Puppets have been trying to sell us food products in advertisements since the dawn of television. Does anyone remember the Little Caesar Puppet Band from the 1990s singing “Pizza, Pizza” to the tune of Mooly Mooly, or when Miss Piggy tried to sell us Pizza Hut Pizza or the Cheetos Cheetah furry puppet who tried to sell us Cheetos Checkers? What about the time when the Muppets’ Swedish Chef got a job as a Subway Sandwich artist?
Jim Henson powered two manic puppets named Wilkins and Wontkins in the earliest puppet-mercials on TV. From 1957 to 1961, in a rushed 8 second segment, the two puppets tried to sell Wilkins Instant Coffee, a brand out of Washington D.C. The commercials starred a cheery Wilkins, who sounded a lot like Kermit the Frog, and liked the coffee, and a grumpy Wontkins who hated it. Wilkins would do serious harm to Wontkins for not drinking the coffee – sort of in an Itchy and Scratchy way. He was shot at, dropped from a hot air balloon and an airplane, steamrolled, and hit over the head with a never ending array of blunt implements. These puppet-mercials were so successful, the puppets went on to hock 14 other brands like Krami Dairy, Faygo Soft Drinks, and Community Coffee.
My favorite puppet commercial of all time is a recent one made by Johnsonville Brat entitled “Jeff and his Forest Friends.” It features a hunter, Jeff, explaining Johnsonville Breakfast sausage to a racoon, squirrel, porcupine, turkey and wolf. The laughing turkey gets me EVERY time.
Two local Greater Cincinnati museums house sets of these food hocking puppets – the Broadcasting Museum in Mason, on the site of the Voice of America Museum houses the Larry Smith Puppets. And the Vent Haven Museum of Ventriloquism in Ft. Wright Kentucky, houses at least four sets of food hocking ventriloquist dummies.
The Vent Haven Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to ventriloquism and one of the areas’s best kept secrets. Its collection includes over 900 ventriloquist dummies as well as photographs, posters, letters and books related to the art. It is the collection of William Shakespeare Berger on whose property the museum sits. Their oldest ventriloquist dummy entertained Union troops during the Civil War and their newest is from the recent winner of America’s Got Talent.
The oldest food hocking dummy they have is Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist dummy of Edger Bergen. The Edgar Bergman show was a ventriloquist radio show debuted in 1937 on the Chase and Sanborn Hour. In 1949 the show, now called the Charlie McCarthy Show, adopted Coca-Cola as their sponsor and Bergen and McCarthy promoted it on the radio and in print ads until 1952. The first ever Coca-Cola radio commercial was heard during the Charlie McCarthy Show.
As a young ventriloquist in gradeschool, I used the Lessons in Ventroliquism record of Edger Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and his other dummy, Mortimer Snerd, to learn how to project my voice without moving my lips with my own dummy from Sears. My Dad took me to the Vent Haven Ventriloquist Convention held at the Old Drawbridge Inn in Kentucky, that would attract professional ventriloquists from all over the world. It was my version of Comic-con. My dummy and I may have promoted Mama’s Cookies to Sr. Carlene’s Third Grade class at St. Barts.
Vent Haven has the two dummies who promoted Nestle Quik starting in 1955 on the Jackie Gleason Show with the ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson – Farfel the Dog and Danny O’Day. Farfel would always bring the ads home, answering his companion’s “N-E-S-T-L-E-S/Nestlé’s makes the very best” with a drawn out “Chawwwc’-lit.” The Nestle ads concluded in 1965, but Farfel was not forgotten. In 1992 Farfel made a comeback promoting Nestle candy for the holiday season. In the commercial he sings the classic Nestle theme, joined by five dog puppets who we can assume are his never-before-seen family, all wearing similar ugly Christmas sweaters.
Lamb Chop and Shari hocking hot dogs at Vent Haven.
The museum also has an original Lamb Chop puppet, powered by ventriloquist Shari Lewis, who promoted, Playtime Frank’s Hot Dogs, a competitive brand to Kahn’s in the 1970s.
There’s also a Freshie character used by several ventriloquists including Glenn Haywood for the Holsum Bread Company.
The Broadcasting Museum at Voice of America Park in Mason, Ohio, is lucky to have the entire collection of Larry Smith Puppets. Larry Smith was a puppeteer from Dayton, Ohio, who got his start in 1957 on the Uncle Al Show and puppeted and produced children’s shows until retiring in 2000. IN the 1960s he moved to WXIX to produce the Larry Smith’s Cartoon Club, featuring a host of puppets headlined by Hattie the Witch and Snarfie the Dog, who all hocked some great food products in commercials.
In the last 1970s the puppet team marketed for Little Debbie Snack Cakes in commercials. Hattie the Witch and Snarfie the Dog, promoted the Swiss Roll; Rootie the Rooster and Teaser the Mouse promoted my fave – the Oatmeal Cream Pie and; Miss Abigail Chicken and Mr Wizard promoted the vanilla snack cakes; Big Red the Rock Eater and Nasty Old Thing promoted Nutty Bars; and Mean Old Cat and Spooky the Ghost promoted Jelly Cream Rolls and Banana Twin Cake. Mean Old Cat said he liked Apple Delights in the commercial even though the box in front of him was the Banana Twin Cake.
Smith created a bear puppet called Merry Beary in 1986 that promoted some Kenwood Mall food court vendors like Blue Chip Cookies and Skolnik’s Bagel Bakery. Smith also created a pirate puppet that along with Hattie and Snarfie, promoted the crispy secret crunch of Long John Silver’s Restaurants in College Hill and Elmwood Place. Two muppet looking puppets promoted Kern’s Bread in a series of commercials where the dopy sounding puppet was the victim of an exploding cigar, an exploding camera, and a pie in the face. Hattie, Snarfie, Teaser the Mouse, and the Duck promoted Buster Browns Steakhouse with Larry Smith’s cameo. Finally, Larry Smith also appeared in a commercial for Old Fashioned Candy out of Newport, Kentucky, operating the Candy Man puppet.
Puppets continue to market food to adults and kids alike, and several marketing media firms around the country like Puppets on Fire in Alabama, specialize in creating puppet commercials.