Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story

Mill Creek Entertainment
Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

Slap Happy: The Slap Bracelet Phenomenon of 1990

Slap Wraps bracelets swept the nation in the fall of 1990.
Slap Wraps bracelets swept the nation in the fall of 1990.
Yvonne Hemsey, Getty Images

In the fall of 1990, as elementary schools around the country were still reeling from the great Bart Simpson T-shirt ban of the previous academic year, teachers and administrators were confronted with another distracting fad. As instructors wrote on blackboards and admonished students to open books, they were frustrated by a steady percussion of steel slapping against skin. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

The noise echoed throughout homerooms and school cafeterias, playgrounds and bus trips. Millions of kids had discovered Slap Wraps, the brand name for a 9-inch piece of stainless steel covered in decorative fabric that enveloped the user's wrist with one quick motion. Part toy and part fashion statement, kids found them irresistible. Educators, meanwhile, found them intolerable. Some schools banned them, but not solely due to distraction—knock-offs bracelets had sharp edges and cheap fabric that left some students in literal stitches.

 

Slap Wraps were the invention of Stuart Anders, a Fort Prairie, Wisconsin, native who graduated from college with a degree in education in 1983. Teaching jobs were hard to come by at the time, so Anders took on substitute positions and coached sports.

Sitting down at his mother’s sewing table one day, Anders pulled out a self-rolling tape measure, which curled up with the flick of his wrist, and began fidgeting with it. He thought it would make a cool bracelet, provided someone covered the steel in fabric.

He called the company who made the tape measure, but they were no longer manufacturing it. Anders didn’t know what else to do. While he thought the idea of a snap bracelet could be successful, he didn’t have the money or other resources to commit to producing them himself. But he kept the prototype on his steering wheel.

Later, he wound up enlisting in the National Guard, where he learned to fly helicopters. After that he moved to Florida and began working for a local apparel company. The bracelet had never left his truck.

One day, Anders ran into a man named Philip Bart, who just happened to be an agent for toy designers. Anders, who couldn’t quite believe his luck, ran outside to fetch the bracelet. He clamped it around Bart’s wrist. Thwack.

Bart was sold. Now he just needed to sell someone else.

Bart approached all the big toy companies with the slap bracelet idea, but they rebuffed him. The reason? They weren't interested in investing time and money in a product that amounted to little more than a trinket that would have a low retail price. But Bart found a receptive audience in Eugene Murtha, who had just opened Main Street Toy Company in Simsbury, Connecticut, in 1988. Murtha, a former vice president of Coleco during that company’s Cabbage Patch Kid craze, immediately saw the potential in Anders's invention. He agreed to distribute Slap Wraps, paying Bart and Anders royalties.

Bart and Anders rushed to make prototype bracelets in time for 1990's American International Toy Fair in New York City. The bracelets were the talk of the trade show, and Murtha secured a 250,000-unit order from KB Toys. But there were issues: Murtha appeared ill-equipped to handle the manufacturing end, leaving Bart to start up Main Street Industries and produce the bracelets, which he would then turn around and sell to Main Street Toy Company. It was not a smooth process, as the thickness and quality of the rounded-edge steel had to be adjusted from 0.004 inches to 0.006 inches to ensure the steel wouldn’t protrude from the double-knit fabric, which meant that producing the bracelets took longer than expected. Murtha anticipated a shipment that April, but the Slap Wraps weren’t ready until the summer of 1990.

In the interim, Bart was annoyed that Murtha had permitted some of the prototypes to escape his grasp at Toy Fair, allowing for a rash of knock-offs to appear on store shelves before the Slap Wraps were even released. These versions typically used carbon steel, which rusted easily, and lower-quality fabric, which allowed the steel to become exposed and created opportunity for injury.

Those dangers weren’t understood until Slap Wraps and their Taiwan-produced counterparts began taking off in the fall. Popularized by word-of-mouth, kids scooped up the bracelets and proceeded to turn them into a school fad, slapping the neon-colored accessories against themselves all day long. The New York Times described them as “a Venetian blind with an attitude.”

The disruptiveness of the bracelets (both the noise and the fact that kids were playing while they were supposed to be listening) and the reports of injury—4-year-old Nicole Tomaso of Wallingford, Connecticut, cut her finger on one—led some schools to take action. The bracelets were banned at Colonial School and Siwanoy School in New York after a child was cut at West Orchard Elementary School in Chappaqua, New York. Lehigh Township Elementary School in Pennsylvania banned them on the grounds they were distracting. Steckel Elementary School in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, instituted a no-bracelet-slapping rule. Others asked teachers to inspect the bracelets for frayed edges. A recall of the foreign versions was implemented in Connecticut by the state’s Department of Consumer Protection. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission advised parents to inspect the bracelets for frayed edges.

The controversy bothered Murtha, who repeatedly told press that the injuries were the result of the cheap imports, not the brand-name Slap Wraps. Although Main Street Toy Company had moved 1 million of the bracelets for $2.50 each in just three months and had orders for 5 million more, it was estimated that 10 to 15 million counterfeit versions had been sold, some for as little as $.70 each.

 

As the fad began to flame out toward the end of 1990, Bart and Murtha started finger-pointing. Bart criticized Murtha for allowing the bracelets to be taken at Toy Fair, which led to the rash of knock-off products. Bart believed that had Murtha not been so careless, they could have made $25 million in sales instead of $4 million. He also claimed Murtha had gone to another manufacturer, leaving him with unsold inventory. Murtha countered that Bart had taken too long with production, missing spring delivery goals, and kept raising the price of the bracelets. Plans for slap ponytail bracelets and slap anklets fell by the wayside.

