While it has been over thirty years since Speedy Alka-Seltzer® regularly sang and danced his way into our living rooms, he is still one of the best known and most successful product personifications of all time.
Speedy Alka-Seltzer Gets His Name
Speedy Alka-Seltzer was born in 1951 when A.G. "Jeff" Wade, II, head of Wade Advertising in Chicago, conceived the idea for a childlike spokesman for Alka-Seltzer. Wade had just met the creator of the famous yawning Fisk Tire boy ("Time to Re-Tire"), seen in many poster and newspaper ads of the time, on a hunting trip in Michigan. He was looking for a similar creation to advertise Alka-Seltzer on the new medium, television. Something fresh was needed to update the comic-strip characters by George French that had advertised the product in serial form on buses and subway cars since its introduction in the early 1930s.
Characteristically, Speedy Alka-Seltzer took shape rapidly. Artists were invited to submit concepts. Chuck Tennant, a former flying ace and publicist in the advertising department of Miles in Elkhart, remembered a bombardier pal from the war, now an artist working on a riverboat studio in St. Louis. Tennant called the friend, Robert Watkins, who happened to have some downtime. Watkins quickly sketched a baby-faced character with red hair and a tablet-faced hat. Originally named "Sparky," the sketch came back from Elkhart with an okay and a new name. Miles' sales manager, Perry L. Shupert, renamed the character Speedy after that year's promotional theme, "Speedy Relief."
Speedy Alka-Seltzer wasn't recognized right away as a winner: "I took a wood carving of Speedy to Elkhart [Indiana, then headquarters of Miles]. Everybody took a look, and then the arguments started. It was about 50-50 around the table. Walter Compton [president of Miles], was the one who finally tipped the scales," said Wade. Watkins' artwork was rushed into print in trade journals and women's journals in early 1952.
Speedy Alka-Seltzer Gets a Voice
As of December 1951, more than 400 voices in Hollywood, Chicago and New York had been considered. The ad executives were in a state of despair. Finally, at 7:30 p.m. on February 5, 1952, an unknown 24-year-old actor by the name of Dick Beals offered his rendition at Swift-Chaplin Studio in Hollywood. Acting on a tip from radio's popular "Green Hornet," the four-foot-six-inch high Beals had talked his way past the receptionist. He took one crack at the jingle. Forrest Owen of Wade's West Coast office immediately called headquarters and said, "I think I've found the voice."
Under an exclusive contract - the longest in Hollywood history - Beals supplied the vocal talent in 212 television commercials during an incredible decade lasting from 1954 to 1964. The first television commercial featuring Speedy Alka-Seltzer was taped on March 16, 1953 - Beals's 26th birthday. In his autobiography, Think Big (self-published, 1992), Beals writes of the experience, "It was the best birthday present anyone could have given me. It marked the beginning of a new era in my life. Suddenly I was a pioneer in a new industry that was blossoming right in front of me."
He was the only voice ever used for Speedy. Speedy went bowling, talked on the phone, sang and danced, told Aesop's fables...and in 1961 even blasted off in a rocket to the moon. He co-starred with Buster Keaton, Martha Tilton, the Flintstones and other famous personalities. Appearing in less than half of Alka-Seltzer's commercials, he still carried the largest investment of any single advertising campaign - more than $8.5 million a year.
Perhaps the most famous jingle sung by Speedy was the following:
Down, down, down the stomach through,
Round, round, round the system too,
With Alka-Seltzer you're sure to say,
Relief is just a swallow away.
Speedy Alka-Seltzer Comes to Life
Part of the reason Speedy Alka-Seltzer fascinated early TV audiences was the technique of stop-motion animation used to bring the puppet to life. To create the Speedy spots, nineteen plaster heads with various lip positions for vowels and consonants, two sets of legs and flexible arms were required. A single 60-second spot sometimes required as many as 1,440 adjustments. Supervising animation was Miles Pike of Swift-Chaplin, a stop-motion expert who had worked for filmmaker George Pal, a pioneer of special effects. Howard Swift and Charles Chaplin added a secret "pin registration principle" to techniques that had been developed by Pal and Walt Disney. Booth Luck of Wade Advertising supervised writing and production.
The original six-inch-high Speedy Alka-Seltzer working model was sculpted by Duke Russell. It soon became so famous that it was insured for $100,000 and kept in the vault of a Beverly Hills bank. Jack Shafton's puppets of Hollywood had carved the five-inch-high prototype.
In addition to television, the Speedy Alka-Seltzer character was used in point-of-purchase displays, most notably a mannequin that played jingles for shoppers in the late 1950s, in window displays, magazine ads and on packaging. A plastic Speedy Alka-Seltzer doll appeared in a limited edition in 1955. In the early 60s, when twin packs in foil were introduced, he had a twin sister. There was also a Speedy Alka-Seltzer character, called Prontito, that was used in Latin American countries.
When the Alka-Seltzer account was switched from Chicago to New York in 1964, Alka-Seltzer's advertising took a new direction. The result was the successful Stomachs campaign, followed by many humorous, soft-sell classics. While Speedy was no longer used as a regular part of Alka-Seltzer's advertising, he still made appearances for special occasions like the 1976 US Bicentennial and the 1980 Olympics. For the 1980 Olympics he rode in a car and a plane, and even participated in winter sports with entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.
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