Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Rainier Beer: Television Ads


Working on the Rainier Beer account? You call that work? Well, as I wrote in the very first posting, I feel I've had a lucky life--mostly as witness, once in a while as active participant.

For a dozen years from 1973 to 1985, I was the official writer-producer for all the Rainier Beer ads released during that stretch of time--each year three-to-five radio ads, maybe a half-dozen TV ads, up to a dozen print ads, and whatever other support material was needed. (I especially enjoyed the sales films we were charged to create each year as a framing device to introduce new television ads... proudest of the one I wrote and produced that had a portly Alfred Hitchcock sound- and lookalike as host, pontificating at length about various cinematic matters, including suspense, while a bomb ticked away under the table next to him!)

Around 1971-72, the Rainier Beer Company (based in Seattle) got in touch with the creative group then called Heckler-Bowker to ask them to help pull Rainier out of its puny-sales doldrums. Terry Heckler, the reticent genius designer and concept man extraordinaire, convinced them to try doing totally off-the-wall ads that would become conversation pieces.

With some trepidation, the Rainier bosses agreed... and within six months regional beer sales were rising at a totally unprecedented rate, which then generated an astonishing high market share for many years. This success was the direct result of a television spot called "Frogs" (on the air and generating nationwide attention nearly two decades before Budweiser stole the idea) and a couple of lesser pieces that downplayed the beer itself and instead gave viewers something to laugh or scratch their heads at. Those early ones included the frogs croaking "Rainier," while mosquitoes added "Beer"; a female Liberace type whistling a Rainier ditty; a garish video parody of Lawrence Welk, his bubbles, and his middle-aged ballroom dancers; plus the ad that soon became the greatest single success of all, what everyone soon called "the Motorcycle Spot."

First, a bit more scene-setting; as I stated in an earlier posting, the original writer and H-B co-owner had abandoned ship by early 1973, leaving recently hired me as the writer in charge. Offered up as the buffer between Heckler, Rainier's canny marketing manager Jim Foster, and whoever was on board as support for any particular ad, I also quickly became the account lead, chief bottlewasher, and general patsy. But I also got to write everything that the boss didn't supply himself, meaning I handled all radio and print, plus scripts for the TV ads, a few of which I'd also conceived.

We served other clients too, of course, but it was Rainier that made Heckler Associates famous in the world of advertising, back when almost all ads were still straight and boring, maybe two decades before everyone attempted to be clever, utilizing later gadgets like video imaging and computer animation. We had shoestring budgets and no video tools to speak of, back then, but we did have lots of gumption and eager-to-cooperate production houses (most importantly Kaye-Smith led by director Gary Noren for the television ads, and Bear Creek Studio owned by producer Joe Hadlock and his business-brains wife Mannie, for the audio), not to mention a pretty free hand at dreaming up the concepts.

Over the dozen years we did a string of ads using giant, tilted-horizontal, running beer bottles (older readers may remember Merrill-Lynch's bull that was always "Bullish on America"; Rainier's bottles were "Beerish on America"), some of which also featured Mickey Rooney as a bottle hunter. (The Mick in other spots was also a rowdy cheerleader and then a Nelson Eddy singer who poured beer down his Jeannette MacDonald's bodice!) And there were dozens of visual or audio parodies--of The Twilight Zone, a great b&w Casablanca, Elvis, Ray Charles, Devo ("Is this not beer? It is Rai-nier. B-E-E-R!"), Tom Waits, the song "La Bamba," the Johnny Burnette Trio, the Supremes, and so much more. My Rainier Beer "Greatest Hits" reel in fact was a demand item for years, even helping raise money at school auctions (go figure)!

But I want to focus on a few TV ads that gave me some extra pleasure, or headaches, or both. The Motorcycle Spot, for example, really was the all-Northwest all-time favorite. Very simple: camera looking down a straight back-country road, nothing in sight, then gradually a spot becoming a motorcycle coming straight at the camera, passing close, flash-pan to follow it tailing off toward a looming Mount Rainier--and all the while the shifting gears have been keening/singing, distantly at first, then louder and louder, "Raaaaiiiii-niiieeeerrrr... (zoom by and receding sound) Beeeeerrrrrr..."

