He's Doing This for Peanuts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Times are tough for the lowly peanut. Pro-legume president Jimmy Carter is long gone from the White House. Schools and airlines have started banning the snack because of potentially fatal allergies. And peanut sales have sputtered in recent years.

So the National Peanut Board did what anyone else would do in such circumstances: It built a 32-foot-high peanut out of steel and foam and began driving it around the U.S.

It also hired a costumed mascot named Buddy McNutty, not to be confused with a certain monocle-wearing peanut who works for the Planters company.

"I am not Mr. Peanut," McNutty stressed during an interview. "Mr. Peanut wears tights. I wear leggings."

Over the weekend, McNutty and his entourage visited Los Angeles as part of the National Peanut Tour, a traveling exhibit of peanut propaganda. They parked their giant peanut outside the L.A. Zoo and entertained visitors with peanut trivia, recipes and paraphernalia.

They also had a peanut museum that displayed a video on the making of peanut butter ("Find out what jelly is so happy about"), a replica peanut plant (peanuts grow underground, not on trees) and amusing peanut facts:

* In 1500 BC, the Incas of Peru used peanuts as a sacrificial offering to their deities.

* Arachibutyrophobia is the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth.

* Two peanut farmers have been elected president--Carter and Thomas Jefferson.

* Mountaineer Tom Miller used his nose to push a peanut to the top of Colorado's Pikes Peak in four days, 23 hours and 47 minutes (if true, that beats the record set by Texan Bill Williams, who took three weeks and went through 170 pairs of pants to accomplish the same feat in 1929).

* The world's largest peanut butter and jelly sandwich was 40 feet long and contained 150 pounds of peanut butter and 50 pounds of jelly. It was assembled in 1993 in the town of Peanut, Pa.

* When making PB&J; sandwiches, 96% of Americans put the peanut butter on before the jelly.

Also joining the tour was peanut chef Duane Nutter (yes, that's really his name, and he has a Georgia driver's license to prove it). Normally, Nutter dishes up a mixture of comedy and cooking, but the zoo didn't have room for his kitchen, so he paced around in his peanut-shell foam hat, greeting visitors.

The star of the tour--aside from the hydraulically powered 17,000-pound, 32-foot steel peanut--was McNutty, a.k.a. Noah Pransky, a 21-year-old professional mascot whose resume includes stints as Wally the Green Monster (the mascot for the Boston Red Sox), Paws the Polar Bear (a minor-league baseball team mascot) and Rhett the Terrier (mascot for Boston University, Pransky's alma mater).

To get the peanut gig, he had to defeat two other mascot professionals whose combined work history included jobs as Buckley the Buckle Upper (a mascot for a highway safety program), Firehawk (a tire company mascot), Fuzzy Bear (an Atlanta radio station mascot), the Tasmanian Devil (on loan from Warner Bros. as the mascot for the 1998 Goodwill Games), Harry the Husky (University of Washington) and Sammy the Sounder (mascot for a Seattle soccer team).

"It's a great career," Pransky says.

Well, except for the health hazards. "During my four years in the 'Brotherhood of the Fur,' I've had heatstroke a few times and heat exhaustion a lot," Pransky says. "I also tore the ligaments in my thumb giving someone a high-five." Other mascots endure shoulder injuries, knee injuries and broken bones, he says.

"You're always pushing the limits physically while doing stunts," he explains.

Still, he loves the job. "It's almost like the Clark Kent phenomenon, where you have a secret life," he says. At Boston University, Pransky didn't tell his roommates or his family that he was the school mascot. "If people know who's in the suit, it loses the magic," he says.

As Buddy McNutty, Pransky cavorts, poses for photos and generally makes a fool of himself. "It's like being an improv comedian," he says. "You have to read people and react to them in comic ways, all without talking."

His other trick is climbing onstage at concerts and playing the drums. "It blows people away," says chef Nutter. "They think he's getting up there to dance, but instead this oversized fuzzy peanut sits down at the drums and starts playing like a pro."

Now in its second year, the National Peanut Tour makes stops at state fairs, baseball games, barbecue festivals, horse races and the Suffolk, Va., Peanut Festival, which features an annual peanut butter sculpture contest.

The $1.5-million tab is picked up by the Atlanta-based National Peanut Board, which was formed two years ago after the ailing peanut industry petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a legume version of the dairy industry's "Got milk?" campaign.

Ballots were sent to all 23,000 U.S. peanut farmers, asking them to impose a 1% fee on themselves for peanut advertising and research. The result was, yes, a national nut board.

Some of the group's budget goes toward finding a cure for peanut allergies, but most is funneled into advertising. In one ad, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is shown next to the phrase: "Have lunch with your inner child."

The effort seems to be paying off, says National Peanut Board chief Raffaela Marie Rizzo, a former timber industry spokeswoman: "Since our campaign began, peanut butter sales are up 6%."

Then again, Rizzo might be seeing things through peanut-butter-colored glasses. If the L.A. Zoo visit is any indication, peanut professionals have a peculiar way of viewing the world. For example, in the National Peanut Tour's timeline of history, World War I is put on the same footing as the introduction of Welch's Concord grape jelly.

And construction of the Empire State Building in 1931 is a milestone that is "eclipsed by ... the invention of crunchy peanut butter by Skippy."

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