Growing up on the East Side of St. Paul in the sixties, I always took Hamm’s beer for granted. The giant brewery was simply part of the neighborhood scenery, little more than a dependable source of jobs—at least until the seventies, when it was sold and started succumbing to fickle consumer tastes and corporate mismanagement, entering what turned out to be a drawn-out death spiral.
But to be honest, even though most of us Harding and Johnson High kids personally disliked the beer—it was watery and your friend’s dad drank it (not very cool)—we adored the Hamm’s Bear. This was, mind you, decades before Joe Camel was pilloried for his appeal to kids. We also reveled in the goodwill Hamm’s produced for our home state with its glorification of “the Land of Sky Blue Waters.”
Until I visited John and Paula Parker, however, I didn’t realize just how much of a hold the bear, in his heyday, had on much of the rest of the country’s imagination. The Parker’s split-level home, located on Medicine Lake along a tree-lined suburban lane, doubles as a personal Hamm’s merchandise museum. When you walk in the front door, nothing much seems out of the ordinary. The Parkers, North Dakota natives whose children have left the nest, look like a hard-working, successful couple. They exude Midwestern levelheadedness. But then they lead you down to their family room, which is filled to the rafters with blinking, buzzing, twinkling, glowing Hamm’s Beer bar signs, no two alike, of the kind that decorated nearly every tavern in Minnesota from Roseau to Rochester in the postwar years. Display cases are crammed with collectibles: steins, mugs, bottle openers, pens, pencils, beer bottles, lighters, ceramic bear sculptures, all with the Hamm’s imprint.
The Parkers have collected some four thousand Hamm’s items. They are among the most prominent collectors of Hamm’s artifacts in the world. They have at their fingertips Hamm’s magazine ads and bar signs from the West Coast featuring Latina bathing beauties; from the East Coast picturing black folks refreshing themselves with the St. Paul brew; and from Chicago, where the bear is forever associated with Jack Brickhouse, WGN-TV, and the Cubs-White Sox rivalry.
It came as a bit of a shock to a Minnesota-centric hick like me to realize that Hamm’s wasn’t all about us. In fact, by 1960, the Hamm’s Bear ad campaign was in full swing in about thirty markets nationwide. The Parkers say it’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that the lovable bear and his animal buddies did more to cement Minnesota’s image nationally than all the dollars spent by state tourism agencies ever since.
“The only cartoon animals that were bigger than the Hamm’s Bear were the Disney characters,” said John Parker. “Actually, the bear almost comes across as a Disney critter. When you look at people like us who collect Hamm’s memorabilia, it’s not because we like Hamm’s beer, or even like beer at all. It’s because we love the bear and what he represents to us. He’s like a member of the family. You never actually see a beer in his paw in any of the ads.”
Paula Parker said her husband’s obsession, and by extension hers, comes from the same part of his mind that led him to study accounting in college. “The desires to complete a checklist, to methodically sort items and arrange them in a proper order, and the competitive urge to stay on top of an ever-changing set of circumstances—they are all related to collecting. John is a born collector, but I was the original Hamm’s fan,” she said. “I sort of steered him into that area.”
The Parkers began their collection in 1992. They hesitate to put a dollar value on it, though John Parker said that promotional items made of cardboard and plastic are among the most sought-after types of Hamm’s collectibles. For instance, molded plastic liquor-store wall displays from the late fifties can go for one thousand dollars apiece. So can cardboard cutouts of the bear and his friends used as in-store displays, which are rare because most were thrown away. The most popular items are the “scene-a-ramas,” the scrolling or shimmering bar signs that even many non-collectors are familiar with. Even though they’re not rare, they also go for a thousand apiece because there’s so much demand.
The Parkers have been so successful in tracking down items from the classic Hamm’s Bear campaigns of the fifties and sixties that they have lately started to specialize in items from the prewar and pre-Prohibition eras, well before the bear took his first animated tumble off the log and into the lake. “Probably my prize possession right now is a big lithograph of the Hamm’s factory, the kind they used to hang on the walls of taverns that were owned by the brewery,” John Parker said. “Once you reach a certain level in collecting Hamm’s stuff, it becomes more challenging to go after the pre-bear pieces.”
