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Mr. Peanut and His Pals Rate Their Own Museum

Times Staff Writer

Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy, giggles around the corner from the Frito Bandito. Col. Sanders stands at attention beside Cap’n Crunch. Mr. Clean mops up, while across the room Mr. Peanut struts and Mr. Bubble--well, bubbles.

This Madison Avenue mad tea party is actually the gallery of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Mythology, home to about 3,000 advertising characters in their various incarnations as dolls, pillows, banks and salt shakers.

To Ellen Weis, director of the 4-year-old museum, the collection is not kitsch but culture. The Doughboy and Bandito are “American icons.”

“We try to take these advertising characters out of their normal context of sales and look at them as anthropology,” Weis said. “Most of American society has been exposed to these images. Certainly the Jolly Green Giant is more recognizable than Zeus--or your state senator.”

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A visitor to the privately owned, nonprofit museum, a one-room gallery hidden upstairs in a turn-of-the-century office building, is greeted through a glass window by the looming backside of an 8-foot-high, styrene Jolly Green Giant.

Inside, one current exhibit features advertising characters based directly on fairy tales and folklore: a genie who rises from a Wishbone salad dressing bottle, a devil who slips out of an Underwood sardine tin.

A display case features characters that not only sell but quite literally personify the product. There are Mr. Peanut, Mr. Salty and Mr. Bubble dolls. There are also lesser-known stars. A plastic nodding doll called Rocky Taconite--a smiling lump of coal in a miner’s outfit, produced by the taconite mining industry in Minnesota in the 1940s--is one of Weis’ personal favorites.

“He’s obviously a very, very obscure character,” Weis said. “But the fact that he was made at all tells you how accepted” the use of characters to personify products had become.

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The museum grew out of a private collection of 200 ad character artifacts owned by graphic artist Jeffrey Errick, described by Weis as a “fanatic” collector.

“The things I collected before were of one type, like dolls or postcards,” Errick said. Collecting ad characters “was more conceptual, a theme.”

Weis, who has a background in anthropology and semiotics--the study of signs and symbols, provided the raison d’etre for the collection.

“Human beings need immortal characters to help interpret what’s happening to them,” Weis said. “Why is the Jolly Green Giant so popular? You can say it’s a very good marketing campaign, but what does that mean? I think subconsciously it refers back to the lore of the giant. All these characters refer to age-old archetypes in our hearts.”

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Although archetypal, ad characters change with the times, Weis said. Over the years the Campbell Soup kids slimmed down. The Michelin Tire man grew younger and dropped his monocle. Aunt Jemima today looks like a middle-class housewife, but an earlier incarnation on display at the museum depicts her as a happy servant serving stacks of pancakes to a fatherly plantation owner.

Weis, Errick, and the museum’s third founder, graphic artist Matthew Cohen, are in their late 20s and early 30s, members of the first generation to grow up with television--and ad characters--in their living rooms. About half of the museum’s 150 supporting members are also “baby boomers.”

“My parents came to see the collection and didn’t have the same feeling for cereal characters as I did,” Errick said. “I ate the cereal, but they just bought it and fed it to me.”

Lawrence Levine, a professor of cultural history at UC Berkeley and a museum member, suggested that baby boomer interest in ad characters amounts to more than “just being sentimental or nostalgic.”

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“People are not just trying to bring back the flavor of their youth, but trying to understand their youth,” Levine said.

The museum moved to its present gallery space only last year, after three years in Errick’s own loft. Its annual budget of $87,000 remains less than the promotional budget of any of the characters it houses.

With its founders’ eclectic backgrounds, the museum is about the advertising industry but not of it. Financial support from ad agencies is growing, but slowly.

“They’ve done an exceptional job, but they just never have the money or wherewithal to reach out to the advertising community,” said Nina Lesowitz, vice president of J. Stokes & Associates, a Walnut Creek, Calif., advertising agency that is a corporate sponsor of the museum.

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In November, 1986, J. Stokes & Associates sponsored the museum’s first induction ceremony for “living” ad characters--handing certificates of recognition to Clara Peller, who played the Wendy’s “where’s the beef?” lady, and to Virginia Christine, who played Mrs. Olson, the Swedish-accented, coffee-brewing woman in Folger’s commercials.

Errick remains the museum’s curator, scouring flea markets and antique shops for new ad character artifacts, but success is broadening his own personal collection interests.

“After you see your 50th cloth Ronald McDonald or Big Boy bank, it’s kind of boring,” Errick said. “I wanted to collect something no one else wanted. A year ago I started collecting 100% polyester shirts. I’ve got 400 or 500, hanging all over my warehouse. I don’t know how historically significant they are, but it’s really interesting.”


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