TThe Jolly Green Giant, Mr Clean and the Frito Bandito lost one of their most enthusiastic supporters last month with the death of Ellen Havre Weis, founder of a California museum and author who recognized the mythology of advertising figures. Americans.
Weis co-founded and directed the Museum of Modern Mythology, a once-renowned San Francisco tourist destination where a vinyl Michelin man stood alongside a life-size statue of Colonel Sanders and a plastic Mr. Peanut monocle figurine among thousands of ‘other advertising characters.
The museum was open to the public for an entrance fee of $ 2 from 1982 until it was forced to close by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
Weis, who also co-founded a PR firm and worked as an advertising executive, never gave up on his quest to find a new home for the original collection. Just before her death from brain cancer on July 27 at the age of 64, she and her family reached an agreement on a new location for the figures for the museum, which will move to Van Nuys, California.
“We try to take these advertising characters out of their normal sales context and think of them as anthropology,” Weis told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “Most of American society has been exposed to these images. Granted, the Jolly Green Giant is more recognizable than Zeus – or your State Senator. “
The idea for the museum was born in Weis when she lived in a warehouse filled with realistic replicas of advertising mascots. Fresh out of writing school at the University of Iowa, Weis and her then-boyfriend, Matthew Cohen, had moved to San Francisco to live the “bohemian, hippie” life, according to Gordon Whiting, Weis’ husband of 25 years. They crashed into a live workspace, owned by friends, including Jeff Errick, who collected advertising memorabilia.
“Ellen felt that all of these characters were related; they seemed to know each other and belong together, ”said Whiting, who added that Weis studied mythology to learn how to use its archetypes in his writing. “It sparked his imagination that the reason things work like advertisements is because they are mythological archetypes.”
Weis, Cohen, and Errick formed the museum in a corner of the warehouse. Within a few years, he had moved to his own small space in downtown San Francisco and was widely acclaimed in publications ranging from People magazine and the New York Times to German newspaper Der Spiegel.
Weis loaded figures, such as the Head of Doggie Diner, a giant fiberglass depiction of a smiling dachshund that once graced the sign of an American restaurant chain, into a trailer and took them down the road to various shows, including a long exhibit near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
Film critic Leonard Maltin featured the collection in his television appearances on Entertainment Tonight and became a member of the museum’s board.
“While Mr. Peanut and Speedy Alka-Seltzer were invented by someone on Madison Avenue, they, like the Frankenstein monster, had a life of their own,” Maltin told The Guardian. “Ellen took them out of their normal environment, which was a television screen, and displayed them as works of art and developed a thesis that gave them unity.”
The last year of the museum, 1989, was difficult. First someone stole the head of the Doggie Diner, in an outdoor parking lot in San Francisco. The thing was so large, over 9 feet tall, that Whiting says he doesn’t know how someone could have moved it over the 10-foot fence.
Next, the museum was notified by its owner that it had to vacate the space it was renting on the 9th floor of a rickety 1906 building on Mission Street.
The final blow came at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, when the 6.9 magnitude earthquake in Loma Prieta tipped over the historic building while Weis was there to move boxes of figurines.
Museums building was condemned, the founders had two hours a few days later to empty their belongings. Weis assembled an army of volunteers, who hoisted the Jolly Green Giant, the Dutch Boy cardboard cutout of fame in paint advertising, and hundreds of boxes containing everyone from cigarette mascot Joe Camel to the characters. Rice Krispies, Snap, Crackle and Pop. .
For the following decades, the figures waited in a warehouse while Weis searched for a new home for the museum. In the meantime, Weis founded the WeisPR company with her husband, Whiting, raised her son Benjamin, and eventually became the advertising director of Bay Nature Magazine. Along the way, the longtime East Bay resident co-wrote the book Berkeley: the life and spirit of a remarkable city and wrote fiction as a member of the Squaw Valley Writers’ Community.
At various times, she was in the process of obtaining permission to move the collection to the Smithsonian and Henry Ford Museum. But it wasn’t until she was diagnosed with brain cancer in January that the way forward for the museum’s collection became clear. Ten days before her death at her home in Altadena, Calif., Her family received confirmation that the collection will soon be on display at the Valley Relics Museum in Van Nuys, Los Angeles.
“It’s going to roll again,” said Whiting, who worked with Benjamin, now 20, to finalize plans for the collection while caring for Weis, as his illness progressed this spring. “She was good enough to know it and she was happy.”
Maltin said he was thrilled to know that Weis’ dream of bringing characters like Tony the Tiger, Mr. Bubbles and their friends together in front of the audience will soon come true.
“I’m a 20th century pop culture kid, so I grew up with a lot of these characters,” he said. “But Ellen was the first person I ever met who – for lack of a better word – took them seriously.”