or a Miracle Broom?”

Popeil took the six-minute demonstrations he did in stores and compacted them for commercial TV. When infomercials came along in the ‘80s, he merely expanded them. I suspect that’s when the REAL money came rolling in.

All those 30-minute ads featuring Tom Vu and his yacht-babes, Susan Powter yelling “STOP THE INSANITY!!”, and a blond gymnast writhing onto a Soloflex (I succumbed. I bought a Soloflex T-shirt in San Francisco) caused the price of formerly almost-unsaleable air-time to skyrocket. It was in demand now by all kinds of people from Kevin Trudeau (didn’t he have a Larry King look-alike set?) to televangelists. For a while, Popeil moved to radio, which was cheaper and full of stations with marginal programming.

He sold Ronco in 2005.

But, wait! There’s more!

Popeil once won the Ig Nobel Prize in Consumer Engineering. He happily displayed the honour on his web site. Even if you think he was shady, you have to like a guy that has a sense of humour about himself.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Notes to the Mills Brothers

The Mills Brothers make some creative entrances in Dinah, a 1932 Fleischer screen song. At the start of the cartoon, jigsaw pieces fly onto the screen to put them in the frame.

The second time, the scene starts with a sign and pans down to some sheet music. Two sets of notes jump off the staff and land on the ground. They slowly rise back up, revealing the Mills Brothers beneath from foot to head.

There are some cute typical Fleischer gags in this, such as a swordfish sawing on the anchor chain. A little fish jumps out of the ocean, pulls out an oil can, oils the swordfish’s “saw” and jumps back into the water.

Dave Tendlar and William Henning get the animation crdeits.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Birthday Bunny

It is said that 81 years ago today, Tex Avery pretty much erased the memory of any other cartoon rabbit that Warner Bros. had offered to movie houses. That’s when A Wild Hare went into formal release.

We use the word “formal” here because the release dates published in trade papers of the time were, more or less, suggested. If a short film was available at an exchange before then, then an exhibitor could book it.

To the right, you see an ad from the Pittsburgh Press of Friday, July 26, 1940 for the cartoon with the words “Now Showing.” The same paper published an ad the day before reading “Starts Tomorrow.”

But who am I to spoil a birthday celebration with facts?

How popular was the cartoon?

In September 1940, it was “re-booked because of many requests” by a theatre in San Bernadino. “The funniest of All Merrie Melody Color Cartoons Returns for Your Enjoyment,” crowed a newspaper ad.

The Los Angeles Daily News of October 17, 1940 reported, with a reference to an earlier rabbit film:
FROM all indications a new star is born at Leon Schlesinger’s cartoon factory. He’s not much for looks, being buck toothed and insolent eyed. He’s also a smart aleck who doles out sarcasms in a voice that is more Dead End Kid than Basil Rathbone. But you've got to admit when you see him that Bugs Bunny has what it takes to win fans. His antics as the shrewd, carrot munching rabbit outwitting the lisping hunter in “A Wild Hare” brought batches of mail from all over the country.
So now Schlesinger announces plans to feature Bugs in five more cartoons, three of which are already completed and a fourth on its way. It won't be long before "Hiawatha’s Rabbit," [sic] "Elmer’s Pet Rabbit" and "Tortoise Beats Hare" find their release. Tex Avery, producer of Bugs’ movies, and Arthur Q. Bryant [sic], the voice of the hunter, have been working overtime turning these out to meet public demand. Bugs, let it be added, began his career modestly when Schlesinger included him in a small part in a Merry Melodie subject, "Harum Scarum." He can dictate his own terms today.
Mel who?

The story, I suspect, was planted by Rose Horsley, Schlesinger’s excellent PR flack, as similar stories popped up in papers around this time.

One theatre which (according to newspaper ads) showed A Wild Hare on July 27, 1940 was the Worth in Fort Worth, Texas. Devon Baxter has provided us with a pertinent box ad from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram of the day before. The paper insisted on calling it “Wild Hare Hunt” (adding “The” in later ads). They loved Bugs so much in the city that the following year, a mini Bugs Bunny film festival was booked.

The Star-Telegram’s film critic, Katherine Howard, wrote in the issue of April 8, 1941:
Donald Duck would raise an awful squawk if he knew that Bugs Bunny has superseded him as the No. 1 comic of the cartoons. Bugs is the talk of the movie-goers now.
No fluffy pink and white creature, Bugs Bunny is about as cuddlesome as a horned toad.
He is everything an Easter bunny shouldn't be but just the same the Parkway Theater is going to put on a pre-Easter show of Bugs Bunny cartoons Friday and Saturday. He will be seen in "Elmer's Candid Camera," "A Wild Hare" and "Elmer's Pet Rabbit."
"Don't give me none a dem candy eggs. I like de hardboiled kind. Get me guy?" croaks Bugs.
South Side merchants will sponsor two free shows at the Parkway Friday—at 10 a.m. and 12 noon—preceding an Easter egg hunt in Forest Park at 2 p.m. Feature will be "Laddie" with Tim Holt and Virginia Gillmore.
Ads for the cartoon starting Sunday, July 28, 1940 appeared in the Paducah Sun-Democrat (with All This and Heaven Too, starring Bette Davis) and the Newport News Daily Press (with Sporting Blood starring Robert Young, a Pete Smith short called Romance of the Potato and Paramount’s News of the World).

Anyway, best wishes to Bugs on his (sort-of) birthday.

Oh, by the way, he was never named Happy Rabbit by Mel Blanc or anyone else. Mel made up the story, much like the “allergic to carrots” tale he finally admitted was not quite accurate.