Christmas, food, Indianapolis, Pop Culture

Roselyn Bakeries Rosie’s Gingerbread House.

Original publish date:  December 10, 2012

Painting by Dale Blaney.

For many Indianapolis residents, Christmas in the Circle City is defined by one thing: The World’s Largest Christmas Tree. Every year since 1962, the dedicated electrical workers of IBEW 481 have dutifully transformed the Soldiers and Sailors monument into a glistening, magical pyramid of lights that even the most skeptical Scrooge among us proudly calls the world’s largest Christmas tree. This year marks the 56th anniversary of that monumental Christmas tree.
Monument_Circle_ChristmasAlthough I never fail to take my annual trip around Monument Circle at Christmastime to gaze in wonder at the fantastic fir tree fantasy, my personal memories of Christmas on the Circle revolve around a little shack that used to rest at its base facing the Indiana Statehouse. You may think of the L.S. Ayres Cherub, Santa’s mailbox, the 26 larger-than-life toy soldiers and sailors surrounding the Circle, the 26 red & white striped peppermint sticks, the 52 garland strands or the 4,784 colored lights strung from the top of the Monument to its base, but I think of the Roselyn Bakery Christmas Hut.
For a quarter century beginning in 1974, every year on the night after Thanksgiving Indianapolis based Roselyn Bakeries set up a special “Christmas Hut” to celebrate the lighting of the “World’s Largest Christmas Tree” on Monument Circle. The best part? Many lucky visitors received free Christmas cookies made from a “secret” Roselyn recipe. Surely those cookies were made by Roselyn’s mascot “Rosie” herself inside that tiny little shed, right?
Rosi_Roselyn_logo_shdwDecorated with Gingerbread man shutters and candy cane pillars, coated in what looked like white icing, the Christmas hut was set up on the West side of the Circle where it remained for 25 years from 1974 to 1999. It was estimated that some 1.2 million Gingerbread man cookies were handed out from within that festive little house over those years. Just like the bakery itself, that little hut was an institution. 636389898040860440-roselyn-1
Roselyn Bakery was founded in 1943 with its first storefront located at 22nd and Meridian Streets. Within the decade Roselyn bakeries could be found all over the city. You might remember those old city buses with the early Roselyn Bakery cartoon chef logo known as “Mr. Henry.” By the Bicentennial celebration in 1976, there were over 30 Roselyn locations all over central Indiana. When they closed up shop in 1999, Roselyn had some 40 locations offering over 700 different items. I’m still amazed by the memory of those Grandmotherly looking counter ladies wrapping up those cookie and cake boxes with that menacing looking string-tie machine that made that frightening bullwhip sound: “Whoosh-snap!”
Roselyn cookbook coverFor me, Roselyn will always be identified for buttermilk jumbles, toffee cookies, alligator & sweetheart coffee cakes, yeast donuts and the darling little girl cartoon mascot known as “Rosie”. A blonde haired, blue eyed perpetually smiling little naive whose popularity forced the Roselyn Christmas Hut to undergo a name change to “Rosie’s Gingerbread House.” If memory serves, for a time there was even a living, breathing life-sized “Rosie” mascot dressed in a horribly oversized paper mache’ head and wearing a red velvet dress. Every so often, she would wobble awkwardly out of the Gingerbread hut to personally pass out cookies to the eager, but slightly befuddled, kiddies on the Circle. As I recall, she didn’t speak, but to a 12-year-old cartoon addicted boy like me, her skirt was short and her cookies were hot.
Today, nearly two decades after that Roselyn Christmas house disappeared, the lighting of the Circle is called the “Festival of Lights” attended by a crowd of over a 100,000 people with another 50,000 viewers watching the event live on TV from home. In 2011, Travelocity called the Circle of Lights one of the top five “must-see Christmas trees” in the country. To quote the old Virginia Slims cigarettes slogan from Rosie’s days, “You’ve come buttertoffeecookies-5a long way baby.”
The “Christmas in the round” idea was born in 1945 at the close of World War II and intended as a celebration of peace at a monument built to honor fallen soldiers. Renowned Indianapolis architect Edward D. Pierre (IPS schools # 7 & 78, Indiana State Library and Historic Bureau) first suggested decorating and lighting the Monument as a glowing symbol of peace. Until 1961, decor was confined to the lower parts of the Monument. The next year, the “World’s Largest Christmas Tree” was born. That simple program with a few speakers in 1962 has evolved into an intricate hour-long television show today. As for Roselyn, the cakes, donuts and cookies can be found in several of the grocery store chains around town. But its not quite the same. The bakery chain’s only remaining evidence on our streets are the many Roselyn Bakery “Frankensigns” that dot the city in front of those familiar low rise buildings that once sold Rosie’s sugar-coated sweets.
package-fallholidaypartytray-1-1-300x300Eight mayors and ten governors have served our city and state over the past 50 years. I can’t say that I miss any of them, but I do miss those Gingerbread cookies. If you do too, you can make them yourself. Here’s the recipe for Roselyn Bakeries famous Gingerbread Men cookies: 1 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 2 3/4 teaspoons baking soda, 5 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, 3/4 cup Crisco shortening, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, 6 tablespoons whole eggs, 1 1/4 cup extra fine coconut (Make sure that the coconut you use is very fine, almost like coarse sugar-you may have to grind store bought coconut flake down), 1 1/4 cup honey, 5 cups all-purpose flour. Preheat oven to 360 degrees F. Combine allspice, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, salt, shortening, and sugar into a large mixing bowl. Cream together. Scrape down bowl. Add beaten eggs and mix thoroughly.Sweetheart Scrape down bowl. Add coconut and honey and mix well. Scrape down bowl. Add flour and mix well. On a lightly floured surface, with a floured rolling pin, roll dough 1/8 inch thick. With a 5 inch long cutter, cut out men. Re-roll trimmings and cut more cookies. With spatula, place 1/2 inch apart on cookie sheets. Bake at 360 degrees for 8 minutes or until browned, then, with spatula, remove cookies to racks to cool. Decorate as desired. Makes 3 dozen cookies. Now if I could only locate a slightly used Christmas shack.


food, Indianapolis, Music, Pop Culture

Merrill’s Hi-Decker in Indianapolis.

merrill's high decker
WIBC radio booth atop Merrill’s Hi-Decker.

Original publish date:  August 6, 2015

Summertime is closing fast and the Indiana State Fair has come and gone for another year. So I figured I’d break out one last gasp of summertime from 38th and Fall Creek that might jog a memory or two for you. Back when Elvis was blonde, the Tee Pee stood tall and Ike was in charge there was a place called Merrill’s Hi- Decker restaurant located right across the street from the Fairgrounds (officially 1155 East 38th Street). The Hi- Decker took over a restaurant known as “The Parkmoor” in 1956 as a curbside drive-in hamburger stand restaurant whose most famous whose most famous “deckhand” never sold as much as one burger or milkshake.

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WIBC Disc Jockey Dick Summer.