The desire to reach further back into Hamm’s history is understandable for the high-level fanatics like the Parkers, but for the rest of us, fond memories are directly linked to the bear, who made his first TV appearance in 1953. Hamm’s television ads were true groundbreakers, and showed what a truly high-powered marketing machine the brewery had in Campbell-Mithun, the local agency that rode the bear into wildly successful national prominence. Campbell-Mithun and Hamm’s had just settled on “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” as the theme of their campaign to introduce the rest of the country to Minnesota’s favorite beer (although Grain Belt fans will argue the point). It was a bold effort to bust Hamm’s out of the regional brewing ranks to join what were then just a few truly national brands, among them Budweiser, Pabst, Schlitz, Ballantine, and Falstaff.
According to beer historian Carl H. Miller, author of Breweries of Cleveland, the Hamm’s campaign was so successful because it came at a time when consumers thought all beers were made the same and tasted pretty much the same. It worked, he maintains, because it drove home the concept that Hamm’s was brewed in a place where the water was fresher and cleaner, the Northwoods. The Hamm’s ads were also the first to use an animated “spokesperson” for a beer. Up until then, the only beer-ad icon was Mabel, a blonde bartender who rarely spoke while she pushed Carling’s Black Label. At about the same time as the Hamm’s Bear, the comedy team of Bob and Ray were doing the voices of Bert and Harry, the spokes-characters for New York’s Piel’s Beer—a campaign that got critical praise but had little effect on sales. Budweiser’s famous Clydesdale horses and Miller Lite’s “Tastes Great/Less Filling” campaign were still at least a decade down the road.
By the late fifties, it was apparent the campaign was a success. Hamm’s entered the Chicago market just as a brewery strike in Milwaukee made Wisconsin beers unavailable; it also displayed great timing by picking up the sponsorship of the Cubs and White Sox broadcasts on WGN. The brewery went on to become one of the first companies to create a national pro- and college-sports branding campaign, and by 1964 claimed to be the biggest TV and radio sports beer sponsor in the country, according to Moira F. Harris’ The Paws of Refreshment: The Story of Hamm’s Beer Advertising. Hamm’s ran its bear ads in support not only of the Twins, the Vikings, and the Chicago teams, but also the Kansas City A’s, San Francisco Giants and 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers, Baltimore Orioles, Green Bay Packers, and Dallas Cowboys.
That year, with the sale of 3.8 million barrels of beer, Hamm’s had risen to become the nation’s eighth largest brewery, with expansion breweries in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, and Baltimore. Sales would peak in 1968 at 4.3 million barrels. The ad campaigns made liberal use of images of pristine Northern Minnesota lakes and streams (powerfully putting across the idea of clean, crisp water), sandwiched between animated bear storylines. The spots became so popular they actually vied with some legitimate TV programs; in the mid-1960s, for instance, Twin Cities newspapers ran schedules showing when the ads would air.
The commercials were clever and had real entertainment value. Each was a miniature story that began with twenty seconds of animation. In one spot, the Bear is a hockey goalie on a frozen woodland pond. Other cartoon critters are taking slapshots at him, and he’s making great saves. Then comes the hard sell: twenty seconds of filmed shots of the beer, with a voice-over extolling the many virtues of Hamm’s. Finally, the payoff: The last twenty seconds go back to the animation. The Bear gets overconfident, takes a puck in the mouth, and tumbles backward into the net for a goal.
Along with the first-rate animation and charming storylines came the unforgettable “tom-tom” musical theme. While adults bought the beer, their kids dug the tune, said Dick Wilson, a former Campbell-Mithun staffer who produced the music for the classic bear commercials. “I had little kids at that time, and when the Hamm’s Bear came on, they’d all stop whatever they were doing and look at the TV,” he said. “It was those drums that really bore into your mind. I don’t think people realized how much of a part they played. It was like the beat of your heart.”