Looked amazingly simple, but of course there was much going on behind the scene. Building the soundtrack, for example, we found that we could not stretch the words out over the full 30 seconds, had to settle for 20-plus to be understandable--which meant the visuals had to not show any bike at first. Then trying to capture the actual motorcycle shot we found that we could not pan fast enough as the bike passed, so we had to make a hidden cut during the pan. And neither the weather nor the motorcycle itself cooperated at first--we had to go out filming on three different days to get the bike actually operating properly, at a time when Mount Rainier was also visible!

And, finally, I had the perfect visual tagline to be supered over the end-of-spot receding bike: "Geared for Thirst." But neither Heckler nor the Rainier people were willing to give up the bland accepted slogan "Mountain Fresh to Go," so my tag never appeared. Anyone reading this now has the real scoop of what should have been shown!

Our biggest TV production of all involved the running bottles. We'd already shown them solo and in herds (sixpacks? cases?), when someone came up with the idea of using them like the famous bulls of Pamplona (another idea stolen from us years later). The upshot was we staged a major happening in Seattle's Pioneer Square, with scores of milling fans all awaiting the arrival of the beers. And when they did suddenly show up, everyone had to scatter to escape their onslaught. As scriptwriter I had a great time drafting the on-camera newscaster's 30 seconds--stalling historical text followed by sudden frenzied reporting! "Why do the Rainiers run...?" indeed.

Another spot I remember fondly was a Rainier Light take-off mocking some other beer company's reliance on athletes as spokesmen. Ours showed a cute housewife opening a Rainier Light for herself while cheerfully telling the camera how much she likes all those burly guys advocating Light beers; but as she says, "You don't have to be macho to enjoy Rainier Light..."

Just then, her off-screen husband yells rudely, "Hey, Marlene, get me another beer!" And she explodes back at him, "GET IT YOURSELF, BOB!" (Viewing the footage in slow motion, we amused ourselves marvelling at how angry and distorted and reddened her face was for a slowed-down second.) Then immediately she is calm again, addressing the camera to finish her interrupted thought: "Sometimes it does help, though."

The audience loved it for the amazing performance by the actress and the in-your-face feminist approach in general. But I cherish it also because it's my voice off-camera yelling at her--the best of several uncredited appearances in Rainier spots. (I was handy, of course, pretty much unpaid always, and not allowed to collect residuals!)

The fourth TV ad I want to mention came during 1978, Rainier's 100th-year anniversary, which Heckler cleverly dubbed "The Beercentennial." The special-year ads revisited Rainier's Northwest history, had a brewmaster blow the heads off full schooners like birthday candles, and more.

But we went forward in time too, crafting a science fiction ad that in short order gave the viewer the black monolith from 2001... which turned out to be the facade of the Star Wars bar... and as we push through the doors and on through the rowdy alien crowd we find a back booth and table around which are seated aging lookalikes for Ming the Merciless, Dr. Zarkov, Dale, and Flash Gordon. The supporting characters were local actors, but playing our "Fresh" (as we renamed him) was the one and only Buster Crabbe, the original movie-serial Flash (Tarzan films too), older and greyer but still very much the handsome hero.

Like Mickey Rooney on his best days, Crabbe was full of great stories and definitely fun to be around, still muscular, still swimming great distances every day, still flirting with the women.

And it's Fresh Gordon that brings me to an important aspect of Rainier's advertising that I haven't talked about--the posters we produced to promote the beer. I'll discuss a few of them next time...

33 comments:

Victor Bravo Monchego, Jr said...

Wow! I suppose I could check out some of these groundbreaking ads at youtube.

I Witness said...

i've never looked. could be. and i do have a VHS reel.

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iz-WuLQz_ns

Here's the Motorcycle. Looks like they're all there for the viewing.

Anonymous said...

And of course, the Frogs.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCW9gqN-_mE

John said...

For those interested in seeing the Rainier Beer spots, search johninmontana on Youtube. I've uploaded over 20 so far and will upload more over the next few weeks. John

Anonymous said...

Rainier Beer: TV Ads -AWESOME! I used to live in the NorthWest and have been telling folks about these ads for years! Finally a friend pointed out this blog to me today and there they are. We enjoyed these ads when they were on and looked forward to the next one. We have always wondered how Bud got away with their frog idea since we saw it first with Rainier. We really loved the motorcycle bit...no talking, just a beautiful shot of Mt. Rainier, a little section of highway down in the corner of the screen and the sound of the bike....great stuff!

