A few days ago, my pal Mark Evanier wrote a story that centered around an odd candy bar he’d never heard of before called the Idaho Spud. That reminded me of my own tale about an odd candy bar most people have never heard of.
I’ll get around that the candy bar, but it requires some background, which is actually more interesting than the tale of the candy bar. Though that does have its charm.
It begins with my cousin, I.J. Wagner. Isadore James Wagner, who was probably a second cousin on my dad’s side, and much older than me, and who had passed away before I was born. In fact, I was named after him – the middle name James part – as in Robert James Elisberg. And as it happens, ee was a professional writer, something I’ve always been pleased about, which is the reason I use my middle initial when I write, as Robert J. Elisberg.
Iz (as he was known) worked in advertising, and Chicago was always one of the major centers. He was considered one of the first to write jingles in the early days of radio, so perhaps you have him to blame – or appreciate, if there are any you like. His most famous was used for decades, for Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, and many people still can sing it, to the tune of “10 Little Indians.”
What’ll you have?
Pabst Blue Ribbon.
What’ll you have?
Pabst Blue Ribbon.
What’ll you have?
Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.
And even though Pabst doesn’t use the jingle any more, they still often use the “What’ll you have?” ad line.
A long while back, I got into a conversation with a fellow WGA member, David P. Lewis, on what was then the Writers Guild BBS -- an early version of today's chat rooms. David was an older writer who had begun his career writing advertising in Chicago. (Among his many credits, he co-wrote a very good episode of Columbo, “Playback,” with Oskar Werner, whose character runs a tech company and kills his mother-in-law.) I asked David if knew Iz, and he said no because that was slightly before his time, but added that he did know of Iz and even worked at the agency where Iz had worked. And told a story about overlapping with him. One of the ads that Iz had written for the agency (and one I knew of through family lore) was for what had been at the time a very-popular brand of coffee, Thomas J. Webb, which was sold for decades, at least in the Midwest, even when I was a kid. For the ad, you heard the very whiney voice of a woman calling out, “Mortimerrrrr! As long as you’re up – get me some Thomas J. Webb Coffeeeeeee!!!” And when David started at the agency and found out that that had been one of their clients, he (being, as he put it, a know-it-all young kid) told the manager how annoying he found the ad and hated it. The manager excused himself, came back with their ad-rate book, and showed David how incredibly successful the ad campaign was. David said he learned then that repetition and annoying could actually be effective in advertising.
Iz had another claim to fame. One day I was reading a newspaper article, saw things of note and ran to the room where my mother was. “I just read this interview with Studs Terkel, and he says that he got his start because of ‘that adman, I.J. Wagner.’” I was expecting her to be as surprised and excited as I was. But my mother was surprisingly nonchalant that this legend owed his career to our cousin. But that’s because it turned out she knew. “Oh, sure,” she answered, “They were very close. When Iz died, Studs spoke at his funeral.” Since then, I’ve seen Studs Terkel give credit in his memoirs for to his first jobs in radio because I.J. Wagner liked him and kept hiring him for shows his clients were sponsoring.
In fact, in one of Studs Tekel's memoirs, Touch and Go, he writes on page 116 about his beginnings in radio in 1944.
"By this time at Meyerhoff [an ad agency in Chicago], I'm working on the Wrigley account, under the wing of I.J. Wagner, the inventor of the singing commercial. He liked me and suggested I do a sports show, The Atlas Prager Sports Reel. Atlas Prager was a local beer, out-fit-controlled. The show was on every night at 6:00. The announcer would say, 'Atlas Prager got it, Atlas Prager get it!' Wagner deliberately made it irritating so you'd remember the name."
Then later in the book, Studs adds, "Evenutally, Wagner said, 'I'm moving to a new agency, Oleon and Bronner, and I want you to come with me. What would you like to do?"
So, when I say that Studs Terkel really got his start by Iz, it's not just family lore, but he writes it himself.
Anyway, years passed, and I was working a summer job for the Ravinia Music Festival. I had reason to speak briefly to Studs, when he called the office. And I was finally able to tell him about Iz Wagner. He was gracious, charming and Studs. It remains one of my happy memories.
I love old radio, and have a very good book on it, The Big Broadcast: 1920-1950, which is basically an encyclopedia of all the national radio shows during that era. The authors also include sections on specific topics, one of which is Commercials. They write at length about the use of sponsored shows and ads during that period, and then include about 25 jingles and ad lines from the most famous. Two of them are by Iz. One is, of course, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, and the other is for an old candy bar, Whiz Candy.
(See, I told you I would eventually get around to it!)
Keeping in mind Iz’s love of repetition, it went –
ANNOUNCER: Wh-iiiiiiii-zzzz! The best nickel candy there izzzzzzzz!
VOICE: You can say that again!
ANNOUNCER: All right, I will. Wh-iiiiiiii-zzzz! The best nickel candy there izzzzzzzz!
(Though I’m sure it was totally pure chance, because the point is that it rhymes with “Whiz,” I like that the ad had “iz” in it…)
Even before reading it in the book, I knew about Whiz candy, since it too was part of family lore growing up. Mind you, I’d never had a Whiz candy. I’d never even seen one or heard of it anywhere, other than the family tales of Iz writing the ad. It was before my time. But clearly Whiz was a popular enough candy bar (sorry, nickel candy bar…) to make it into the book.
Anyway, when I was in college at the beloved Northwestern, I sometimes liked to get the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times. I think there was a newspaper box near my dorm where I’d pick it up. But one day they were out – or something. But instead, I decided to walk into downtown Evanston and pick up a copy at a nearby drugstore.
I wandered over, got the Sunday paper, walked over to the counter – and got ready to pay when, there, among all the other candy bars in the display, there was…a Whiz candy bar!!! It was no longer a nickel, but so what. I have absolutely no idea why it was there – I had never seen a Whiz candy bar before…or since. I have this fantasy tale that it had been sitting there since 1937, but obviously reality has its own explanation. One that I’ve never figured out. But whatever the reason, there was a Whiz candy bar there. And, yes, of course, I got one. And, of course, I ate it immediately on my walk back to the dorm, not waiting until I returned. I was much too intrigued by how -- and what -- it was.
At this point, many decades later, I can’t tell you exactly what kind of candy the Whiz bar was, but my recollection is that it was sort of a hard marshmallow filling (not quite a nougat) and chocolate covered. Perhaps with peanuts. Marshmallow filling is not my favorite, though hard marshmallow gave it a better texture and there was some flavoring, and I liked it. I didn’t love it, but it was tasty enough not to be disappointed. One of those, “Hmm, not great – but not bad” things.
While I have no idea when this picture is from, it look like perhaps the late 1950s or early 1960s, quite a bit later than the 1930-40s. So, it's nice to see hat they were still using the slogan. And with the "Iz" spelling, no less! It's also nice to see that my memory is correct, and that it was made with marshmallow. And peanuts, too, it turns out. From what little research I did, it seems that there may possibly have been different recipes over the years. And, if so, maybe with maple. And if so, that would have been great. Though, for all I know, the one I had did have maple...
I came across this article on the Menuism site written by Lauren Deitsch, a "research & development specialist / chocolatier" from Vermont. She wrote a piece in 2013 about vintage candy bars and included this --
To this day, I have absolutely no idea why there was a Whiz candy bar at that drug store counter that one time. But I remain ever-grateful that there was. And that I happened to go there that Sunday morning.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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