CLOSE
Original image

20 Magical Facts About My Little Pony

Original image

My Little Pony—one of Hasbro's most recognizable and beloved toy lines—has been flying off shelves since it debuted in 1983. Here are a few things you might not have known about the toys, the TV shows they starred in, the Bronies they inspired, and their upcoming movie.

1. A REAL-LIFE PONY INSPIRED CREATOR BONNIE ZACHERLE.

As a child, Bonnie Zacherle and her family lived in Japan, where her father—an Army Colonel and a veterinarian—cared for all the quarantined animals entering and leaving the country. Zacherle particularly loved a chubby little Korean pack pony named Knicker. Sadly, when they left Japan, they couldn’t take Knicker with them. As Zachlere recounted about herself at My Little Pony Fair 2008, “Bonnie's father promised her some day, she would have a horse, or a pony, of her very own. By the time he retired from the Army, however, Bonnie was in high school. Her father said, ‘you can have a horse, but you'll have to get up early every morning and come home right after school to take care of the horse. Also, you won't be able to take vacations or go away to college.’ Or, have friends, in other words.”

Zacherle never got her horse, but Knicker would stick with her. “They were chubby because, I think because my pony was a little chubby,” she said, “and I think a lot of ponies get that way because they’re short in stature—they’re not long-legged thoroughbreds, you know.”

2. ZACHERLE PITCHED A HORSE TOY TO HASBRO FOR YEARS WITHOUT SUCCESS …

After getting her degree in illustration from Syracuse University, Zacherle worked at a greeting card company and soon found herself doing freelance design work for Hasbro in the evening. When the card company was sold in the late '70s, she left to join Hasbro full time. She pitched a horse toy—which she imagined would be cuddly, with a combable tail and mane—for three years, but was turned down every time. “My boss, and probably several others, shot it down, saying, ‘Bonnie, little girls aren’t like you. They like to cook and clean and iron,’” Zacherle said, “and I’m like, ‘You must be kidding me.’”

3. … UNTIL EVENTUALLY, A HIGHER-UP ASKED FOR A PONY TOY.

In 2014, Zacherle recalled that, a year after she had given up on her toy horse design, a friend of hers at Hasbro told her, “You know, Bonnie, our boss has this idea and it’s really the same as yours only it’s not a horse, it’s a pony. And he wants to make it big and have all these extra mechanical things in it.” Zacherle was asked to sketch a design for the pony.

4. MY PRETTY PONY DEBUTED IN 1981.

The more than 10-inch-tall toy was made of hard plastic and had a lever under the chin that made the toy’s ears wiggle, its eye wink, and its tail swish. My Pretty Pony was relatively successful, selling a couple million units.

5. A MARKETING EXECUTIVE’S WIFE SUGGESTED TWEAKS THAT LED TO MY LITTLE PONY.

After My Pretty Pony’s moderate success, Hasbro’s Vice President of Marketing brought one of the toys home to his wife and asked her to evaluate it—and she had some feedback. “She said, ‘Well, it’s good, I guess, but I think it should be small and soft, have combable hair, and [be] played with like a doll,’” Zacherle recalled. “So, consequently he took his wife’s advice—smartly—and came back to me and said, ‘Listen, I want you to make exactly the same toy, only shrink it down and make it soft and, you know, combable hair, and don’t change a thing about it.’ I didn’t even redraw it, I think I just shrunk the original drawings. ... So that’s how it got to be that small.” The new ponies were 5 to 6 inches tall and made of much more snuggly vinyl.

Hasbro filed a patent for My Little Pony in August 1981; it was granted two years later. There are three inventors listed: Zacherle, Charles Muenchinger, and Steven D. D’Aguanno. Muenchinger, a sculptor at Hasbro, turned Zacherle’s drawings into a physical form that could be reproduced; D’Aguanno was the General Manager of Research and Development at Hasbro at the time.

6. MY LITTLE PONY WAS INITIALLY SUPPOSED TO BE A GENDER-NEUTRAL TOY FOR PRESCHOOLERS.

The bright ponies we know and love were not what Zacherle initially had in mind. She envisioned toys that looked like real animals—“appaloosa, dappled grey, palomino, pintos”—and would be played with by preschool girls and boys. She created ponies that “were all exactly the same as the original My Pretty Pony, which was a palomino, and just shrunk down,” she said in 2015. “The colors came about when my friend, who was Marketing Director … said ‘Bonnie, what do you think of pink and purple?’ And I said, ‘Get out of my office!’ She said, ‘Little girls like pink and purple.’ I said, ‘I don’t care!’ […] I was a preschool toy designer and in preschool really it wasn’t girls or boys […] She said, ‘Well, why not wait to test it.’” Zacherle said OK, and, after testing, the company went with the bright colors.

7. THERE WERE SIX ORIGINAL PONIES.

A G1 Buttercup in the Flatfoot pose. Image courtesy of eBay.

Snuzzle, Butterscotch, Blue Belle, Minty, Blossom, and Cotton Candy were produced in 1982. They were made in what’s now known as the “Flatfoot Pose”—so named because they were the only My Little Ponies to have flat rather than concave feet—with heads facing forward and down. The pose wasn’t used again after that first year.

