Friday, July 13, 2007

Flash and Frazetta--Rooney and Rainier

Comments from readers sent me to YouTube for a quick look at a few of the old Rainier spots, and doing that reminded me of a few things I forgot to include last time:

Regarding Mickey Rooney... The Mick was so popular in general that he appeared in spots for three or four years straight. (He actually talked about himself in the third person, discussing things "Mickey Rooney," the film/television personality, would or wouldn't do!) One ad I had forgotten--because it wasn't particularly memorable--presented Rooney as a crusty old mountain man confronting a gunfighter/gambler in an Old West saloon. (We got to go to Arizona to film that one!)

And the Nelson Eddy spoof actually was shot in two versions--Mick and his wife (who played our Jeanette MacDonald) together sang our parody of "Indian Love Call," at the end of which Mick poured her a beer. The straight version had him pouring into a schooner she held, and we shot that a few times to pick the best takes; the other version had him carelessly pouring the beer down her dress instead. The trick was, we put both versions out for broadcast, having the stations play the straight one most often, then rotate-in the comic one every once in a while. A bit of trickery to keep our viewers confused, amused, and maybe more attentive!

And there were two rather "difficult" spots that I neglected to mention. One that we called "the horizontal pour" showed a small table and chair in a room; but all furniture was fastened to the floor, and the room and camera were mounted on a rotating axis (much like a famous Fred Astaire set that allowed him to dance up the walls and onto the ceiling), so the guy seated at the table could pick his Rainier bottle and beer schooner up from the table and then (as room and camera rotated ninety degrees) pour his beer seemingly sideways into the glass.

Our other engineering challenge was a take-off on TV spots back then that used continuous rows of toppling dominoes which, once started, would go on tipping over sequentially, flowing in some pattern for 30 seconds. We hired an engineering firm to put a slight edge-crimp on about 2600 Rainier bottle caps that we could also stand on edge in rows. These, we hoped, when toppled and sent rippling onward, would create a giant version of the somewhat calligraphic Rainier R.

I was one of the lucky sods who had to place each and every cap painstakingly into position on the 12-foot-wide translucent surface; we "cappers" often wound up lying on our stomachs and reaching down from scaffolding above to line up the ones impossible to place from outside the circle. As I recall, the caps crew put in about 30 man-hours getting set. As a result, we all rather dreaded the actual moment of shooting, because if anything went wrong... yes, 30 more hours to set up for a second take.

We also realized that one leg of the R would have to be tripped separately, halfway through the spot, before the overhead camera zoomed out far enough to show any crew person involved. I was chosen to use the small rake that would start that leg's first row of caps falling, and we rehearsed many times to be sure I had the cue to reach in at the right moment.

Came time to shoot, there was palpable tension around the set. One chance to get it right... or start over. As the music began (we were using a happily upbeat, carefully rewritten parody of Cole Porter's "You're the Top"), a finger toppled the first cap, and the next ones fell, and on they went... and I reached in and pushed the leg row and moved away quickly... and the bottlecaps kept falling, and every damn one of them fell as intended, right to the last one--30 seconds of heavenly bliss for all of us. We leaped and cheered, we hugged and high-fived. We'd gotten it!

We had many pleasant moments (as well as long days) shooting all those television commercials, a dozen years' worth, but this time out I actually had wanted to talk about Rainier's posters. So time to shift gears ("Rrraaaiiii-niieeerrr")... er, topics...

The posters we created usually were meant to support the latest TV spots, basically functioning as souvenir production stills (like the Rooney scene I included with the first Rainier posting below). As such they might be visually arresting, or puzzling, or sometimes just boring. But the designers working at Heckler or hired from outside also fashioned a few posters that were stand-alone items.

Two of those that were vaguely interesting, good enough without being really compelling, were parodies of a National Geographic cover, with the usual yellow frame surrounding a scene of giant bottles, and a supposed Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell (with sports fan seated in front of TV and his pet mountain goat at his side with a sixpack dangling from its neck St.Bernard-like). The Post parody was a good concept, but sadly the illustrator hired couldn't duplicate the style or look of Rockwell.

Two others that did come off have a more complex backstory. As millions of his fans know, Frank Frazetta was a painter whose powerful illustrations for paperback and magazine covers would guarantee sales in the hundreds of thousands--think of all the Tarzan and Conan books of the Seventies, and all the other artists who were paid to create covers that just looked like Frazetta had painted them.

