KANSAS CITY, Mo. – While attending the annual International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE) in Atlanta last week, the vastness of the show floor quickly wore me down after just two days of visiting booths and attending sessions. But late in the night before the last day of the show, I found that a long-forgotten treasure was being exhibited far in the back corner of Hall B – the latest version of the famous Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, which has been around since 1936. Despite my burning feet and aching body, I had to see this magnificent beast before flying home.
On the following morning while walking toward the Wienermobile, I couldn’t help to remember my first encounter with it back in 1956. My parents had recently moved from my grandparent’s two-flat on Chicago’s south side into our first house that was built in the far south suburb of Dolton, Ill. At that time, the south end of Dolton was very rural. Our small home was located off a dirt road across the street from a vast prairie that was once irrigated Dutch onion fields. Only a handful of homes were on this street at this time.
A stretch of dense woods was located at the south end of the prairie. On the east end of the woods, an old, small, long-abandoned log cabin sat deteriorating while deep inside the woods was an old two-story wooden house where two brothers and a sister still lived…they once owned all of the land in this immediate area. The Little Calumet River bordered the south end of the woods.
Our home faced east toward the prairie. Very early on clear mornings we could see the Sun climb into the sky over the horizon and usually foggy landscape. During this time, families of quail, pheasants, rabbits and more scurried up and down the dirt road and eventually passed through a dense row of Crab Apple trees—and the animals would soon vanish into the tall, swaying prairie grasses and weeds. Crayfish were also abundant in the clear waters-filling the aging irrigation ditches.
A seemingly long three blocks north of our new home was a small Jewel Food Store grocery store —located on the corner of 144th and S. Atlantic Ave. — and the only food store in our area. It was Spring or Fall — as the weather was very chilly and windy on the day my mom walked with me up to the Jewel to see Little Oscar and his Wienermobile.
A good-sized crowd of mothers and their children smiled and wildly waved as the Wienermobile drove into the parking lot. Once parked, Little Oscar emerged through an opening at the top of the vehicle smiling and waving. I was dumbfounded because I saw him all the time on TV commercials — and there he was in person.
This past weekend, my wife and I watched our five-year old granddaughter. When she arrived, I had a little surprise to give her but I wasn’t sure how she’d react. Once she settled in, we gave her a very small, plastic Oscar Mayer Wienermobile Whistle I picked up at the IPPE show. She flashed a broad smile, started blowing the whistle — and squealed… “I like it!” At that moment, I decided we’re going to take her to see the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile should it ever visit our area.
Little Oscar and the Wienermobile were an important part of my childhood, but all good things come to an end; the Little Oscar program came to a close in 1976. A number of actors portrayed Little Oscar throughout the years and there’s a chance our Little Oscar may have been the famous Jerry Maren —the only confirmed surviving cast member of the 1939 blockbuster The Wizard of Oz.
“However, George Molchan [June 5, 1922 – April 12, 2005] stayed on as the sole Little Oscar and was a host at Disney World in Florida until the mid-1980s,” an Oscar Mayer spokesperson said.
Although the Little Oscar character has been retired for almost 40 years, all I had to do was stare at the Wienermobile on the IPPE show floor and for a brief moment — I saw Little Oscar’s broad grin beneath his white chef’s hat while he was waving to me and my mom from his Wienermobile.
Here’s hoping other meat and poultry companies create magical memories for their customers that span the generations in such a unique, positive way.