Anonymous said...

I have been collecting Rainier Beer items since 1985. I now have over 200 different new and vintage collectible Rainier Beer items, including posters of television ads from the 70's. I really wish Rainier would create new commercials for all of the dedicated Rainier fans from around the world.

Anonymous said...

I recently found 6 cases of Rainier Beer from 1999, the last brew from the original rainier brewing company. On the bottom side of the cans, the last true rainier is imprinted. I'm wondering, has anybody else seen these?

Anonymous said...

I loved those Rainier Beer ads, well, the ones that I can remember. When I was 4 I was the youngest motorcycle rider at a rally at Mt. Rainier that Rainer Beer sponsored. My award was a Rainier Beer beach towel, tee shirt, bandana, and an AM radio that looks just like the old Rainier beer cans. I still to this day have that radio.

AndreT said...

My Dad (Phil Turner) built alot of the props for the Commercials. The Beer can derbywhere they smash up. The living room set.....have not seen that Video yet on youtube The cans that go thru the water and many others. I worked on some of the props myself and my Favorite i worked on might be the Rainier Iceberg. I drive the iceberg at the 92 Hydro plane races on Lake Washingto. I used foot controls for steering and speed along with two bottles of Rainier Dry :}

wyatt said...

I directed the TV show that celebrated these commercials, called RainierVision back in 2004. You're an inspiration! check out the show overview here:

http://www.ellipsispictures.com/awards/rainier_award.html

Luke said...

Those are my favorite ads ever!!! Good job. And what a fun job as well. I live and grew up in the northwest and my father drinks rainier to this day. I recently purchased a 2.5 foot tall neon R at a garage sale. Raaaannnnnnnnniiiiiiieeeeeeerrrrrrr beeeeeeeeeeeerrrrr!

gary said...

Hi Ed, what RRRRRRRRRRR you up[ to?

Norton

I Witness said...

wow! i hadn't checked this portion of the blog for several months, so had not seen all these accumulated comments. thanks to all who've written; thanks for helping me believe Rainier's really were "better" ads, worthy of all those years i spent helping see them into existence.

Bob said...

Hello:

I was actually in the "Running Of The Rainers" commercial. We spent an entire cold day in a Pioneer Square alley, doing the bit over and over. I think we were paid $1 each! The You Tube upload of the spot is very dicey, video-wise; does anyone have a cleaner version of it? I'd love to show my wife, as I'm pretty visible in the spot. My contact info is rcmjr911@yahoo.com. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I really love these ads. Truly Seattle legend. Legends sometimes get cloudy. What roll did Gordon Bowker play in the creation of the ads? Also I heard that Tom Horton (Horton Lantz & Low) claims some roll in the spots too (see Linked In)Can you clarify? Thanks.

Ed Leimbacher said...

hello, Rainier fans. thanks for the interest. Gordon Bowker was half of the team that got the Rainier job originally, circa 1971-72, but Gordon left after a year or two, so his involvement was actually fairly minimal. and his partner Terry Heckler also stated that Gordon was originally opposed to the whole off-the-wall approach that Heckler dreamed up (no matter what he says today); sadly both he and Terry get all the credit for a dozen years of hard work by others! and that does include Tom Horton who was around for the last couple of years after i left the scene. as stated, i was producer of all tv, producer and writer of radio, and writer of most print ads too, for Rainier from about 1973-1985. no fame but some continuing satisfaction!

Anonymous said...

Ok, no doubt that the original Marlene-Bob commercial is Rainier's. After viewing Bob's tube version, I agree that the actress does an amazing job. But I'm fairly sure that a national brand -maybe Bud or Miller(?)- must have stole this one in the '80's using a Glen Close look-alike as the performer, and slightly different setting. Saw it here in Minnesota. Or am I just imaging it?

Anonymous said...