His name was Dick Summer and he manned the coolest DJ booth in Indianapolis in the late 1950s. His glass booth sat on the roof of Merrill’s High Decker. The restaurant was shaped like a stack of records anyway, so the addition of the rectangular booth with the circular roof made the High Decker one of the city’s hottest spots when Summer was in session. The booth was brightly lit with neon lights featuring the “WIBC 1070 On Your Dial” marque sign ablaze like a Rock-N-Roll sun. Indianapolis radio station WIBC was the No. 1 station among teens.
All the “flattop cats” and “dungaree dolls” spent their weekends buzzing Merrill’s and other drive-ins like Laughners at Irvington Plaza on Washington Street, Jack ‘n Jill’s on North Shadeland, Knobby’s at Shadeland & 38th Street and the Blue Ribbon on 10th Street. The Northside Tepee across the street from Merrill’s was Shortridge and Broad Ripple territory and the southside Tepee was for Sacred Heart and Southport. Spencer’s North Pole at Lafayette Road and 16th was for Washington and Ben Davis high schools. And who can forget Al Green’s at Washington and Shadeland and their freebie drive-in movies for restaurant patrons (The joke was that the service was so slow, they had to do something to keep people from leaving). But none of them had Dick Summer.

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WIBC Disc Jockey Dick Summer.

Summer, a wildly handsome young Disc Jockey from Brooklyn New York, had a perfectly quaffed pompadour and an act to matched. He had a show called “Summertime, live from the Skyline Studio”. Summer would play the newest rock-and-roll hits from his WIBC radio booth on high. His show included a nightly segment after the 10 PM News he called “make it or break it.” He would spin new “Hot Wax” 45 rpm releases, many from local bands, and ask the cheeseburger chompin’ patrons parked in their cars below to vote on them. Patrons would vote by sounding their car horns. The results would decide whether the record would be played on future shows or if he should break it. Car horns could be clearly heard over the air. If the “No’s” won, Summer would break the record over his microphone. If more people honked for “Make It” that record was played every hour for the next week.
Every Saturday night Summer did a live broadcast featuring a different local band which set up right out on the parking lot. Any time recording artists and bands came to town, Summer interviewed them out in the Merrill’s parking lot. Part of these interviews included an opportunity for the people eating at the restaurant to walk over and ask questions of their own. One of the things fans remember best was the midnight story feature. Every midnight Summer read a short story, most often something by Edgar Allan Poe.
Summer, now retired, recalled a funny story from those years, “The manager of the restaurant was a young guy who was very much into guns. One night as I was doing “Make It Or Break It” he decided that he REALLY didn’t like the record I was playing, so he pulled out his hand gun and shot me. Seriously. I watched him, standing probably 20 feet away, reach into his belt, pull his gun, aim, and squeeze the trigger. The blast was huge, and I thought I was dead. It was a blank. He hit the ground laughing. So the next night I wedged a pound of Limburger cheese right on the engine block of his car. He got the first laugh, but mine lasted longer.”
z merrill'sAnother Summer gimmick was to slowly bite into a juicy hamburger before he kicked off every commercial during his show. Doesn’t sound like much now, but apparently back in the day it drove customers crazy. Not to mention it sold a lot of hamburgers. The only way into the glass booth studio was up a fire escape ladder leading up to the roof, and then into the tiny studio via a trap door in the floor. Legend claims that George Lucas used Summer’s “Skyline Studio” as the inspiration for Wolfman Jack’s studio in his movie American Graffiti. You’d have to rent the movie and see for yourself because Merrill’s Hi-Decker and the radio booth are long gone now.
Even though Summer’s gig kept the Hi-Decker in the black in the Ike Era up into the John F. Kennedy Camelot Era. But Summer eventually left WIBC and went to WIL-AM, in St. Louis. WIBC kept rolling along nicely, but the Indy radio scene really took the blow hard. The British Invasion pretty much sealed the fate of local radio hijinx. And Merrills was in big trouble. Within a short time after Summer’s departure, the Hi-Decker had to make a deal with an auto dealer up the street to park his used cars in the drive-in parking lot on the weekends to look like it was still doing a bang-up business. It was a far cry from the days of two block long traffic jams of tail-fin and fuzzy dice cars waiting to cruise the Hi-Decker.
Recently Summer waxed poetic about his time in Indy and parts elsewhere as a young DJ: “It is truly hard being an aging young person. Hide and seek, ringalevio, kick the can, double dutch, punch ball, stick ball, box ball, stoop ball, doctor-lawyer-indian chief thoughts keep popping up in my head while I’m trying to be serious doing my day job. Pay checks are poor substitutes for wax lips, candy drops on rolls of paper and chocolate cigarettes. Kid-hood had stresses like “are you going to be the LAST guy picked to play on the stickball team?” (Guys will understand.) Adult-hood has stresses that involve having to override your body’s basic desire to choke the living crap out of some idiot who desperately deserves it…and would probably never even be the last person ever picked for any stickball team. The most wonderful part of the kind of radio I did was as long as I was on the air, it was never too late to have a happy childhood. I don’t ever want to get too old or too angry to do goofy stuff. That’s why I always listen carefully to what my Rice Krispies tell me when I pour milk over them at breakfast…Radio seems awfully grown up now. Talk shows are angry, computers spit out carefully researched music lists, and there’s no time to broadcast local kid bands live from a drive-in while the guy on the air munches his juicy hamburger.”

food, Pop Culture

Willard Scott Retired (and why you should care).

