The California Raisins: How A Bunch of Dried Grapes Became A Hit Band

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When Seth Werner, a 31-year-old copywriter at the ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding, walked into the pitch meeting, he knew he had to put on a show. This client had been with his agency for over a decade, and though they'd had some fairly successful campaigns in the past, the client's main product was slipping in sales. Werner's big idea was going to be a risk, especially without the celebrity spokesperson the client had requested. And so, with a $7.5 million campaign on the line, Werner hit play and began dancing across the room to the old Motown hit "I Heard it Through the Grapevine."

First aired on September 14, 1986, Werner's idea for a 30-second television commercial introduced audiences to The California Raisins, a group of anthropomorphized raisins with expressive eyebrows, stylish shoes, and the slickest dance moves since the Chiquita Banana shimmied into advertising in the 1940s. People loved the singing, dancing Claymation raisins so much that more commercials followed, and—in a marketing scheme that was virtually unheard of at the time—The California Raisins went on to release four albums, score a Billboard Hot 100 hit, and earn an Emmy nomination (and appear in an Emmy-winning show). But how did a bunch of dried grapes, burdened with the reputation of being a mediocre, boring snack, become synonymous with swagger?

 

Commissioned by the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB), a trade group of raisin producers in California’s Central Valley, the commercial was part of a multi-million dollar campaign to combat slowing raisin sales. CALRAB teamed up with advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding to try to forge an emotional connection between consumers and the dried fruit. The problem, FCB's account supervisor said at the time, was that though customers understood the health benefits of raisins, they had emotional connections with various vice products, like cigarettes because of the long-running "Marlboro Man" ads, or beer based on the popular "Miller Time" ads.

Werner and his copywriting partner, Dexter Fedor, knew that they needed to make the dried fruit less of an afterthought—the raisins needed personality. They needed to be the life of the snack bar. "We decided that we wanted the raisins to be cool and a bit intimidating," Werner said. The answer? High-top sneakers, sunglasses, and endless swagger. Werner and Fedor also thought that the commercial should use clay animation, a type of stop-motion animation using characters or settings made out of clay or other similarly pliable materials, rather than regular cartoon animation. And though the process is time-consuming and expensive, Werner's performance managed to win them over. CALRAB gave the "Grapevine" pitch the green light.

With a budget in hand, the agency hired Will Vinton, the Oscar-winning animator who would later trademark the term "Claymation," to help create their vision of dancing raisins. Vinton and his team hired human dancers to make the Raisins's dance moves look realistic. Because animators arranged each shot by hand, giving each raisin its own distinct personality (including individualized facial expressions and colorful sunglasses), the commercial took more than a month to shoot.

As for the music, the commercial featured Buddy Miles, a Carlos Santana collaborator and drummer for Jimi Hendrix, singing "I Heard It Through The Grapevine"—picked because of the obvious connection between grapes and raisins, but also because the song had seen a resurgence after the Marvin Gaye version had been used for the opening scene of the 1983 hit movie The Big Chill.

Audiences quickly connected with the Raisins’ authentic R&B sound, and The California Raisins’ version of "Grapevine" even reached No. 84 on the Billboard Hot 100. Between 1987 and 1988, the fictional band released four albums, two of which went platinum. More than 2 million people bought their albums and listened to the Raisins covering songs including "Lean on Me" and "You Can’t Hurry Love." Sales of raisins themselves increased 20 percent after the first commercial.

 

Musicians such as Ray Charles and Michael Jackson even got in on the raisin action, singing their own versions of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" for later commercials. Jackson, who agreed to do his commercial for free (and on the condition that he only work with Vinton, who he knew from their Captain EO project with Disney), helped create his own Claymation raisin with his signature single white glove, fedora, and pelvic-thrusting dance moves.

Besides appearing in short commercials, The California Raisins shared their musical chops in television specials. In 1987, Vinton featured the Raisins singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in A Claymation Christmas Celebration, a Christmas TV special he produced that won an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. The following year, Vinton created another TV special called Meet The Raisins! The mockumentary-style show created a full backstory about the band’s rise to stardom and delved into the histories of each of the individual Raisins, who had names by this point—A.C., Beebop, Stretch, and Red. Needless to say, their band history borrowed heavily from the types of origin stories real bands tended to have. Then in 1989, a 13-episode Saturday Morning Cartoon show called The California Raisin Show aired.

 

But the Raisins’s influence went beyond just TV and music and began to invade all levels of pop culture. During the peak of their popularity in the late '80s, the California Raisins also had a fan club, merchandise that spanned from plush toys to lunch boxes to air fresheners, and a series of comic books. Post's Raisin Bran cereal took advantage of the increasingly popular dried fruit and teamed up with the Raisins to help promote their boxed cereal, and fast food chain Hardee’s bought a license to produce the incredibly popular collectible Raisins figurines.

Although Vinton made one last Claymation TV movie about the Raisins in 1990, the end of the '80s brought a decline in the Raisins’s popularity. It began to cost CALRAB too much to market the Raisins, and the public moved on. But thanks to the California Raisins, it’s now commonplace to see ads that include anthropomorphized food or candy. "The Raisins opened up a floodgate … everything had to be personified," Vinton told Food & Wine last year. While today’s commercials may depict M&Ms and cookies with unique personas, the California Raisins hold a special place as '80s pop culture icons.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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