I cant believe I waited so long to look this stuff up. I've been collecting Rainier beer memorbelia for 20 years now. I have 5 cases unopened of "Last true brew" rainier. If anyone else has these, I urge you, be careful with them. I Sold one on ebay just for laughs, and got 8 bucks for it. just so you know.....

norman hathaway said...

the beautiful people all know the great work you did on these ed. you rule.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ed!
Kim Eggers here (Joe & Manny's partner).
I was so happy to see your writings on the ads. I watched a few and did a search for the "Dueling Chainsaws" clip.... couldn't find it on youtube. Do you remember it, and does it still exist? Your work was definitely priceless on these ads. I don't get credit for any of my voice, audio prod, or on-camera work either, but I did get a few royalties!!:o)
Hope you are doin' great!!! K.

I Witness said...

hi, Kim (and hello to others who read this piece)--great to hear from one of the main vocalists and behind-the-scenes forces at Bear Creek. me, i'm doing all right, about as well as a 68-year-old, semi-retired, got-no-money-but-got-lotsa-memories-and-junk sort of a guy can hope for. otherwise, i do have the chainsaws on some reel or other and would happily lend it if needed. (if i recall right, the visual quality on that reel ain't much, however.)

keep those cards and letters comin' in, folks--they help give meaning to this man's life.

Anonymous said...

I've lived all over the world teaching English and for some reason one of the few constants that come up late at night in some god forsaken joint are the Rainier Beer ads, especially Motorcycle and angry housewife!

Today, and I have no idea how this happened, I found myself trying to explain the ads to a class of HS freshmen English students in Hawaii. Admittedly my judgement must be a bit impaired to laud beer commercials to 14 year olds, but the ads are great and I try to tie in the creative process at work with what the kids are doing in the class.

These ads will live a very, very long time. Congratulations.

Essani said...

I'm looking for posters that feature the running Rainier Beer bottles. Great campaign! Any chance you know where I could find one/some?

I Witness said...

Hello to all and Happy 2012 (so long as Mayan prophecies are only a misunderstanding). Odd how the interest in these ads keeps rollin' rollin' rollin' on the Rainier; I'm well chuffed, as the Brits say...

And you, emailer essani, reach me at mistere@mistere.com and we can talk more.

Jed said...

Many years ago I lived in Seattle, and found a Rainier Beer print ad that spoke to me. I am both an Alaskan and one of the priveleged bearers of the name "Jed". The ad was entitled (I think) "Grandpa Jed", and was a Robert Service sound-alike ode to Rainier Beer. I have long wanted to find a copy of the print ad, or at least find the original poem. Do you remember this ad? Would you know where I might find it?

Kirk Eland said...

Have you ever come across any Rainier TV ads from the mid 1960's that featured the Rainier Brewmaster? I played a part in one of those ads (around 1965) and would love to locate a copy of it. Thanks!

Kirk Eland said...

Have you ever come across any Rainier TV ads from the mid 1960's featuring the Rainier Brewmaster? I played a part in one of them and would love to locate a copy. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I've been looking at the Running Of The Rainiers over and over again...I know I've seen or heard the "news announcer" when I lived in Seattle in the late 60's & 70's but can't remember his name, and can't find him credited anywhere. Does anyone know who he is?

Ed Leimbacher said...

I wrote the text and John X was the newscaster, had been on local 4 or 5 as I recall, but had screwed up and maybe been fired for naming a victim on air before family was notified by police; doing voiceover work when we used him... That's how I remember the background anyway, but 40 years later I may be mixing different stories.

Colleen said...

I am trying to find a copy of the commercial with the raccoon (mine) playing on some rocks in the middle of a creek up at the Pac Forest in Eatonville and the Rainer Beer Bottles crossing the creek behind him. I didn't find a youtube video for this one. I know it didn't air for very long.

Anonymous said...

As someone who's been gone from my beloved home state for 26 years, the classic "motorcycle" spot is a great reminder of Washington's breathtaking scenery.

Does anyone know precisely where that commercial — with its golden fields and epic view of Mount Rainier — was filmed?

Anonymous said...

Back in 1977 or 78 I helped a guy who was doing some work for a Rainier Beer commercial. The general idea was based on the Twenty Mule Team with the first wagon carrying an oversized can of Rainier Beer and the second wagon holding a giant pretzel. As I recall the pretzel was made of polyurethane foam. My job was busting up chunks of plexiglas to use as the salt crystals. I think the parody hit too close to home for the Borax people and the commercial was never aired to my knowledge.