Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sharper Than Your Average Bear

Max Sparber on the appeal of the Hamm's Bear and why it deserves wider recognition as part of our local lore:

But why? Well, there were a few things the Bear had going for him. First of all, he benefited from a charming design. He's a classic example of the sort of boldly drawn spokes-character that came into prominence in American advertising design in the mid-20th century; he keeps company with such instantly recognizable visuals as the Michelin Man, Mr. Peanut, and fellow Minnesotan The Jolly Green Giant. Depending on whom you ask, the Bear was either created by former Disney animator Howard Smith or by a Chicago advertising art director named Cleo Hovel. Both men worked on the Bear's television commercials, and, whoever was responsible for the Bear's design, they got it right. Friendly, paunchy, and eventually sporting a shock of tousled hair, the Bear proved to be an enormously expressive animated character.

The Bear was a sportsman — he was occasionally even shown logrolling, a lumberjack's sport and one common to Minnesota's early history. But, as sportsmen go, the Bear wasn't a very good one. His cartoons would frequently end with the Bear humiliated, either by his own incompetence or by duplicity on the part of the various animals whom he played opposite in some sort of intramural forest league. The Bear took defeat graciously; it was part of his appeal, and Hamm's knew it. When Hamm's sponsored a Winnipeg-to-St. Paul snowmobile race, the company provided a very Bear-like prize for "True Grit." The winner of the prize was the contestant who overcame the most adversity to reach the finish line. One year's winner, as The Paws of Refreshment reports, "broke one of his machine's skis, crashed into another snowmobile coming around a blind corner, blew three clutches (and replaced them), and drove the last 50 miles without chaincase oil after the case cracked."

Additionally, Hamm's had a terrific theme song that they played behind the Bear in his commercials. (No, not the "Young Adults" theme to be found on the 365 Days Project Web page, although I must confess to a fondness for that one.) Borrowing its melody from Rudolf Friml's "Natoma" and boasting a propulsive tom-tom beat, the theme sang cheerfully of Hamm's place of origin. In rhymed couplets parodying Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha," the jingle went as follows: "From the land of sky-blue waters, from the land of pines, lofty balsams, comes the beer refreshing, Hamm's the beer refreshing." Once heard, the theme could not be forgotten. Interestingly, although the drum beat behind the melody sounds Native American, its source of origin is further south than that: Advertiser Ray Mithun based it on recordings of Haitian voodoo drumming, and the rhythm was actually beaten out on an empty carton of Star-Kist tuna cans.

That song was absolutely killer and I can instantly hear the drums beating when I think of it all these years on. Great design, great personality, great song. The Hamm's Bear really did have it all going for him.