Willard Scott McDonaldsOriginal publish date:  September 11, 2015

Ten days before Christmas Willard Scott announced his retirement after a 65 year career. Yes, SIXTY-FIVE years! To be perfectly honest, I thought he retired decades ago but that probably says more about me than it does the indefatigable Mr. Scott. So, what’s the big deal about a TV weatherman retiring you ask? Well, not only was Willard Scott the weatherman for The Today Show for 35 years, he was Bozo the clown from 1959 to 1962 and he created the very first Ronald McDonald in 1963.
Scott was born in Alexandria, Virginia, on March 7, 1934. He began his career as a 16-year-old, working in 1950 as an NBC page at WRC-AM, NBC’s owned-and-operated radio station in Washington, D.C. Scott attended American University, where he met Ed Walker at the school’s radio station. From 1955 to 1972, Scott and Walker formed the Joy Boys show on WRC-AM Radio. For nearly two decades, the Joy Boys were DC’s version of the Bob & Tom show. From Ike to JFK to LBJ to Nixon, everyone listened to the Joy Boys. Scott spent his spare time balancing his night-time radio career with a daytime job as the host of WRC children’s television programs playing characters such as Commander Retro and Bozo the Clown.
From August 1959 to August 1962 Scott portrayed Bozo the Clown at WRC. When the TV station dropped the Bozo character, Scott wanted to keep his clown gig going. Willard thought that a clown bearing hamburgers would be irresistible to children. So he morphed his Bozo character into a clown he named Ronald McDonald for two locally owned DC area McDonald’s franchises. In 1963, he appeared in 3 DC area TV commercials using the catch phrase, “Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown.” Scott’s character wore a a red and yellow striped suit, could magically pull as many as 3 hamburgers at a time out of his belt, and wears a nose made out of a McDonald’s cup. His hat, made of a tray holding a Styrofoam hamburger, a bag of fries and a milkshake, covered a shock of spaghetti-like hair .
Even though Willard Scott’s original Ronald more closely resembled a scarecrow than a clown, Ray Kroc liked the idea. So, in typical “Kroc-style”, he usurped the idea and hired another actor to portray the hamburger clown for his own national commercials. Scott wasn’t selected as spokesclown for the company’s ads because the agency thought Willard was too fat for the role of an “extremely active” Ronald McDonald. In time, Willard Scott’s brainchild would become one of the world’s best-known advertising icons. But Willard never missed a beat.
In 1970, Scott began appearing on WRC-TV as a weekday weatherman. In 1980, NBC asked Willard to become its weatherman for The Today Show. He soon became the archetype of all “wacky” weathermen to follow. Scott routinely did weather reports on the road, interviewing locals at community festivals and landmarks, a forerunner of today’s weather channel programming. NBC executives once insisted that the bald-headed Scott wear a hairpiece. He complied when in New York, but refused when outside of the studio, resulting in a strange dichotomy on the air. His toupee occasionally tilted or fell off on the air, ensuring Scott an eternal place in the TV blooper hall of fame.
In 1989, an internal memo from Today Show co-host Bryant Gumbel was leaked to the media. In the memo, Gumbel said Scott “holds the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste…This guy is killing us and no one’s even trying to rein him in.” The public backlash against Gumbel, battling a difficult and aloof label already, became a media firestorm. The next time they appeared on camera together Scott kissed Gumbel on the cheek to show he’d forgiven him, and also later said he hoped the whole thing would go away. One thing was certain, Willard, like the Ronald McDonald character he created, would change but not go away.
As Willard became the face of NBC Today Show weather, Ronald McDonald became the primary mascot of the McDonald’s fast-food restaurant chain. According to one survey found on, 96% of all schoolchildren in the United States recognize Ronald. The character and costume evolved drastically over the years and continues to be a cornerstone of the McDonald’s corporation marketing campaigns to this day. Ray Kroc’s Ronald ditched the food tray hat and cup nose in favor of a painted white face and a bright red wig. He is dressed in yellow clothes, red and white striped shirt, yellow gloves, and red clown shoes with yellow laces to mirror the official McDonald’s colors.
In television commercials of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Ronald inhabited a fantasy world called McDonaldland where he had adventures with friends Mayor McCheese, the Hamburglar, Grimace, Birdie the Early Bird, and The Fry Kids. In recent years, McDonaldland has been largely phased out, and Ronald is portrayed interacting with families in their everyday lives.
In 1971, Ronald got a major makeover that found him wearing a yellow jumpsuit, red and white striped shirt and legs, yellow gloves, red shoes, red hair, whiteface makeup and a big red smile. The suit had three french fry bags for pockets, all of which read “McDonald’s”. That look would last for more than 40 years with only a few subtle changes to his hair style, sleeve length and pocket design. In 1998 the french fry pockets on Ronald’s jumpsuit were replaced with red seamed pockets, the stripes on the shirt became thicker, and the back of the suit featured the name “Ronald” like a sports jersey (the name would be removed by 2000).
In early 2014, Ronald’s jumpsuit was dropped in favor of a more athletic looking costume of yellow cargo pants, a vest and a red-and-white striped rugby shirt. His classic clown shoes remain part of the official uniform. The new look was designed to more favorably appeal to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Over the decades, Willard’s Hamburger-Happy clown has been played by at least ten different actors, whose names are recalled by only the most fervent of Ronald McDonald fans. Today, many people work full-time making appearances in the Ronald McDonald costume, visiting children in hospitals, attending restaurant grand openings and charity events.
From the late 1980s until the early 1990s, Scott served as spokesperson alongside Pat Summerall for True Value Hardware Stores. In 1992, Scott ironically recorded a TV commercial for McDonald’s arch-rival Burger King. (Take that Ray Kroc!) Scott left his daily gig as The Today Show weatherman in 1996 and was succeeded by Al Roker. Willard continued to substitute for Roker for the next decade until NBC acquired The Weather Channel in 2009. Weather channel meteorologists served as substitutes but Willard continued to appear twice a week on the morning program to wish centenarians a happy birthday. He remains the commercial voice of Smucker’s jellies, which sponsors his birthday tributes on Today.
True, to most, Willard Scott was that annoying weather guy on The Today Show endlessly wishing old folks well on their 100th birthday. In fact, Willard Scott himself once said, “I got more mail than anybody in the history of The Today Show, but half of it was to get me off the air.” But now you know, despite his NFL lineman size, there’s more than meets the eye when you’re talking about Willard Scott. Well, I guess you really can’t judge a book by the cover.

food, Pop Culture

A Gunfight With Colonel Sanders.

