Friday, May 10, 2013

"Bucky," the Beer Dwarf: Life Imitating Art

The Buckeye Brewing Company of Toledo, Ohio, could trace its origins to 1838, two years after the city was founded and 12 years before the Civil War.  Forced to making “near beer” and soft drinks during Prohibition, Buckeye Brewing quickly resumed making real beer and merchandised it using a dwarf-like cartoon figure the company called “Bucky.”  Then it found a real human being that was Bucky “in the flesh.”  The rest of the story is an excellent example of life imitating art.

Fifty years after its origins,  two Toledo businessmen had bought the struggling brewery in 1878, expanded its capacity and sold a brand they called “Buckeye Beer.”  Their early symbols were the nut of the buckeye tree,  whereby Ohio is known as “The Buckeye State.”  Other early Buckeye advertising featured the head of a large antlered deer, presumably referring to a “buck’s eye.”  As noted above, Prohibition ended all such merchandising.

Not  long after Repeal in 1934,  Buckeye resumed its beer business. The company quickly regained its market share and more as other local breweries gradually ceased operating.    As brewery executives surveyed earlier advertising,  the stag and buckeye nut probably seemed old-fashioned.  The company commissioned a cartoonist to come up with a new and more contemporary image.  The artist gave them the figure of a waiter, a man with a large head and small body.  He was, in other words, a dwarf.  They called him “Bucky.”

While today it is highly doubtful any merchandiser would imitate such a choice, the mores then were different.  During the same period Walt Disney gave us “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” an immensely popular cartoon movie.  Real dwarfs greeted Dorothy and her companions as they headed down the Yellow Brick Road in Hollywood’s “Wizard of Oz.”  Moreover, I recently saw an early Tarzan movie in which the hero’s love, Jane, absurdly is captured by a “savage” African tribe of skin-blackened dwarfs.  In other words, the image was not socially incorrect for the times.   In fact, no small part of the success of Buckeye Beer was Bucky, the little man with a smile, a wink, and an energetic step.

In Toledo,  where I grew up,  Bucky was everywhere.  He was the principal figure on all the brewery ads, with a towel on one arm and carrying a tray with a pilsner glass and a bottle of Buckeye Beer, with -- who else? -- Bucky on the label.  The cartoon dwarf was on the brewery giveaways to saloons and other favored customers.  Items included beer glasses, bottle openers and match folders.  As you ventured went down a Toledo street there was Bucky on the side of  brewery trucks,  flagged over license plates and displayed on billboards.  Signs were evident not just in the city but spread across the cornfields of Northern Ohio and beyond.   For the real Bucky fan,  as shown here, the company provided an enameled pin for the buttonhole.

Several years after adopting the cartoon figure, a  brewery executive walked into a Toledo saloon called the “Green Lite Inn,”  a popular watering hole and restaurant on Toledo’s Near West Side. Tending the bar was Bucky in the flesh.  His name was Carl Walinski, a man just 4 feet, 2 inches tall.  The Buckeye executive rushed back to the brewery to tell his bosses.  After some discussion, in 1936 they signed the 25-year-old Walinski to a contract.  Their cartoon had come to life.

Carl was born in 1910 in Toledo, the son of Adam and Victoria Walinski, the second of six children.  According to census records, his father was a carpenter and later a repairman for the City of Toledo.  Both parents had been born in Ohio;  their own parents had been immigrants from Poland.  The family lived not far from the Green Lite Inn and close to Swayne Field, home of the Triple A Mud Hens baseball team.

Beside looking like the figure in the beer ad, Walinski brought an additional talent.  He was a roller skating whiz.  Hired by the Buckeye Brewery, he was employed for promotional events and would often roller skate through town and into bars holding aloft a tray of Buckeye Beer.  Kids would line up along his route and expect his tray to flip.  It never did. Walinski’s secret was that his glove was glued to the tray.  The tray in turn was glued to the bottle and glass so that nothing ever tumbled.  Walinski once told an acquaintance about his strategy.  He would roller skate in the front door of a bar, greet customers and roll out the back door. He recounted that the operation got difficult by the end of his shift because everywhere he went the patrons would buy him a beer. After a succession of bars, it became difficult for Bucky to stay on his feet and finish his route.

The brewery declared that Walinski had skated some 30,000 miles during his stint as mascot from 1936 to 1942.  The dwarf was even given a wife, a 3 foot, 6 inch woman, called “Bonny.”  Although they were not  really married, the pair often appeared together for public appearances in the region driving a beer truck reduced to scale.  A promotional brewery card showed them standing together before their miniaturized vehicle.  In order to promote Buckeye’s bock beer which, as many breweries did, advertised with the picture of a goat,  Bucky also acquired a mini-chariot pulled by a ram.  Without  much imagination the company named the goat “Billy.”  Brewery promotions claimed that Billy had pulled Bucky at least 10,000 miles during their partnership.

The math is interesting.  By adding the alleged 30,000 miles of roller skating to the 10,000 miles of being pulled by the goat,  Walinski presumably covered 40,000 miles during the eight years he worked for Buckeye Beer.  Even if  Bucky were in action every day of the year and every year of the eight,  a highly unlikely scenario, he would have had to cover almost 14 miles a day. Advertising men exaggerate. Interestingly, that was the occupation  Walinski claimed for himself to the census taker in 1940.

As a child of about seven, I once saw Walinski/Bucky in a famous Toledo eatery called Bud and Luke’s, a restaurant that still exists. He was on roller skates and looked just like the man in the cartoon.  My father, who knew him slightly, urged me to shake his hand but I was too shy to approach him. In 1942 Walinski, basking in local stardom and apparently unhappy when he was refused a  salary increase from the brewery, quit the job.  Having tasted the recognition that goes with show biz, shortly after he joined the Toledo Mud Hens baseball team as a bat boy and mascot.  Often an attraction in local parades, he remained highly popular and a local celebrity for years.   Walinski died in Toledo in  2002 at the age of 91.

Despite the resignation of their living Bucky, the brewery continued to use the cartoon figure for a number of years.  The 1950s brought a return of the antlered buck’s head to the Buckeye label and for a time sales continued strong.  The movement toward national brands, however, eventually caused Buckeye’s management to sell the brewery to Peter Hand Brewing Co. of Chicago.  In 1972 all production terminated at the 127-year old brewing facility.  Two years later six of the buildings were demolished.

Although the brewery is no more,  the story of the the cartoon dwarf that became reality is firmly implanted in Toledo and breweriana lore.  Life imitated art in a fashion that is unlikely ever to be repeated in merchandising beer -- or any other product for that matter.

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