THE LIFE & TIMES OF AN AMERICAN ICON
NANCY FOSTER Hastings Tribune (used by permission)
August 11, 2005
At 30, he’s accomplished more than many will in a lifetime. He has swam with sharks, fed dinosaurs, surfed, snowboarded, skateboarded, Jet Skied and played lead guitar in a band. He’s starred in commercials and traveled the nation. He’s even been the star of his own comic book series and computer game. Yes, at 30, Kool-Aid Man has led a life of adventure and excitement. “For 30, the old guy looks pretty good,” said Sue Uerling, marketing and communications director for Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History, 1330 N. Burlington Ave. Scores of adults have grown up with the Kool-Aid Man, the iconic smiling pitcher who’s always ready to quench children’s thirst. He has been around for birthday parties, family dinners and summertime money-making stands.
This year, it’s his turn to celebrate, as he reaches 30 years old.
Kool-Aid Man officially was created in 1975, the same year disposable razors were introduced and catalytic converters were placed on cars. But, his smiling face and pitcher physique have been around far longer. Pitcher man, as he was called before 1975, was created in 1954 by Marvin Potts, an art director for a New York-based advertising agency. General Foods had just purchased Kool-Aid from the drink’s creator Edwin Perkins the year before, and Potts was charged with drafting a concept to illustrate the copy message: “A 5-cent package makes two quarts.”Working from his Chicago home on a cold day, Potts watched as his young son traced smileyface patterns on a frosty windowpane, Uerling said. And from there, he drew inspiration for Pitcher man, a beaming glass pitcher filled with the flavorful drink.
From then on, the jolly pitcher was featured in all of Kool-Aid’s advertising. It was the only design of several Potts created that stuck. The new logo acted as a single identifier across all advertisements for Kool-Aid, said Randal Kottwitz, executive director of Kool-Aid Days in Hastings.
In the 1970s, Kraft Foods acquired General Foods and became the new owners of Kool-Aid. And in 1975, Kraft Foods created the first costume of the icon. Pitcher man was given legs and arms — and thus Kool-Aid Man was born. “I suppose that was a natural transition,” Uerling said. With legs and arms, Kool-Aid Man could greet people and be in photoshoots. He also became more of an action figure in commercials — performing extreme sports and busting through brick walls. A man of few words, Kool-Aid Man is famously known for shouting, “Oh, Yeah!” as he’s summoned by thirsty children. “Bigger than life,” Uerling said, describing the birthday man. “He’s a jolly, happy, big fellow who just makes everyone smile.”
He’s maintained his popularity since his inception. Children continually rank him as one of the most-loved brand mascots, according to Kraft Foods. He even was honored with a footprint ceremony at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. “People just naturally — even adults — get excited when they see the Kool- Aid Man,” Uerling said. She’s not surprised he’s remained so popular, she said. “I think it just goes to show that sometimes the more simple they are,” she said of brand mascots, “the easier they are to relate to.”
Hastings Museum, which opened the first permanent Kool-Aid exhibit in 2002, has Kool-Aid Man’s original costume on display. Made of fiberglass, the costume featured a more prominent face, skinnier body and no clothing. Now, he’s made of inflatable nylon and is dressed in a shirt, jeans and shoes. Area children touring the Kool-Aid exhibit, “Kool-Aid: Discover the Dream,” Wednesday eagerly pressed a button on the costume’s display case that played a soundbite of Kool-Aid man saying, “Oh, Yeah!” “I think Kool-Aid Man is pretty nice, because he made Kool-Aid and stuff,” 9-year-old Britany Smith said. “And without him, we wouldn’t have Kool-Aid, and I like Kool-Aid a lot.” The Twists, she added, are her favorite flavors. Even among the elderly, Kool-Aid Man remains a hit. He made a surprise appearance Wednesday at Good Samaritan Village Perkins Pavilion, 926 E. E St. Residents clapped in excitement as he emerged from the hallway, with one resident exclaiming, “How cool!” They even burst into a round of “Happy Birthday.”
At 93 years old, Vincent Starr has been alive longer than the drink itself. He remembers its inception in 1927 and the birth of Kool-Aid Man. His neighbor growing up even worked at the first Kool-Aid factory on First Street, he said. Residents ate cookies and drank Kool-Aid in honor of Kool-Aid Man’s big year. For some, it had been years since they’d drank the fruity beverage. “This is the first I’ve had in a long while,” Starr said after taking a sip of grape Kool-Aid. And it’s taste? “Oooh, good,” he said. It’s still a good drink, he said, and grape remains his favorite. As for Kool-Aid Man celebrating a birthday this year, he laughed and smiled.
“He’s got a long ways to go to catch up with me,” he said.