Col. Sanders_HarlandOriginal publish date:  September 10, 2015

Colonel Harland Sanders died 35 years ago this week (December 16, 1980) but lately he’s been getting more TV face time than Abe Vigoda, Kirk Douglas and Zsa Zsa Gabor combined (who are all still alive, at least at the time of this writing). The Colonel has proven so popular in fact, that two former Saturday Night Lives are battling over who will portray him in the flesh in Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials. My wife and I love those TV ads; our kids think they are creepy. Colonel Sanders is perhaps the best known recurring fast food namesake our country has ever known. He is also a lot more complicated than he looks.
For example, did you know that Colonel Sanders, founder of KENTUCKY Fried Chicken was born in Indiana? Yep, Sanders was born on September 9, 1890 in a four-room house located 3 miles east of Henryville, Indiana. His father died when Harland was only 5 years old and by the age of seven Sanders was a skilled cook out of necessity. Sanders’ mother remarried in 1902, and the family moved to Greenwood, Indiana. Young Harland didn’t get along very well with his new stepfather. In 1903 he dropped out of seventh grade and soon he was working full time painting horse carriages in Indianapolis. When he was 14 he moved to southern Indiana and worked on a farm for a couple of years. In 1905, he moved in with an uncle in New Albany.
After leaving New Albany in late 1906, he joined the United States Army in Alabama (where another of his uncles lived) and was trained as a teamster / mule minder for a few months. He then became a blacksmith, then ash-pan cleaner, then steam engine stoker for the Northern Alabama Railroad. He married, moved to Jackson Tennessee and went to work as a fireman for the Illinois Central railroad while going to law school at night. He got in a fight with a co-worker and lost his job. The family moved to Little Rock Arkansas and Harland went to work for the Rock Island Railroad while he finished up his law degree. He practiced law in Little Rock for three years before he lost that gig after he got in a fight in the courtroom-with his own client! From there, it was back to Henryville where the Sanders clan moved in with Harland’s mother. Sanders went to work as a laborer on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
In 1916, the Sanders family moved to Jeffersonville, where Sanders got a job selling life insurance for Prudential. Sanders was eventually fired for insubordination. He moved to Louisville and got a sales job with Mutual Benefit Life of New Jersey. During this time, Sanders was sort of an ad-hoc doctor which contemporaries described as a “Helpful but technically unlicensed” obstetrician, delivering babies with rudimentary supplies like lard and Vaseline. In 1920, Sanders established a ferry boat company on the Ohio River between Jeffersonville and Louisville. The ferry was an instant success. In around 1922 he took a job as secretary at the Chamber of Commerce in Columbus, Indiana. He admitted to not being very good at the job, and resigned after less than a year. Sanders cashed in his ferry boat company shares for $22,000 and used the money to establish a company manufacturing acetylene lamps for automobiles. The venture failed after Delco introduced an electric lamp that they sold on credit.
Sanders moved to Winchester, Kentucky, to work as a salesman for the Michelin Tire Company. He lost his job in 1924 due in large part to his fiery temper. In 1924, by chance, he met the general manager of Standard Oil of Kentucky, who asked him to run a service station in Nicholasville. In 1930, the station closed as a result of the Great Depression. That same year, the Shell Oil Company offered Sanders a service station in North Corbin, Kentucky rent free, in return for paying them a percentage of sales.
It was here that Sanders began to serve chicken dishes and other meals such as country ham and steaks to weary travelers. Initially he served the customers in his adjacent living quarters before opening a restaurant. Oh, and if his bio hasn’t grabbed you by now, maybe your ears will prick up when I tell you that it was while working at his Shell station / restaurant combo where Colonel Harland Sanders, American icon, once shot a man.
The stretch of road where Sanders’ first restaurant was located in Corbin, Kentucky was on a nasty stretch of highway known as “Hell’s Half-Acre.” The region was full of bootleggers, and there were plenty of gunfights to keep things lively. Sanders kept a gun beneath his cash register and a shotgun near his bed to protect his family and his business. Turns out, Sanders didn’t need to worry about desperadoes, he had enough trouble just dealing with the competition. Sanders had his hands full just keeping an eye on his rival down the street, a man named Matt Stewart. Stewart ran a competing Standard Oil gas station down the road from Sanders, and the two men just didn’t exactly get along.
The ever enterprising Sanders decided to advertise his “Sanders Superior Gas Station” by painting a sign on a nearby railroad wall. Stewart didn’t like this move and promptly painted over Sanders’ sign. Furious, Sanders threatened to shoot off Stewart’s head and proceeded to repaint his billboard. But Matt Stewart was a stubborn fellow, so he grabbed a brush and started slapping paint on Sanders’ new sign.
Sanders was in the middle of a meeting with two Shell officials named Robert Gibson and H.D. Shelburne when the news of Stewart’s whitewash reached him. Determined to put a stop to Stewart’s shenanigans once and for all, the trio grabbed their loaded guns, jumped in a car, and drove off to settle the issue. They found Stewart perched on a ladder, paintbrush in hand. Sanders jumped out of the car and yelled, “Well, you son-of-a—–, I see you done it again.” Stewart jumped down from the ladder, pulled out his pistol and promptly fired five shots, three of which went directly into Robert Gibson’s heart, killing him instantly.
The Colonel said he grabbed the fallen man’s gun and started shooting back (even though he was carrying a pistol of his own). Stewart ducked behind the disputed railroad wall and for a moment appeared to be winning the gunfight. The Colonel went one way and Shelburne the other and the duo soon had Matt Stewart in a crossfire. Shelburne shot Stewart in the hip and Sanders shot him in the shoulder. A local newspaper article described Sanders’ actions as: “he jumped into the breach and under withering fire grabbed his fallen comrade’s gun . . . [and] the future Colonel unloaded with true aim and hurled hot lead into Stewart’s shoulder.” Bleeding and in pain, Stewart shouted, “Don’t shoot, Sanders! You’ve killed me!” The Colonel was a hothead but he was no murderer. The two men backed off and Stewart’s life was spared.
Ironically, Stewart was arrested in the hospital, tried and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Sanders and Shelburne were found not guilty. Sanders felt true remorse for his part in the incident and later went to Stewart’s daughter Ona May, apologized, and offered his help if she ever needed it. Local legend claims that the Colonel took care of Ona May for the rest of her life.
Sanders went back to his Shell station where he continued to serve steak, ham, biscuits, and his special recipe fried chicken to hungry customers. It was not fancy, served family style with bowls of food from which the diners served themselves, but by all accounts, it was “finger lickin’ good.” As the business grew into a motel/cafe, Sanders began wearing a black suit, growing a goatee that he would dye white and calling himself “Colonel.” Soon, he was running a full-fledged restaurant across the street, and his food was so popular that Governor Ruby Laffoon gave Sanders the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel. And the rest is history.
By the time of his death in 1980, there were an estimated 6,000 KFC outlets in 48 countries worldwide, with $2 billion of sales annually. As for Matt Stewart, well, after two years behind bars, he was shot to death by a deputy sheriff. No one knows for sure, but rumors has it the deputy was a paid gunman, hired to assassinate Stewart by Robert Gibson’s family. The deputy sheriff was never charged.
For many of this generation, Colonel Sanders is little more than a cartoon of an old guy on a KFC bucket. The real Colonel cussed like a sailor, was an unashamed flirt and an astute businessman with a proven record of eliminating the competition; one way or another. He was nothing like the aw-shucks version that history has handed down to us. He ate fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits every single day, which added an extra 50 pounds on his 5-foot, 11-inch frame. In short, the Hoosier born Kentucky Colonel lived a life every bit as worthy as his secret recipe.

food, Pop Culture

Tim Hortons.

