He saved his jars and went to Mars



He saved his jars and went to Mars

By DENNIS MCCANN of the Journal Sentinel staff

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

I can’t have a cheap vice like heroin or ex-wives. No, bookstores are the reason I will die broke. Last week, I got pulled off the Great River Road by a bookseller in Guttenberg, Iowa, and before I knew it I was the new owner of a history of Burma-Shave advertising, which, no, had never been on my list of needs.

But if I hadn’t stopped in “just to browse,” I would never have learned the story of a Wisconsin grocer who won a trip to Mars.

And neither would you.

Those of us of a respectable age (and what a fine euphemism for geezer that is) remember highways lined with Burma-Shave rhymes, each one ending in a pitch for the brushless shaving cream. (If you don’t, ask your parents.)

According to Bill Vossler’s “Burma-Shave: The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times,” the cream wasn’t selling well at all until Allan Odell, son of the developer, saw a series of signs advertising a gas station in Illinois and wondered why that technique couldn’t be used to market other products.

That was in 1927, and for years later Americans who were part of an ever more mobile society grew accustomed to highway poetry.

Your shaving brush Has had its day So why not Shave the modern way With Burma-Shave.

The signs were a hit, the shaving cream was a nationwide success and Burma-Shave contests followed. Americans by the tens of thousands offered their best poetry and, sometimes, humor. Said farmer Brown

Who’s bald on top, “Wish I could Rotate the crop.” Burma-Shave

By 1930, six trucks were criss-crossing the country just to plant new signs and change the copy on others.

For the next three decades, Burma-Shave signs were part of the national landscape until 1958, when a grocer from Appleton made them a story as big as the solar system.

Arlyss “Frenchy” French, who managed a Red Owl store, was driving between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan when he saw:

Free – free A trip to Mars For 900 Empty jars Burma-Shave

It was lousy poetry but Frenchy, being in the grocery game, was in a position to test the offer. He put a special display in his store with a sign that said “Buy Burma-Shave and send Frenchy to Mars.”

When customers complied, Frenchy would scrape the shaving cream into ice cream containers and keep the jars.

In three months, when he had saved 900 jars, he wrote to Burma- Shave and inquired about collecting his prize.

Allan Odell wrote back:

If a trip to Mars You’d earn Remember friend There’s no return. Burma-Shave

So Frenchy replied:

Let’s not quibble Let’s not fret Gather your forces I’m all set.

The two sides went back and forth good-naturedly, and maybe the Burma-Shave folks thought it would end at that. But Frenchy took out newspaper ads, built a model rocket for his display, had little green men on top of the store throwing toy rocket gliders to people below and kept penning verse:

Have 900 Jars Goodbye, America. Hello Mars.

Finally, Burma-Shave officials sent him a ticket — to Moers (pronounced Mars) in Germany.

He persuaded them to send his wife, as well, and soon the pair found themselves in the Minneapolis airport, Frenchy clad in a silver space suit with a large Red Owl logo and hand-fashioned helmet. He later explained that because there had not yet been a human in space, he didn’t have much to go on for models.

And then they blasted off, first to New York to be wined and dined and then to Europe. When they finally reached Dusseldorf there were so many photographers waiting at the airport that Frenchy thought somebody really important must be on board. When they all hollered at him to put on his helmet, he realized his new status. Moers turned out to be a crossroads with but four houses, one on each corner, but Frenchy was presented with a bouquet of weeds and a little white pig, so that was nice.

But fame didn’t last. When he returned, Frenchy came to Milwaukee to appear at the opening of a new Red Owl but, even though he was in his space suit, no one much cared. Neither did he; he’d been to Moers, after all.

Vossler’s book contains hundreds of samples of Burma-Shave rhymes but, like many Americans back then, I can’t help but try my own.

Another book The piles mount But this one’s on Expense account. Burma-Shave

Contact Dennis McCann at dmccann@journalsentinel.com.

Copyright 2002 Journal Sentinel Inc. Note: This notice does not

apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through

wire services or other media

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

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