Well, we decided that Rainier should have a Frazetta too, a scene with our Conan-the-Barbeerian hero riding a giant bottle, the two of them confronting a huge Sasquatch. Since I was a comics collector, I was picked to make the contact with Frank and try to get him interested. Working through Russ Cochran (E.C. Comics reprints publisher and quasi-agent for Frazetta), the negotiations began. At first the popular painter expressed interest and indicated a willingness to fit us into his schedule. But some months passed, and suddenly the sales of Frank's own posters were skyrocketing, and he was getting offers from Hollywood (remember the poster for Clint Eastwood's film The Gauntlet?), and our puny advertising job didn't look as interesting or lucrative.

We gave up on Frazetta himself, and I brought my friend William Stout on board instead. Bill was then a Los Angeles-based illustrator and sometime movie designer (these days he has grained renown as a painter of dinosaurs, the flora and fauna of Antarctica, and other natural history subjects), and as a major Frazetta fan himself, he was quite willing to paint our poster image. Bill and Heckler worked out a design, and rough sketches, and then he went to work. The final painting was better, maybe more Frazetta-ish, than I think the boss had anticipated. (And like some of the other posters we did, the brewery sold or gave away all copies rather too quickly, and wouldn't usually reprint.)

(This is the point at which I should demonstrate how well Stout carried out his "Freshetta" assignment, but I can't find my own copy of the poster! Maybe a copy exists on-line somewhere, but I'll just leave that to the computer experts. In its place I've added a piece of Stout art with a vaguely similar concept: hero on beast confronting monster.)

Finally, let's revisit the "Fresh Gordon" science fiction commercial I talked about last time... Heckler planned a poster to accompany that ad too and took some possible photos during the shoot. But Jim Foster and the Rainier people nixed it completely. I was convinced that the brewery was missing a bet, given the great popularity of sci-fi movies and novels; and I persuaded Jim to give me the rights to print and sell the "Fresh Wars" Rainier poster; they'd get all the publicity, and I could make a little money, maybe.

I asked a friend in the comics business (Rod Dyke of Golden Age Collectibles in Seattle's Pike Place Market) to put up half the money, and we proceeded. The result can be seen above. With no advertising or publicity, Rod (and a couple of other comics shops he distributed to) sold all the posters just by displaying them at their stores. Oh, it took a while, with Rod grumbling a bit, but they all sold eventually; now they're just a part of Rainier history too...

I'll end this simply by quoting the sci-fi pulps text added to the poster, which can't be made out in the tiny version above:

"Retro rockets firing, Fresh Gordon jockeyed his MFR-80 spaceship down onto the arid, dusty surface of planet Bungo.

"Then, aided by his thirsty companions of so many years, Fresh broke through the belligerent throng of alien vizki and d'jin, forging a path straight to the barren world's lone outpost of galactic civilization, the B'aarli Maltina. There the beerless company at last espied the liquid treasure for which they had quested so long--Mountain Fresh Rainier.

"Even Bing the Brewless was overcome. 'The Beer That Conquered the Galaxy' soon quenched five more parched throats."

An asterisk in the text let people know that "Fresh Gordon" was none other than "the incomparable Buster Crabbe."

Yeah, those were the days...


VBM said...

So when Budweiser ripped off the clever Ranier Frogs, did any money change hands?

I Witness said...

not MY hands, is all i know. but those corporeal corporate types are likely to do anything for a bigger stock bailout, as we've all learned the hard way.

Johnny Mann said...

Any chance you could lead me to the special spot the Rainier Motorcycle spot was filmed? Maybe a googlemaps link? I would love to see it myself...and maybe get a video riding by as well!

Anonymous said...

Hi there!
I recently found one of the original Barbeerian/Sasquatch posters at a pawn shop, and picked it up for a song.
I just wanted to let you know what an exciting find it was, and that my friends and family are profoundly jealous.
This is some of the only info I could find about it, and I haven't seen anotherone anywhere online yet.
Thanks for the background. It'll be gracing our living room once I frame it.

Ed Leimbacher said...

Hang on to your find--mine never did reappear. I also had a t-shirt with the poster image; gone with the wind as well. Rats.

Anonymous said...

I just got one of these posters, I've been admiring it in my granpas basement for 30 years, and I finally got to take it home. With a "mace" spiked ball and chain. Ha ha so badass. After reading your story, I feel bad for you mot having one. Do you want me to print you one? My buddy works in print shop, would be done for free... I could send you the original and keep the copy, but it does have a rip in it.. Send me an email if you're interested. Ernierau a t hotmail d ot com