Tim Horton imageOriginal publish date:  February 15, 2015

So, my fellow donut devotee, you say you’re tired of seeing the object of your desire maligned in the media? Tired of hearing about another donut shop biting the dust? Missing Saps, Roselyn, Krispy Kreme? Did you shed a tear when the bulldozers knocked down the old Crawford’s Bakery at 16th and Capitol last week? Cheer up, you’ve still got Dunkin Donuts to soothe your cravings. And there’s always the new kid on the block from up north, Tim Hortons. But what do we really know about this Canadian upstart dealer of dainty Danish dunker delicacies?
If you’re a hockey fan, you already know where I’m heading. But if you don’t know a hockey puck from a Hostess Ding-Dong, hang on and let me tell you about a man named Miles Gilbert Horton, better known as Tim. Born on January 12, 1930, Horton was one of the greatest Canadian hockey players to ever lace up the blades and take the ice. A defenseman for 24 seasons in the NHL, he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Buffalo Sabres. From 1950 to 1974, Horton was known by his peers as the strongest man in the game.
Horton was named as an NHL first team All-Star in 1964, 1968, and 1969 and as a second team All-Star in 1954, 1963, and 1967. He was on 4 Stanley Cup Championship teams in 1961–62, 1962–63, 1963–64 & 1966–67. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977, the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame in 1982 and the team retired his uniform number 2 in 1996. Horton was ranked number 43 on The Hockey News list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players in 1998. Chicago Blackhawks winger Bobby Hull, himself a mountain of a man, declared, “There were defensemen you had to fear because they were vicious and would slam you into the boards from behind. But you respected Tim Horton because he didn’t need that type of intimidation. He used his tremendous strength and talent to keep you in check.” In a fight, Horton’s trademark move was to immobilize players with a crushing bear hug, which considering his tremendous strength, was probably a blessing in disguise.
Playing in his first NHL game on March 26, 1950, Horton remained a Leaf until 1970. Between February 11, 1961, and February 4, 1968, Horton appeared in 486 consecutive regular-season games; an NHL record for consecutive games by a defensemen for the next four decades. Horton was also a successful businessman whose business ventures included a hamburger restaurant and Studebaker auto dealership in Toronto. But today the bruising NHL defenseman is best known as the founder of the Tim Hortons donut chain. He opened his first Donut Shop in Hamilton, Ontario in 1964. By 1967, Tim Hortons had become a multi-million dollar franchise system. But Horton’s first love was hockey.
In spite of his age (42) and advancing nearsightedness, the Buffalo Sabres signed Horton to a contract in 1972. His superior play helped the Sabres to their first ever playoff appearance in 1973. As a reward, the team signed Horton to a contract extension in the off-season. Sabres GM, Punch Imlach, Horton’s former boss at the Toronto Maple Leafs, gave the aging defenseman a brand new 1974 Ford De Tomaso Pantera Italian-made sportscar as an enticement to return to the team for one more season.
Early in the morning of February 21, 1974 Horton was heading home to Buffalo after a game against his former team at Maple Leaf Gardens the night before. Although the Sabres usually traveled together by bus, Horton made the 100 mile trip alone in his Pantera. The day before the game, Horton had taken a puck in the jaw during practice. His face was swollen and bruised, but true to form, he still wanted to play. With his family and many friends in the crowd at the Gardens, he skated for two periods before leaving the game shortly into the third period. The Sabres lost the game 4-2, and despite sitting out the third period and playing with a jaw and ankle injury, Horton was selected one of the game’s three stars. After the game, Horton met up with his business partner, Ron Joyce, at the Donut company office in Oakville.
“Tim was sitting in our office, his coat on, an ice pack wrapped around his jaw, his driver’s gloves on,” Joyce recalled in 1994. “He was sitting in the dark with his feet up on the table, with a vodka and soda in his hand.” Joyce also claimed that his friend didn’t consume enough to get drunk. Around 3 a.m., Horton called his wife, Lori, and his brother, Gerry. Horton and Joyce talked until about 4 a.m., then Tim left. Joyce later claimed that he saw Horton take a handful of painkillers before he drove off in the Pantera.
Mr. Joyce wasn’t the only one to see the Pantera zoom off on the Queen Elizabeth Highway. A little after 4:00 a.m., a motorist alerted police to a sports car driving dangerously at a speed estimated at 110 miles per hour. Thirty minutes later, Ontario Police Officer Mike Gula observed a speeding vehicle traveling Niagara-bound on the QEW. Gula activated his siren and attempted to pursue Horton’s vehicle, but the office later told the media, “I was doing over 100, but I lost sight. I never got close. A few minutes later, I came on the accident scene.”
As Horton passed a curve at Ontario Street while approaching the Lake Street exit in St. Catharines, he lost control and drove into the center grass median. The tire caught a sewer drain and flipped several times before coming to a stop on its roof in the opposite lanes. Not wearing a seat-belt, Horton was ejected 200 feet away from the car. Mr. Horton’s body was found on the grass of the median according to the diagram included with the report. He was pronounced dead at St. Catharines General Hospital. While the EMT’s worked on the body, investigators combed the scene of the accident. Extra police cruisers were brought in to keep passing motorists from stopping to gawk or hunt for souvenirs.
The police report lists items found at the crash scene: six eight-track stereo cassettes, a set of keys, a package of Old Port Cigars, and a black suitcase with “Tim Horton” tooled into the leather. Police found more personal items, too, including a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, a wallet and a stack of credit cards, $205 in cash, a gold ring, a Waltham jewel watch and two Buffalo Sabres paychecks totaling $1,792.
The Pantera itself was totaled; its front hood crushed, tie rods snapped and tires deflated. Once valued at over $17,000, the vehicle was now worth about $500 as scrap. There was no official public inquiry, and his autopsy was not made public. Police would not state if Horton was driving drunk. Keep in mind that back in 1974, sadly, the stigma against drunk driving was not the same as it is today. The Canadian Transportation Department later launched an investigation to find out why the right front door opened during the crash, allowing for “ejection of the driver.” But the department never issued a report. It is widely believed that doctors eschewed an inquest in order to leave hockey hero Horton’s legacy untarnished.
Horton left behind a wife and four daughters. Following Horton’s death, Ron Joyce offered Horton’s widow Lori $1 million for her shares in the chain, which back then was 40 stores. Accepting his offer, Mr. Joyce became sole owner. Lori died in 2000 at the age of 68. By 2013, Mr. Joyce had expanded the chain to nearly 4,600 stores in Canada alone. Joyce’s son, Ron Joyce, Jr., is married to Horton’s eldest daughter.
On Feb. 21, 2004, 31 years after Horton’s death, the autopsy was made public (with witness statements redacted). The report revealed that Horton’s blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit, and that a 40-ounce bottle of Smirnoff Vodka, with its top broken off, was found among the crash debris. Somewhere at the scene, police also found six tablets: two orange and four green. Another green pill was found in Mr. Horton’s pocket. The drugs turned out to Dexedrine and Dexamyl. Traces of Dexamyl were later found in his blood. The autopsy report found no painkillers in Horton’s body. The car was found to be in good working order. There was nothing to suggest Horton was evading police, or that he even knew police were in pursuit.
The first page of the post mortem report notes that the body on the exam table was “the famous hockey player on the team of Buffalo Sabres.” The details of the paperwork contained statistics that read like a hockey card: length: 5’9″; weight: 210 lbs; and “apparent age,” 44. The report notes that Horton was wearing a brown checked topcoat, a yellow sports coat, a yellow shirt, brown boots and brown pants.
On the second page, the report revealed the grim injuries sustained by Horton as he was flung out of the car: “Extensive crush fractures of multiple bones at the vault of the skull and base of skull;” “fracture dislocation (neck);” “multiple fractures left ribs;” “internal bleeding chest,” and “bleeding on surface of brain and meninges (following head injury).” Ironically, though the report notes massive head injuries, the pathologist found no sign of a jaw fracture. Apparently, the puck that hit Mr. Horton and caused him such pain hadn’t broken the bone. But the report did reveal what killed the previously invincible hockey superstar; a broken neck and a crushed skull.
Tim Horton’s death certificate can be reduced to a single handwritten line: “lost control of car at high speed.” Horton was buried at York Cemetery in Toronto. It seemed that Horton had lived his life by the axium, “Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.” His death must be viewed in the context of his Era. In 1974, drinking and driving was not subject to the kind of moral condemnation that quite rightly attaches to it today. The drugs found on him and in his system were quite common for athletes back in the day. Most likely the 44-year-old Horton was taking speed to stay competitive in the NHL. After all, he was playing against younger, faster players who weren’t even born his rookie year.
Many wondered why the bruising, muscular Horton would have been taking Dexamyl, a drug most commonly marketed in the 1970s to busy housewives trying to lose weight. It was briefly in vogue with celebrities like author Ayn Rand and pop artist Andy Warhol before its addictive qualities were fully known. The pills, called “purple hearts” on the street, turned up regularly on the party scene back in the day. In a 1977 lawsuit against the Toronto Argonauts and Ottawa Rough Riders football teams, a player claimed he was fed Dexamyl and other stimulants by team doctors to improve his performance. That case was settled out of court.
Most Tim Hortons customers have no idea that Horton was a bruising blue-liner in the last glory days of the Maple Leafs. If there is any irony in the premature end of Horton’s life on a dark Canadian highway, it is surely that the name of Canada’s most famous drunk driver now adorns hundreds of donut shops where so many late-night drivers stop for coffee to stay awake. But that doesn’t matter much for those seeking crullers, maple dips or an old fashioned. But when you think of it, a double chocolate donut does kind of resemble a hockey puck and might be a fitting tribute to the greatest defenseman to ever wear a Maple Leafs jersey. And you thought Tim Horton was just a donut.