According to The Paws of Refreshment, Ray Mithun had the idea to add the tom-toms to the jingle’s still-developing musical mix after being impressed by voodoo music he heard while visiting Haiti. In other words, the Hamm’s music was tapping into a similar vein as early rock ’n’ roll—a dangerous, African beat filtered through a safe white medium (the bear always scored off the charts on the ad industry’s “likeability” measure) that hooked young baby boomers. Even though they were silly, the commercials were well written. They were smarter and funnier than most “real” cartoons at the time.
“The animation was always cute,” Wilson says, crediting the work of artist Pete Bastiensen. “He was like a child himself and knew instinctively what would work. There weren’t any commercials like that back then. When I would give lectures about ads, I’d talk about how important it was to have uniqueness, and Hamm’s had that in spades.”
The nostalgia that spurs Hamm’s memorabilia collectors like the Parkers is the same thing that leads other people to agitate for an outdoor stadium for the Minnesota Twins. Hamm’s ads were so much a part of the baseball experience at old Metropolitan Stadium that they are forever linked to the Twins of Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison, said Kirk Schnitker, a Minneapolis attorney who heads the local Hamm’s Club, the beer’s official fan organization.
“Seeing the Hamm’s Bear never fails to make you think back to the old days when we kids had those great moments at the Twins games,” he said. “It also makes you remember another great Minnesota tradition: going up north. When we went up to the cabin we’d see those ‘Land of Sky Blue Waters’ signs at the taverns and at the resorts. They were everywhere. Their marketing effort was so huge.”
Despite all the talk of the how the bear was so lovable and universally adored, there remained the fact that he was selling beer. In that respect, some present-day critics regard him as a predecessor to the loathsome Joe Camel—a merchant of death hooking children via animation and cartoons. This critique has created obstacles for Schnitker and the Hamm’s Club, who are trying to get a granite monument to the Hamm’s Bear erected in downtown St. Paul; Schnitker chalks up their battle to “political correctness.” Last year, their effort to put the bear statue in Como Park was shot down by the St. Paul City Council, with Council Member Jay Benanav comparing the Hamm’s Bear to the Marlboro Man and colleague Chris Coleman labeling the character “schmaltz art.”
That charge rings hollow to Schnitker, who sees a city littered with fiberglass depictions of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, characters that, while undeniably a pop phenomenon, were created by someone who left St. Paul at an early age. They have never meant as much to the city’s history and development as did Hamm’s, an institution that literally helped build the East Side. Schnitker says he’s made headway this past year in convincing the city to reconsider, and now counts St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Bob Bierscheid among his key allies.
“We’re close to getting the OK for the statue to be erected on the Seventh Street Mall, just outside the Hamm Building on Cedar Street,” he said. “What the politically correct people need to realize is the huge impact Hamm’s had on the city and on a generation. It provided jobs, and the Hamm family is still active in giving back to the community through their charitable foundation.”
“I’m admittedly part of that generation, and the Hamm’s Bear did have an impact on me. I always liked him, but as a kid I never really stopped to wonder why. Looking back, what I most closely associate with him is the memory of my late grandparents, and of spending lazy summer days at their lake cabin in Isanti County with Twins games—and Hamm’s commercials—playing in the background on their little black-and-white television set. That’s pretty darn Minnesota. But it was having the same effect elsewhere, too, according to Bonnie Drewniany, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on the history of American advertising icons. She says there’s a strong connection between the Hamm’s Bear and family.
“I think the Hamm’s Bear is a wonderful example of how an advertising trade character can become like an old friend or a beloved relative,” Drewniany said. “I have a collection of advertising trade characters in my office, and one of them is a Hamm’s decanter from 1973 sitting proudly on my top shelf. While most of my students don’t recognize the bear, I occasionally have a colleague or parent who beams with excitement when they see him on my shelf. The fact that the Hamm’s Bear continues to bring joy to people speaks volumes about his importance as an advertising icon.”