It got uglier. Bart and Anders had not received royalty payments from sales of the Slap Wraps, with both sides contending different interpretations of contracts that had been signed in 1990. Bart and Anders moved to terminate the licensing agreement. Murtha sued, and the legal dispute went to arbitration in 1991. While the arbitrator found fault with both parties, the net sum of money owed fell at the feet of Murtha, who was wrist-slapped for $751,309. Main Street Toy Company was all but insolvent, however, and no payment would be forthcoming. Bart contended he had lost $1 million in manufacturing costs and had 2.5 million Slap Wraps in a warehouse that would never sell, as kids had already moved on to the next thing.

Murtha went on to positions at Mattel and Gund and later reconciled with Anders, who had more success with inventing a tool socket holder he sold to Sears.

Different manufacturers have tackled the slap bracelet phenomenon over the years, but nagging safety problems still remain. In 2017, bracelets adorned with Troll dolls and packaged with a storybook were recalled due to a risk of laceration from exposed edges. So were bracelets made by Yumark Industries and sold at Target in 2018. For better or worse, Anders’s invention continues to leave a mark on pop culture.

Remembering Fingos, the Hybrid Cereal-Snack Disappointment of the '90s

General Mills was confident Fingos would be a cereal smash.
General Mills was confident Fingos would be a cereal smash.
Retro Stuff, YouTube

For practically as long as dry, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals have existed, people have been eating them out of the box or using them in alternative recipes like Rice Krispies Treats.

The problem was that not enough people were reaching for cereal at other hours of the day. According to research conducted by General Mills in the early 1990s, only 7 percent of those who purchased cereal ate it outside of the breakfast window. The company believed that if more consumers could be persuaded to snack on cereal throughout the day, then maybe General Mills could finally outpace the Kellogg Company as the most dominant cereal manufacturer on the market.

After years of research and development, General Mills introduced their secret weapon in 1993. It was called Fingos, a hexagon-shaped cereal that consumers were encouraged to eat with their hands.

The snack vs. cereal conundrum

Superficially, there was little about Fingos that made it any more of a snack than a cereal. The irregularly-shaped pieces—available in either a toasted honey nut or cinnamon flavor—had roughly the same nutritional and ingredient profile of typical lightly-sweetened cereals. Slightly larger than a corn flake but smaller than a potato chip, Fingos could wind up in milk just as easily as any other kind of cereal. The difference was that General Mills wanted buyers to eat it dry.

It was a “cereal made to eat with your fingers,” according to ad copy, part of a campaign that cost General Mills $34 million—making it one of the largest promotions ever for a cereal launch.

“We’re breaking the traditional bounds of advertising cereal because we’re trying to break the bounds of how people use cereal,” Barry Davis, then the marketing manager for General Mills’ Big G cereals, told The New York Times.

In pushing Fingos as a dry snack, the hope was that it could surmount a market trend of consumers skipping breakfast or opting for healthier foods like yogurt. General Mills felt that giving consumers permission to dive into the box the other 23-odd hours of the day would help offset early-morning avoidance of cereals.

invading the snack market

While breakfast may have been a problematic market, it was still a lucrative one. At the time, the dry cereal industry was worth $8 billion annually, with more than 210 cereals on shelves vying for the attention of 97 out of 100 households who purchased boxes for their pantries. If a new product could capture just 1 percent of that market share, it would still be an $80 million success story and likely enough to vault General Mills and its 29.5 market share over Kellogg, which owned 37 percent.

To increase the chances of Fingos taking off, General Mills designed a package that was wider on top to accommodate hands reaching inside. They also sold Fingos in single-serving packs in vending machines, a snack space typically reserved for potato chips and the like. The box itself featured a wide and smiling face that was animated for commercials, with voice actor Steve Mackall channeling Robin Williams as the Genie in 1992’s Aladdin.

“How wholesome am I?” the Fingos “spokes-box” asked. “Read my hips,” it said, aggressively shoving its nutritional information out at the viewer.

While Fingos was a modest 110 calories and 3 grams of fat per 1-ounce serving, General Mills opted not to market it as a healthy snack, as the market was already glutted with them. Instead, they felt the snack-cereal hybrid approach made Fingos stand out. In focus group testing, it seemed to work, too. Just 1 percent of respondents decided to pair it with milk.

Got milk?

But focus testing is one thing. The real world is another. When Fingos rolled out nationally beginning in the spring of 1993, consumers didn’t know what to make of it. If it was a snack, shouldn’t it have been located in the snack aisle? If it was a cereal, why try to compare it to chips?

Perhaps the most problematic component of Fingos was that consumers didn’t need permission to eat cereal dry and directly out of the box. That urge existed for practically every kind of cereal. Downplaying the appeal of Fingos in milk didn’t make it any more attractive as a snack.

Fingos bombed, eating its $34 million marketing budget whole and leaving only crumbs for General Mills, which had more or less abandoned the product by 1994. Fortunately, they had something else in the pipeline: Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs, a hit that still sells to this day under the shortened name of Reese's Puffs.

Fingos, incidentally, had an unfortunate translation when uttered in Hungarian. Fing means fart, lending the snack the label of farto should it ever be sold in that country.

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