food, Pop Culture

Piggly Wiggly.

676030070cd7dd24fd9fe2d2ab789ec2Original publish date:  November 15, 2017

It’s Thanksgiving week in Indianapolis and all over the Circle City, Hoosiers are heading to grocery stores to buy turkey and all the trimmings. No doubt families will be bouncing words back-and-forth to each other off their big screen TVs with belts loosened and feet propped up on recliner footrests all over town. The TV will most likely be tuned to either the news or to football. This holiday, I decided to write about an eccentric American businessman who covers both subjects. Clarence Saunders, the man who brought us the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain, might be the most interesting man you’ve never heard of.
Clarence Saunders was born on August 9, 1881 to an impoverished family in Amherst County Virginia. An area located inside the birthplace triangle of Jack Daniels, the Confederacy, and Thomas Jefferson. Saunders would absorb the ideas of that region: the good, the bad, and the ugly. One of those ideas would change the world, another would banish him from the hall of immortals and the last would ruin him.
Saunders left school at 14 to clerk in a Clarksville, Tennessee grocery store. By the age of 19, he had graduated to salesman for a wholesale grocer. In 1902 he moved to Memphis where he formed a grocery wholesale cooperative. On September 6, 1916, Saunders launched the self-service revolution in the United States by opening the first self-service Piggly Wiggly store, at 79 Jefferson Street in Memphis, Tennessee. With its characteristic entrance turnstile, customers selected goods for themselves right off the shelves and paid in cash. Before the Piggly Wiggly, products were placed on shelves behind glass counters, dry goods were weighed out from large barrels by store employees and bills were settled with credit or barter arrangements. The concept of the “Self-Serving Store” was patented by Saunders in 1917.
Saunders’ simple plan revolutionized the idea of the common supermarket. His Piggly Wiggly store removed unnecessary clerks, created elaborate aisle displays and rearranged the store requiring customers to view all of the merchandise. Just like today, a shopper picked up a basket (though Piggly Wiggly’s were made of wood, not plastic) and went through the store to purchase everything. Ever wonder why bread, meat, milk and eggs are always in the BACK of the store? You can thank Clarence Saunders and Piggly Wiggly for adding those extra steps to your fit bits. And then, after customers walked to the back of the store to check off their shopping lists, the cash registers are located at the front of the store. Brilliant.
To say that Clarence Saunders was unconventional would be like saying water is wet. For the store’s openings, Saunders held a beauty contest that he advertised in local newspapers. At the door, Saunders shook hands and gave flowers and balloons to the children as they entered to the raucous sounds of a Dixieland band. Newspaper reporters posed as contest judges by awarding five and ten dollar gold coins to every woman, while supplies lasted. Saunders was quoted at that first store opening as saying, “One day Memphis shall be proud of Piggly Wiggly… And it shall be said by all men… That the Piggly Wigglies shall multiply and replenish the earth with more and cleaner things to eat.”
As for the name Piggly Wiggly, nobody knows for sure and Clarence Saunders never explained its origin. One story says that, while riding a train, he looked out his window and saw several little pigs struggling to get under a fence, which prompted him to think of the catchy name. Another explanation states that when Saunders was once asked why he had chosen such an unusual name, he slyly replied, ‘So people will ask that very question.’”
The store’s format was drastically different from its competitors but soon became the standard for the modern supermarket. By 1922, six years after opening the first store, Piggly Wiggly had grown into 1,200 stores in 29 states. Around this same time, Saunders began construction of a pink marble mansion in Memphis that could make Elvis Presley blush. Saunders franchised his concept and soon listed Piggly Wiggly on the New York Stock Exchange. It was heady air for a poor kid from the backwoods of Virginia. Though his model quickly took off, he wasn’t at the helm for very long.
Then, in early 1923, a group of franchised Piggly Wiggly stores in New York State failed. Merrill Lynch and other Wall Street speculators viewed the failure as an opportunity and attempted a hostile takeover on Piggly Wiggly stock. With a loan of $10 million from a number of Southern bankers, plus a bit of his own money, Saunders counteracted by buying a large amount of his company’s stock in hopes of driving up the price. He flamboyantly declared his intent in newspaper ads. Saunders bought Piggly Wiggly stock until he had orders for 196,000 of the 200,000 outstanding shares. The firm’s share price went from $39 in late 1922 to $124 by March 20, 1923. The New York Stock Exchange declared that Saunders had cornered the market and the price was ultimately driven back down. Saunders had to sell his stock at a loss, costing him $3 million and forcing him into bankruptcy. Saunders’ financial woes meant that he had no further association with his Piggly Wiggly brainchild.
Because of this financial reversal, Saunders was forced to sell his unfinished Memphis mansion, nicknamed the Pink Palace, to the city. It eventually became the city’s historical and natural history museum. Today, the Pink Palace includes a scale model of that first Piggly Wiggly store inside, complete with 2¢ packets of Kellogg’s Cornflakes and 8¢ cans of Campbell’s Soup.
Although no longer at the helm of Piggly Wiggly, Saunders wasn’t done redesigning the grocery store business. He went on to create a new grocery store chain, which he named the “Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Stores” chain in 1928. The chain, known by locals as “Sole Owner” stores, flourished. Within a year there were 675 stores operating with annual sales of $60 million in 1929. It was during this last year of the Roaring Twenties when Saunders saw perhaps his greatest opportunity slip through his hands.
In 1929, to promote his newest grocery venture, Saunders purchased a professional football team. The team practices must have been quite a sight with the team owner dressed in his business suit catching punts alongside his players on the gridiron. He named his new team “The Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Tigers”, but fans just called them “The Tigers.” In 1929, the National Football League was in its 10th year and consisted of 12 teams, including the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Although the NFL played a regular season capped by a championship game, they were also free to play teams outside of the league. These games earned the individual NFL teams much needed extra money.
