Sunday, May 24, 2015

Frankenberry, Count Chocula and the late Forry Ackerman

Frankenberry and Count Chocula were arguably the last of the wave of cartoon and sugar based kids' cereals that started showing up in the sixties (Lucky Charms, Froot Loops and, of course Cap'n Crunch).  By this point, the Madison Avenue types pretty much had the process down, as Nick Martin explains:
“Why would a rabbit be qualified to sell the cereal? Or a tiger? We were just looking for a funny character,” said Laura Levine, the creator of Count Chocula and Frankenberry. During the late sixties, Levine worked in advertising at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample (a major ad firm — much like Sterling Cooper on Mad Men). Levine explained Count Chocula’s inauspicious beginnings, “General Mills invented two new cereals — one chocolate, the other strawberry, both with marshmallow bits — and they needed characters to embody them.”

Levine was responsible for creating these characters. She wrote an entire (single-spaced) page of prospective cartoon duos; Chocula and Frankenberry were just one option. Unfortunately, that list is lost, likely somewhere in Levine’s garage. In fact, Levine explained, she wasn’t even the person to narrow the list down: “If anyone should get credit, it should be Tony Jaffe.”

Tony Jaffe is an old school ad man, much like Don Draper (“I didn’t drink, only smoked,” Jaffe said). Jaffe understood that, “Monsters were very popular at the time. Maybe it was Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, or they were just on TV a lot. Frankenstein and Dracula are classics. Kids are always fascinated with monsters and dinosaurs and stuff like that.”

Dracula was over 70 years old by 1971; Frankenstein was over 150! Both characters were entrenched into the western collective consciousness. Levine echoed this idea: “I thought we could have fun with monsters. Voices that were known in the psyche — people knew what Bela Legosi sounded like.”

Jaffe’s job was managing million dollar ad accounts and keeping clients happy. He created the Trix Rabbit, the Cheerios Sugar Bear and other cereal cartoon mascots: he’s a man who understands what makes little kids buy cereal. “At the time, kids cereal had no restrictions — you could basically do whatever you want. It became nutritious because you put milk on them,” Jaffe said.

“You tried to match the character to the cereal or vice versa,” Jaffe said. “Kids can remember all of this stuff. They keep it straight in their heads better than adults.” The commercials establish a form that’s easy to replicate.

“…And the formula lets kids remember the critters better,” Jaffe said. “For Trix, the rabbit gets into a disguise; the kids reveal the rabbit in some creative way and discover he’s a rabbit. There’s a pattern to the sales in the cereal.” In other words: the rabbit never got any cereal because if he did, you wouldn’t have remembered the Trix slogan.
Remind me to use the "It became nutritious because you put milk on them” quote again.

One the subject of Frankenberry and Count Chocula, Mark Evanier has a great anecdote:
Back in the sixties, the members of our illustrious Comic Book Club were occasional visitors to the "Ackermansion," which was the home of Forrest J Ackerman, editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and all-around science-fiction fan/agent/guru. Mr. Ackerman was very nice to us and he welcomed our club, as he welcomed so many, into a dwelling festooned with memorabilia and collectables from the history of s-f and monster movies. Everywhere you looked, there were pictures of Chaney, pictures of Lugosi, etc. The Vatican probably displays fewer images of Christ Almighty than Mr. Ackerman had around of Boris Karloff. (This was not, by the way, the Ackermansion in Los Feliz, which many folks reading this perhaps visited. I went there too but this was the previous Ackermansion, the one on Sherbourne just adjacent to Beverly Hills.)

We were all fond of Forry (as he asked us to call him) to some extent but found him and his home a little creepy, perhaps by design. We were kids and he was an adult with an actual job…but we didn't take our fannish obsessions to quite that level. And we joked about Forry…not to his face, of course, but we'd say things like, "Hey, did you hear? Forry Ackerman went to see Richard Burton in Hamlet and he walked out on it because there were no monsters in it!" One of our club members did a very funny impression of Forry touring the Louvre and asking everyone, "But why aren't there any pictures of monsters?"

So one morning around 11 AM, we're going over to Forry's to talk to him about something and as we're walking towards the front door, I say to my friends, "He's probably sitting in his kitchen eating Count Chocula and saying, 'This is great stuff! At last, they finally made a monster cereal!'" My friends and I all howled at this, then Ackerman's assistant answered the door and let us in. He steered us towards the kitchen and we walked in there —

— and there was Ackerman sitting at the breakfast table, eating a big bowl of Frankenberry with the box next to him. He looked up at us and said, "This is delicious! I'm so glad they finally made a monster cereal!"

Well, we just laughed for about the next hour.

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