Who REALLY made the Muppets famous?

Recently, I saw an episode of Mad Men on cable, and it sent my head spinning back in time.  I worked in advertising in the Eighties, and Mad Men takes place in the Sixties.  But this particular blog starts a few years even before that, in the late Fifties.

Way back then, there was a Washington, DC advertising agency called Kal, Ehrlich & Merrick that was the largest in the D.C. area.  They had more clients than they could handle and life was good, especially for one of the partners – Alvin Ehrlich.

By the way, K-E-M (as they were called) later made their way into the annals of advertising by virtue of the fact that they created the character of Ronald McDonald.  True!  And their first Ronald on the television commercials they produced was none other than Willard Scott, who went on to greater fame (hard to believe) as the beloved weatherman on NBC’s Today Show for many years.

But from 1957-1961, K-E-M produced about 300 short commercials (10-seconds each) for a client called Wilkins Coffee.  A regional coffee manufacturer, Wilkins was loved by those who knew about it, but it never gained the national reputation that some felt it deserved.

There was one thing that did put Wilkins on the map, however, and it was largely thanks to the creative genius of the folks at Kal, Ehrlich & Merrick who, more or less, discovered the talents of a young man attending the University of Maryland at that time.  The student had a knack for puppetry, of all things, and had come up with the idea of using two core characters to basically “argue” over a variety of topics, all of them tied in some way to Wilkins Coffee.  He called them “Wilkins and Wontkins” and the K-E-M commercials that were produced with his creations were a huge success on the East Coast.

I guess I should also mention that his name was Jim Henson, and “Wilkins and Wontkins” were the earliest versions of what later became The Muppets.   Take a look –

http://tinyurl.com/55lr4g

By the early Sixties, the company stopped making the commercials and Henson later went on to find his real fame, which we’re all familiar with.  The story would have ended there, but for me personally, there’s a historical tagline that follows.

In 1987, I was Asst. Creative Director at Ehrlich-Manes Advertising in Bethesda, Maryland – an agency that Alvin Ehrlich started after leaving Kal, Ehrlich & Merrick.  Wilkins Coffee was still one of Alvin’s accounts and I had the great fortune to work on some NEW Wilkins Coffee commercials that year.

The head of Wilkins Coffee came to our creative department when we were brainstorming ideas and said “well, we have these old commercials on a reel from the 1950s – could you use them in any way?”  I was astounded to see what Henson had done some 30 years earlier, and did indeed end up using them in two spots that we produced in 1987.  

The premise of the new Wilkins spots was that a young couple was drinking coffee at home while their kids just happened to be watching the old Henson spots on TV.  The husband referred to them by saying “Those old Wilkins commercials are still great” and the wife answered something like “Yes, just like Wilkins Coffee is still great too.”

I was the copywriter and co-producer on the spots, along with Lee Blom who was the Creative Director at Ehrlich Manes in those years.  I believe that Ryan Schnare was the director and actually did the shooting.  We auditioned a number of actors at the old Ehrlich-Manes building in Bethesda, and I ended up hiring a local male talent who’s name escapes me (Paul someone, I think) and a woman out of New York to play the parts of the married couple.

I’d like to tell you that the new commercials were a great success, but Wilkins didn’t spend very much on the media buy and they didn’t get much airplay in the D.C. area, or anywhere else.  I still have copies of those 1987 commercials on videotape somewhere, but honestly the real jewels are the 10-second spots that Henson and K-E-M originally created for Wilkins in the late Fifties and early Sixties.

I believe it’s important to note that Henson was not the sole creative force behind these commercials – the creative team at Kal, Ehrlich, Merrick was involved as well, and without that agency, these spots would never have seen the light of day.  K-E-M deserves recognition for that, as well as having been the original creators of the Ronald McDonald character.

As far as Alvin Ehrlich, he was a legend in Washington, D.C. advertising circles and truly loved the business like no one I’ve ever met since then.  He was also a cranky old curmudgeon when I knew him, but one of the coolest guys I’ve ever run across.  Alvin passed away in 1989 at the age of 78, I’m sorry to say.  But I’ll share more stories about him in future blogs and I hope you’ll come to admire him like I did, as well as get a few laughs from his crazy personality.

http://tinyurl.com/55lr4g

More to come,

Nelson

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