The Tigers played a 12 game season with all but one game in Memphis. During the 1929 season, the Tigers played pro teams like the Nashvile O. Geny Greenies, St. Louis Trojans and Hominy Indians (who were all Native Americans from Oklahoma). One of the teams Saunders brought to Memphis was a team called the Notre Dame All Stars. The four players photographed on horseback were not part of Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but it didn’t matter to Saunders, they added pizzazz to the game and made an eye catching promotional photo. Saunders used his newspaper grocery store ads to promote his football team. Newspaper stories about his team brought more attention to his grocery business.
In addition, Saunders lured two NFL teams to play in Memphis. The Chicago Bears were first to appear, followed by the World Champion Green Bay Packers. On November 23, Saunders hosted the Chicago Bears who were led by their Hall of Fame player/coach George Halas and superstar Red Grange. A crowd of 6,500 crammed into Hodges stadium to watch the game. At one point in the third quarter, the Tigers closed to within 1 point, but the Bears scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to win 39-19.
On December 15, the week after the NFL season ended, the Green Bay Packers, undefeated NFL champions, came to town for what they expected to be an easy exhibition game. After all, opponents had scored only three touchdowns against the Pack all season. The 12-0-1 Packers were led by their Hall of Fame player/coach Curly Lambeau, Johnny “Blood” McNally, Cal Hubbard, and Mike Michalske. 8000 fans jammed Hodges stadium and the sidelines. The Memphis fans watched the Tigers manhandle the Packers with a 20 -0 lead going into the fourth quarter. The Packers avoided total humiliation by scoring in the final minutes but were shocked by a 20-6 loss.
Saunders’ Tigers were no slackers. The team included many players who had some prior success on college teams. He increased the talent level with Larry Bettencourt and Ken Strong both members of the College Football Hall of Fame. The next year the NFL extended an invitation to Saunders to join the league. Saunders, a brilliant but highly eccentric micromanager, insisted that all team decisions pass through him even though the team had a business manager and a coach. One of the decisions included putting his oldest son into one of the games during the 1929 season. Legend states that Saunders didn’t join the NFL because he did not like to travel to other cities for away games.
Saunders promised an even better season for 1930. However the Sole Owner chain went into bankruptcy in 1930, a victim of The Great Depression and the football team folded. Conversely, Piggly Wiggly rolled on and by 1932, the chain had grown to 2,660 stores earning over $180 million annually. Today the Green Bay Packers are worth over $ 2 billion and the Bears are worth $ 1.5 billion. However, Grocery Store innovator and would be NFL-owner Clarence Saunders was not done yet.
In 1937 Saunders designed and constructed a prototype of a fully automated store he called the “Keedoozle” (pronounced “Key Does All”). His automated store’s design contained very large vending machines with merchandise displayed as single units within a glass cabinet with a keyhole beneath. Customers entering the store were given a small pistol-like key that they placed in the keyhole below the goods they wished to buy. The quantity desired was determined by the number of times they pulled the key’s trigger. This action, recorded on punched tape, activated back office machinery to assemble the order, which was then dispatched to the checkout on a conveyor belt. On reaching the checkout, the customer’s tape was run through a reader to produce the bill, their groceries were boxed and waiting. This system eliminated the need for shopping carts, decreased space requirements, reduced labor needed to stock shelves, and cut customers’ time at checkout.
Saunders Keedoozle was abandoned after the US entered World War II. In 1948, a new and improved version of the self service store opened at twelve locations but the Keedoozle closed forever in 1949. Right up until the time of his death on September 23, 1953, Saunders was developing plans for another automatic store system called the “Foodelectric.” The concept is a clear predecessor to today’s self checkout lanes. Saunders described it as follows: “The store operates so automatically that the customer can collect her groceries herself, wrap them and act as her own cashier. It eliminates the checkout crush, cuts overhead expenses and enables a small staff to handle a tremendous volume… I can handle a $2 million volume with only eight employees.” The store, which was to be located two blocks from the first Piggly Wiggly store in downtown Memphis, never opened.
Saunders had a reputation for brilliance, contrariness, and eccentricity. His death came just as the full impact of his “better idea” for grocery merchandising was becoming apparent; his creative genius was decades ahead of his time. However, his innovations were not only limited to grocery stores and football. Although Saunders never ran for public office, he was one of the first to use his position as a business owner to campaign for a political candidate. He stumped for Tennessee candidates through his grocery store’s newspaper ads. His ads swayed Tennessee Senatorial and Gubernatorial campaigns for at least 4 cycles in the 1920-30s Era.
One last innovation goes mostly uncredited and is often misidentified. It is the Piggy Wiggly logo. For generations, people wondered why Warner Brothers never sued Piggly Wiggly for their logo. After all, it seems to be an obvious rip-off of Porky Pig. Well, truth is, Piggly Wiggly opened their first store in 1916, and they have used their anthropomorphic pig with a sales cap logo right from the beginning. Porky Pig wasn’t drawn till 1935.
Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly Self-serve grocery store concept saved shoppers time, money and made the trip to the grocery more enjoyable for generations to come. Today, according to its website, the Piggly Wiggly chain has more than 530 stores serving 17 states. Its founding is one of the stranger stories in the history of retail. And its founder, Clarence Saunders, was clearly something out of the ordinary.

