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The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Spuds MacKenzie, The Original Party Animal

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There's a moment in Spuds MacKenzie's interview with Dick Clark when Clark shifts gears and, as if by obligation, brings up the recent bad press the bull terrier has been the subject of. "There are these vicious rumors," he begins, addressing not the tuxedo-wearing Spuds, but one of the beautiful spokesmodels—or "Spudettes"—who accompany him. "Is there any truth to the fact that he is female?" The Spudette, clearly trained for this type of question, asserts, "He's got three women around him, and I don't think we'd be following him..." Clark, thrusting his fist forward, interrupts, "He's a full-out macho guy?" A few men in the audience let out ferocious whoos! and yeahs! They are relieved to hear that their hero is, like them, a cool dude.

Spuds MacKenzie was, in fact, a female dog. Her real name was Honey Tree Evil Eye, and Jackie and Stanley Oles, the humans who owned her, called her "Evie." This was all revealed in a 1987 People Magazine article that set out to debunk rumors that the bull terrier had died in a limo accident, or while surfing, or in a plane crash. In a stunning breach of privacy, the article also published the Oles' home address. Soon after the People piece came out, Jackie Oles was sitting with Evie on the stoop of her suburban Chicago house when a reporter confronted her, unannounced. "I don't talk to reporters," she said before hurrying inside. Oles was wearing a Spuds MacKenzie sweatshirt at the time.

If, by chance, you don't know who Spuds MacKenzie is, it's probably because Budweiser retired him in 1989. Spuds sold beer and—this may be hard to believe—he was one of the most famous living things on the planet. Though he hasn't been seen in a while, he's about to make his way back into the spotlight. In honor of his 30th anniversary, Spuds will make an appearance during Super Bowl LI—albeit as a ghost (voiced by Carl Weathers) who is on a mission to teach a man about the spirit of Bud Light. 

(NOTE: I will be using male pronouns for Spuds the character and female pronouns for Honey Tree Evil Eye from this point forward.)

Honey Tree Evil Eye was bred to be a show dog, and the Oles joined Chicago's Fort Dearborn Bull Terrier Club and coached her for competition. Evie performed relatively well within her breed, but never placed at Silverwood, America's premier bull terrier event.

At a show in Chicago, Evie caught the attention of DDB Needham. The ad agency was scouting for a dog-centered campaign, and the splotch over Evie's left eye made her stand out. She was invited for a photo shoot, and soon posters of her as Spuds MacKenzie sitting behind a goblet of Bud Light while wearing a "Delta Omicron Gamma" fraternity sweatshirt began to pop up at college campuses. The premise—cool dog is cool—proved so popular that wholesalers demanded Anheuser-Busch put Spuds on television.

Evie's demeanor was unusually calm for her breed and she behaved more like a lap cat than a rough-and-tumble terrier. Her breeder told the Bull Terrier Club of Dallas that “she was very mellow and low key. The owners sometimes used a yo-yo in the ring to get her to spark up and show." She was known to lounge about and munch on Raisin Chex, which was hand-fed to her. Relaxed and undemanding, Evie was a perfect candidate for TV work.

Spuds' first prime-time TV appearance came during Super Bowl XXI in 1987.

The spot features a narrative arch that would become the go-to formula in the Spuds MacKenzie oeuvre: 1. Spuds shows up at a party. 2. Everyone is thrilled to see Spuds—especially the women.

Robin Leach provides the voiceover, which hammers home the fact that not only is Spuds a cool party dude, but he also is obscenely wealthy. This stolid, fat, rich dog surrounded by adoring models and sycophantic buddies begs to be seen as both a result of and response to the late 1980s—but then you might be missing the gag.

The reaction to the original 1987 ad was enthusiastic, and what followed was a full-on marketing assault and nationwide in-joke that acknowledged, dismissed, winked at, and embraced nearly every advertising cliche.

The key to the campaign's success, Bill Stolberg tells me, was the fact that they never acknowledged that Spuds was a dog—they would insist he was a man. Stolberg's name comes up a lot in old press clippings about Spuds' meteoric rise to fame. He worked for Fleishman Hillard, the PR firm Anheuser-Busch used for the campaign, and Stolberg traveled with Spuds and acted as his brand manager and voice. He recalls, "The first question we'd always get would be, 'What kind of dog is Spuds?' To which I replied, 'He's not a dog, he's an executive.'"

As Spuds grew in popularity, so did the beer. According to the New York Times, Spuds helped increase Bud Light's sales by 20 percent between 1987 and 1988. Serious business journalists began contacting Stolberg for insight on the campaign and its star dog, but he wouldn't break character. Stolberg would insist that Spuds was a human man—a Senior Party Consultant, to be specific—and that he was so cool he didn't have to speak verbally. "It would drive them crazy," he says.

The hallmark of late-'80s advertising was overt self-awareness. Audiences were wise to BS—or at least marketers decided audiences should be hip to it—so commercials and spokespeople were done as parody. It's why Coca-Cola used Max Headroom, a satirical version of a super-slick television host doomed to live inside a computer, and why Isuzu had Joe Isuzu, a pathological liar of a spokesman whose audacious claims would be corrected by on-screen text overlaid during his ads. The pervading idea was that you're in on the joke too, friend. We know you're smart—doesn't that feel good?

