Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story

Mill Creek Entertainment
Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

A Hazardous History of the Slip 'N Slide

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

One day in the summer of 1960, Robert Carrier arrived at his home in Lakewood, California, and saw his 10-year-old son Mike laying in front of the garage. When he got closer, he noticed his son was laughing. The property had a painted concrete driveway, and when it got wet, its surface became slick. Mike and his friends had spent the afternoon turning on the garden hose, getting a running start from the garage—which was carpeted—and then belly-flopping onto the concrete, sliding all the way to the curb.

“You guys are going to kill yourselves doing this,” Carrier said. Yet he didn’t tell them to stop.

When the Carriers moved to a new home—which had a back patio painted with the same slick coating—Mike and his friends brought their garden hose antics with them. The fun and games continued until Mike ended up crashing through a gate and breaking it.

It was at this point that Robert Carrier decided that if his son was going to insist on sliding, he might as well try to make it as safe as possible.

Carrier was an upholsterer who happened to work for a company that produced boat seats and had access to a variety of materials. So he brought home a 50-foot roll of Naugahyde, a fabric coated in vinyl, which he unspooled on his property. Carrier curled the material over on one side and stitched it in intervals. When the hose was fed through the curl, water seeped through the holes and kept the surface wet.

The result was a backyard lane devoted to slipping and sliding. When Carrier saw neighborhood kids racing over and traffic on his street getting backed up, he decided to patent his invention. The application referred to it as a “portable aquatic play device for body planing.” He called it the Slip ‘N Slide—though he probably should have named it the Slip ‘N Sue.

 

Carrier and his business partner, Richard Eriser, took his idea to the Wham-O company, a brand devoted to celebrating off-kilter toys like the Hula Hoop and Frisbee. Wham-O was also inventor-friendly and open to outside submissions. They agreed to manufacture and market the Slip ‘N Slide with one adjustment: The expensive Naugahyde material would have to be replaced with plastic.

A child goes down a water slide
Nat_Batemen/iStock via Getty Images

The 30-foot-long, 40-inch-wide Slip ‘N Slide went on sale in 1961 and was an immediate hit, selling 300,000 units priced at $9.95 in a matter of months. Kids were instructed to unwind the material across an area free of rocks or debris and then stake it into the ground. The surface had a lubricant molded directly into the plastic that acted as a propellant, so that kids sprinting to the top of the slide would take off like human projectiles. Some kids even added dish soap to the water provided by their garden hose for additional propulsion.

The same year the Slip ‘N Slide was introduced, Wham-O officials observed an interesting phenomenon: The more fun kids had, the more compelled adults felt to try it. Initially, this wasn’t seen as a big deal; plenty of parents play with their kids' toys. But the Slip ‘N Slide had been engineered for children of limited height and weight, typically under 125 pounds. When adults jumped on the surface, they were not always jettisoned across. Sometimes their weight meant they would abruptly stop, the forward momentum driving the weight of their body directly onto their necks. This could be devastating for the spinal cord and it was possible to suffer quadriplegia, paraplegia, or even death as a result of the impact.

Between 1973 and 1991, it's estimated that a total of seven adults and one 13-year-old suffered neck injuries or paralysis as a direct result of using the Slip ‘N Slide. Though these instances were rare, Wham-O was apparently concerned to the point they opted to take it off the market in the late 1970s. It wasn’t brought back to store shelves until Wham-O was purchased by the Kransco company in 1982.

 

The Slip ‘N Slide had always carried warnings that it was for use by children 10 or 11 years of age and younger. But it was not a superficially dangerous-looking plaything, and adults either failed to take the warning seriously or simply discarded the box and instructions without paying any attention to them. As a possible result, Kransco experienced two major lawsuits that would elevate the Slip ‘N Slide to the level of a public nuisance.

A child goes down a water slide
hixson/iStock via Getty Images

In 1987, Michael Hubert of Wisconsin used his neighbor’s Slip ‘N Slide and suffered a broken neck. The 34-year-old was left an incomplete paraplegic, meaning he had a limited ability to walk and use his hands. He sued Kransco over the injury. American Empire Surplus Lines Insurance Company, which insured Kransco, offered Hubert a $250,000 settlement, which he rejected. The case went to a jury trial in 1991 and Hubert was awarded $12.3 million. The jury declared the Slip ‘N Slide defective and unreasonably dangerous.

Kransco ultimately settled with Hubert for $7.5 million. They subsequently sued American Empire, claiming the insurance company could have settled for $750,000 but chose not to, leaving Kransco on the hook for paying the settlement above the $1 million they had in coverage. Kransco won that case and was awarded $17 million.

In 1988, a University of Central Florida student named Robert Goldstein broke his neck on the slide. He also sued and was awarded $1.6 million in 1995. John C. Mitchell II, the lawyer who represented Goldstein, later said he believed the lawsuits influenced Kransco to take the Slip ‘N Slide off the market in 1991. But that was far from the end of the controversy.

In 1993, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a recall notice in conjunction with Kransco to alert consumers to the dangers of the slide. Though it had been discontinued, 9 million had been sold between 1961 and 1992 and an unknown number were still available in stores. (A total of 30 million slides were sold through 2011.) The CPSC warned the slide was for children and that adults and teenagers might suffer permanent spinal cord injury. Unlike some product recalls, however, the CPSC did not take action to take it off the market entirely. The reason, according to a spokesperson, was that it was a product for children, and children were not getting hurt on it—only adults were.

In 1994, attorney Matthew Rinaldi told The Seattle Times that accurate injury numbers were hard to come by because previous settlements may have included agreements not to discuss the case. Rinaldi represented a man in California who became a quadriplegic as a result of the slide. In preparation for that case, he found two people who broke their necks in the 1970s, one of whom had died. He also found six adults who suffered broken necks in the 1980s and 1990s as well as one 8-year-old girl who suffered brain damage. In 1989, a consumer advocacy group known as the Consumer Affairs Committee of Americans for Democratic Action reported that 5000 people had gone to the hospital for slide-related injuries in 1988 alone.

 

In 1994, while the Slip 'N Slide was still dormant, Kransco sold Wham-O to Mattel. The company was sold again in 1997, this time to an investment group led by Charterhouse Group. In 2001, Wham-O brought out a revamped version of the Slip ‘N Slide with a longer path, water tunnels, and archways. The company said it was “perfectly safe” for anyone under the age of 11 to use.

A man stands up on a water slide
scampdesigns/iStock via Getty Images

Since that time, Wham-O has been sold twice more—first to Cornerstone Overseas Investments in 2005 and then to InterSport and Stallion Sport in 2015. The Slip ‘N Slide remains on sale with the standard cautions that it should only be used by kids, though that hasn’t prevented adults from trying it out. This time, they tend to post the results on YouTube.

"Officially, the box says under 12," Wham-O president Todd Richards told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. "Not everyone abides by that."

While the history of the Slip 'N Slide appears sensational, it's not unique in the realm of playthings that can prompt injury. Between 2002 and 2011, roughly 1 million people—most of them kids under the age of 16—wound up in the emergency room as a result of bouncing on a trampoline. A third of them suffered long bone fractures.

When used as directed, Slip 'N Slides can be a fun and safe diversion, though that still hasn't stopped the product from being stigmatized. In late 2018, another consumer watchdog group, World Against Toys Causing Harm, released their list of the most dangerous toys on the market. Among them: water balloon slingshots, backyard pools, and the Slip ‘N Slide.

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