food, Pop Culture

The Franken Berry Scare.

Frankenberry Original publish date:  February 13, 2017

February 1972 was a busy and historic month. The Winter Olympics opened in Sapporo, Japan. The FCC created cable television as we first knew it. David Bowie introduced his “Ziggy Stardust” alter-ego during his world concert tour. Richard M. Nixon became the first U.S, President to visit the People’s Republic of China. Pink Floyd performed The Dark Side of the Moon one year before the album was released. The EPA first required that unleaded gasoline be made available at all gas stations. And little kids all over America were pooping pink.
Hospitals all over the country were being inundated by hundreds of panicked mothers rushing their children to emergency rooms and doctor’s offices for fear of internal bleeding. What did all of these kids have in common? They all loved Franken Berry cereal. But wait, General Mills debuted their classic line of monster cereals on Halloween of 1971. So why was this perceived medical malady cropping up now? Seems that four months after that first box rolled off the assembly line, General Mills changed the recipe.
The first two cereals in the line were Count Chocula (the chocolate-flavored cereal was originally called “Dr. Count Chocula”) and the strawberry-flavored Franken Berry. With porthole-rimmed eyes, antenna ears and a pressure gauge sticking out of a big marshmallow head, the most shocking thing about Franken Berry was its hot pink complexion. General Mills created their monster cereals to piggyback on the success of Lucky Charms. These new character cereals contained marshmallow-studded grain puffs pitched by slightly spooky mascots involved in a wacky rivalry.
“Don’t be scared,” Count Chocula would say in his best Bela Lugosi accent while popping out of his cardboard box coffin. “I’m the super-sweet monster with the super-sweet new cereal!” Enter Franken Berry: “Piffle!” he yells, in a thinly masked accent of Boris Karloff. “Here’s the super-sweet new cereal.” It made for a tough choice to be sure and those catchy Saturday morning TV commercials sealed the deal. Monster Cereal commercials, alongside Burger Chef and Jeff and fellow cereal mascots Quisp and Quake, became much anticipated and nearly as popular as the cartoons themselves. Scores of sugar-fueled kids fondly remember those animated TV commercials nearly 50 years after they first aired.
But what about that February 1972 recipe change? Evidently someone in the General Mills merchandising department thought that the cereal didn’t match it’s mascot: it wasn’t pink enough. So Amaranth, a crimson food dye named after a South American grain (comparable to rice or corn) whose origins go back 8,000 years. It was a staple food of the Aztecs used as an integral part of religious ceremonies until being banned by the conquistadors upon their conquest of the Aztec nation. After that, Amaranth grew wild and soon became viewed as little more than a weed.
That is until 1878 when Amaranth was first synthesized by liquefaction and found to be a powerful bright red coloring agent that held it’s hue and was fade resistant. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first legislation for food colors. They deemed seven colors suitable for use in food: orange, erythrosine, ponceu 3R, amaranth, indigotin, naphthol yellow, and light green. Amaranth became the 20th century’s most widely used food coloring. A cheap, tasteless substance, only a very small amount of the dye was necessary to lend flaming color to foods and makeup. By the 1970s, Amaranth dye could be found in $10 billion worth of comestibles and cosmetics including soft drinks, candy, make-up, hot dogs, ice cream, and processed fruits.
If you are a late-stage Baby Boomer or a Millennial who can remember eating Franken Berry as a kid, you may be wondering why all the fuss about Amaranth? Well, most Americans know Amaranth by another name: Red Dye Number 2. In 1938, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act which gave these colors numbers instead of chemical names and Red Dye No. 2 was born. During the monster cereal “Red Scare”, medical personnel came up with a term for this marshmallow malady: they began calling it “Franken Berry Stool.” Turns out, Red Dye No. 2 is an indigestible pigment that can’t be broken down or absorbed by the body. So, just like a penny or a cherry pit, it comes out looking the same way it went in.
A 1971 report surfaced claiming that Russian scientists discovered that Red Dye No. 2 caused cancer in female lab rats. Panic ensued and, despite assurances from the medical community that the pink poo was totally harmless, the US Government reluctantly stepped into the fray. As reports of Frankenberry Stool Syndrome continued, the media went on a frenzy, denouncing the dye as a carcinogenic, tumor-inducing agent. Americans, already on edge from a Swine Flu scare a few months earlier, were on red alert. February 1972 was the height of the Cold War. Nixon’s trip to Communist Red China notwithstanding, the US was hyper-sensitive to anything coming out of the Soviet Union and when the source of the study was considered, the red potty hysteria slowly tapered off.
An article in the February 1972 edition of “Pediatrics” magazine (The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics), cited the case of a 12-year-old boy from Maryland whose “chief complaint was passing red stools for 2 days that were somewhat loose and unassociated with abdominal pain or other symptoms.” According to the case report, this particular kid had an adventurous history of eating things he shouldn’t, citing that on two separate occasions, he ate (and then threw up) coffee grounds. So when the child started pooping pink, his mom became convinced he had eaten something that was causing internal bleeding. She took him to the hospital where he stayed for the next four days.
His 1972 case study, titled “Benign Red Pigmentation of Stool Resulting from Food Coloring in a New Breakfast Cereal (The Franken Berry Stool)”, stated that the “stool had no abnormal odor but looked like strawberry ice cream.” When questioned, the mother revealed that the child had eaten bowls of Franken Berry cereal in the days before his hospitalization. After two days in the hospital, his red storm symptoms had subsided and, based on his mother’s information, the doctors did a little experiment. After letting the boy’s digestive system clear itself, they fed him four bowls of Franken Berry cereal over the next two days, he passed bright pink stools. But other than the startling pink hue, there were no other symptoms. Doctors sent the boy home, where the mother found his sister, the lucky beneficiary of that leftover box of Franken Berry cereal, also pooping pink.
The report further stated: “It has long been known that certain drugs and foods can cause alteration in the color of stools. These alterations in color may be of concern to parents and physicians unless recognized. The following case is presented as yet another example of a product which may alter stool color. The breakfast cereal under discussion has only been on the market a few weeks and physicians should be aware of its potential for producing reddish stools.” The report concluded, “Physical examination upon admission revealed in no acute distress and with normal vital signs…Physical examination was otherwise unremarkable.”
The Red Dye No. 2 fervor had a ripple effect. Mars candy removed their red M&M’s from their product bags for nearly a decade after the Franken Berry stool scare, even though Mars didn’t even use Red No. 2; according to “However, to avoid consumer confusion, the red candies were pulled from the color mix.” Suddenly, hundreds of brands began recalling their Red No.2-infused products: hot dogs were pulled from grocery aisles, dog food was discarded in droves, ice cream treats were left to melt in landfills — and the red M&M disappeared. As for their part, General Mills switched to the less crimson colored Red Dye No. 40 (aka Allura Red) for use in their monster cereals.
Despite the temporary (and perhaps media driven) hysteria brought on by Franken Berry Stool Syndrome, in December of 1972, General Mills introduced Boo-Berry, the world’s first blueberry flavored cereal. Boo-Berry, used Blue No. 1 (a dye currently banned elsewhere in the world) which turned children’s potty piles green. Apparently, green stool seemed less life-threatening than the reddish hue caused by Franken Berry. Fruit Brute debuted a year later. Fruit Brute was discontinued by 1983 and replaced in 1988 by Fruity Yummy Mummy, which also had a short life as it was also dropped in 1993.
The Franken Berry Stool Scare can be found referenced in Stephen King’s 1981 novel “Cujo” as “Red Razberry Zingers”, but for most, it exists only as a vague memory. Another cereal stool scare occurred when Post’s Smurfberry Crunch Cereal was released in 1982 and was found to turn kid’s poop blue-thereby creating the ultimate Smurfs experience. However, Post changed the formula and re-released the cereal in 1987 as Magic Berries Cereal. Almost fifty years later, the exuberantly silly monster cereal mascots have survived and are on their way to pop culture immortality. Franken Berry, Boo Berry and Count Chocula can be found on bobblehead dolls, toy cars, t-shirts, pillows and even adult-sized Halloween costumes. The cereal itself can still be found as well, but they are most prominent during the Halloween season.
Oh, evidently if you find yourself traveling to the East Coast this Spring, you may well encounter a Frankenberry of a different color. According to the website, there are an estimated 446 people in the United States named Frankenberry. The state with the most Frankenberry’s is Maryland where 103 people have this name, followed by West Virginia which claims 1.97 persons in every 100,000 residents with the name. In this case, according to the website, the Frankenberry population in the United States is 100.0% white. Well, so much for the Red Scare.