Spuds MacKenzie fits into this category, but the joke was twisted and pushed far beyond the restrictions of TV. When he went on tour, whether to appear on Good Morning America or to throw out the first pitch at a National League playoff game, his marketing team would go to extremes to perpetuate the Spuds MacKenzie mythos. "We'd put him in limos and rent him his own hotel rooms," says Stolberg. "He would be dressed in a tuxedo and walk through the airport with the Spudettes. People would see him, and that's how it would grow."

The death rumors were a sign that Spuds had truly made it. Stolberg recalls showing up at his office to find a stack of missed-call slips an inch thick, all from people who were trying to get in touch to see if the spokesdog really did die in that limo crash or via hot tub electrocution while soaking with the Spudettes.

The Spudettes were key to this success, and the troupe made up of models and aspiring actresses became a cultural phenomenon in their own right. In fact, Sir Mix-A-Lot says he wrote "Baby Got Back" as a response to "the Spuds MacKenzie girls, little skinny chicks looking like stop signs, with big hair and skinny bodies."

If Spuds was a gag on the cliched spokesman, then the Spudettes riffed on the idea that "sex sells." The benefit of presenting the latter as a joke is that it still does the job as well as its more sincere analog. Posters of Spuds and the Spudettes were the most popular pin-ups in the country, "easily outdistanc[ing] TV's 'Alf,' No. 2 in the poster market," reported the Los Angeles Times, which also called Spuds "the Nation's Most Unlikely Sex Symbol."

Pretending that a dog was a human man who loved—and was loved—by women seems like it would present some problems, and when I asked Stolberg if he was ever worried about this, he insisted that the idea was ridiculous. “You’d have to be pretty bizarre to think anything like that.” 

While everything about Spuds MacKenzie was a joke, the dichotomy of people who wanted to get it and those who didn't defined and caused much of Spuds' success. While Morning Zoo DJs and targeted consumers laughed at and championed the idea of an expressionless lump of a dog who drove women wild, reporters saw him as the origins of a market-driven phenomenon that, given the time period, must have been of great importance. It's why People magazine talked to both a Chicago account executive and a UC Berkeley "urban humor expert" in that scoop about the party dog's real gender that featured the Oles' full home address.

"It was kind of nuts," Stolberg says. "[The Oles] were totally unprepared for all that silliness, but they were good sports about it." Jackie Oles would travel with Spuds wherever he went, and one can only imagine what she thought as she sat in the green room and watched David Letterman interview her dog.

In "Spuds Is A Dud As A Party Guy—He's A Girl," the Chicago Tribune's follow-up to the People piece, Illinois State Senator Judy Baar Topinka said of the Oles, "The family has tried to be really low profile." Topinka had tried to pass a resolution in the Senate honoring her district as the home of Spuds MacKenzie. Anheuser-Busch protested the resolution and it was eventually pulled, but this wouldn't be the last time lawmakers discussed Spuds MacKenzie.

Less than a year after Spuds' national TV debut, Strom Thurmond stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate chamber and waved a stuffed Spuds MacKenzie doll. He accused Anheuser-Busch of using the mascot to sell alcohol to underage drinkers, saying, ''I am not confident in the voluntary efforts of the alcohol beverage industry to increase public awareness of the hazards of alcohol abuse with 12-year-olds drinking wine coolers and wearing Spuds MacKenzie T-shirts.'' He made his case while standing in front of huge posters featuring the "Ayatollah of Partyollah" himself, Spuds MacKenzie.

A month later, Ohio stores pulled all Bud Light cartons that featured images of Spuds MacKenzie dressed up as Santa due to a law that prohibited St. Nick from being used to sell alcohol. Across the country, schools were banning students from wearing popular Spuds MacKenzie gear.

In response to all this, Anheuser-Busch eventually switched its $50 million Spuds MacKenzie campaign from Bud Light to a responsible drinking initiative. This is why Super Bowl XXIII's 15-second spot features Spuds playing guitar with no beer in sight, along with the tagline: "Know When to Say When." One year prior, Super Bowl XXII featured an ad where MacKenzie wins an Olympic Gold Medal in hockey and shares an ice cold Bud Light with a gorgeous Russian woman.

Spuds' TV appearances became fewer and fewer as the decade neared its end. "A really good campaign doesn't last much longer than 18 months," Stolberg says, "The joke gets old." Spuds lives on through the over 200 officially licensed items of Spuds merchandise (as well as the knock-off party animal gear that was once sold on street corners and at beach resorts like Phendi handbags) that you can buy on eBay

"You'll still sometimes see those plastic Spuds MacKenzie signs in bars," Bill Stolberg says, marveling at how long it has been. He left Fleishman Hillard in 1995 to start his own consulting firm, which he still runs. I ask him what Spuds MacKenzie was really like, if he was always as calm as he seemed in the commercials. "Ah ah ah," he interrupts, "Mr. MacKenzie is not a dog."

Honey Tree Evil Eye died of kidney failure at the age of 10 in 1993—she had an average lifespan for a healthy English bull terrier. Her death was reported at the time with the headline "Spuds MacKenzie Really Dead This Time." Unlike the actors who played Max Headroom and Joe Isuzu, Evie didn't need to worry about what she would do with her career once the ad work dried up. It is understood that she spent her retirement lounging with her family and eating Raisin Chex.

This article originally ran in 2014.

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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entertainment
The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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