8. THE TOY ALMOST DIDN’T GET RELEASED.

When My Little Pony made its Toy Fair debut, it didn’t exactly make a splash. “The sales floor said, ‘Pony didn't do enough.’ They couldn't sell it!” Zacherle recalled in 2008. “The director of marketing, whose wife was the one who said that she needed to be small, stuck to his guns and his wife's intuition and did not drop pony from the line—and it was this close.” But when My Little Pony was rolled out to the public, it was “an instant success,” Zacherle said. “She galloped off the shelves, striking a chord with girls throughout the U.S. and abroad.”

9. THERE WERE SEVERAL LINES OF PONIES, WHICH COLLECTORS CALL “GENERATIONS.”

Generation 1—which included several different poses—ran from 1983 to 1992, and while they started with just six characters, Hasbro was constantly expanding the characters and types of ponies available: Soon, there were unicorns and sea ponies, pegasus ponies and flutter ponies, sparkle ponies and glow 'n show ponies (which glowed in the dark), so soft ponies (which were fuzzy) and scented ponies, secret surprise ponies, which had a secret compartment containing a surprise, and Drink ‘n Wet baby ponies, which came with diapers that revealed patterns when the toys wet themselves.

Hasbro’s imprint Kenner, which they had purchased in 1991, produced the G2 ponies, which ran from 1997 to 2003. These ponies—which are skinnier than their predecessors—are not popular with collectors. The ponies released as part of G3 (2003-2009) more closely resembled the G1 ponies. In 2009, the dramatically-redesigned G3.5 ponies debuted; the line was available until 2010. The current generation, G4, was released in 2010 and includes ponies from the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic animated series.

Hasbro has released 600 ponies in the United States.

10. RARE PONIES CAN GO FOR A LOT OF MONEY.

According to Collectors Weekly, Hasbro didn’t just release My Little Ponies in stores; they also sent out mail-order ponies. (One, a Rapunzel Pony, went for as much as $800 four years ago.) The company also released its molds to companies all over the world. Summer Hayes, author of several collectors guides, told Collectors Weekly that in 2012, “collectors discovered a whole separate line of Ponies that were produced in Venezuela that we never knew about. Someone found a stash of mint-in-box '80s Venezuelan Ponies, and of course, they went on eBay and sold them to collectors. We don’t know everything. I’m sure we’ll get to a point where there’s no new information, but it seems like every couple of years we find a new country or a new variation.” A Greek version of a G1 pony in a rare pose is currently available on eBay for $750.

11. THE FIRST MY LITTLE PONY TV SPECIAL DEBUTED IN 1984—AND IT WAS CO-PRODUCED BY MARVEL.

Founded in 1978 with Hasbro as its main client, the ad agency Griffin Bacal didn’t just make commercials—it also created an animation studio called Sunbow Productions to produce TV specials, full-length movies, and TV shows based on Hasbro toy lines. Sunbow partnered with the animation arm of Marvel to create cartoons for G.I. Joe, Transformers, and, yes, My Little Pony. The first special, called My Little Pony when it was first released in April 1984, was later rebranded Rescue at Midnight Castle. The second special, Escape from Catrina, aired in March 1985. The success of the specials led to a greenlight for the very first My Little Pony movie.

12. MY LITTLE PONY: THE MOVIE WAS MARVEL’S FIRST DOMESTIC THEATRICAL FILM.

My Little Pony: The Movie, which featured the voice talents of Cloris Leachman, Rhea Perlman, Danny DeVito, Tony Randall, and Madeline Kahn, was released in June 1986. It debuted more than a month before Willard Huyck’s Howard the Duck, making My Little Pony Marvel Studio’s first domestic theatrical film.

But its debut was not exactly auspicious: Critics panned the film—the Los Angeles Times said watching the movie was like “being immersed in cotton candy for an hour and a half: The sticky-sweet cuteness is piled on so thickly that adults leave the theater checking their teeth for new cavities. … [T]he real theme song of 'My Little Pony' is the ring of the cash register, as Hasbro attempts to turn unwitting young viewers into customers. The sugary cuteness of the Little Ponies masks a corporate greed as cold and sharp as a razor blade”—and it grossed just $5,958,456 at the box office domestically.

13. MY LITTLE PONY 'N FRIENDS, THE TOY LINE’S FIRST TV SERIES, DEBUTED IN 1986.

The show, which premiered in September 1986, ran for two seasons. Each half-hour episode featured one segment of Pony tales and one segment of “Friends”—i.e., other Hasbro toys. The Glo Friends featured Glo Worms; MoonDreamers featured a line of dolls of the same name; and Potato Head Kids was about, you guessed it, Mr. Potato Head's family. Breckin Meyer voiced one of the characters.

It wasn’t MLP’s only show—My Little Pony Tales, which followed the very teenage-girl-like adventures of the ponies Starlight, Sweetheart, Melody, Bright Eyes, Patch, Clover, and Bon Bon, debuted in 1992. It aired for one season and then in syndication. There were also a number of direct-to-DVD MLP specials released from 2003 to 2009.

14. MICHAEL BAY’S TRANSFORMERS MOVIES DIRECTLY LED TO MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC.

The first live-action Transformers movie, which was released in July 2007, made a boatload of money for Hasbro. Later that year, the Los Angeles Times reported that the company “wants to turn more of its line of toys into concepts for movies … after this summer's blockbuster Transformers generated $702 million in worldwide ticket sales, making it one of the most successful toy-based movies in history.” The company hired Lisa Licht, formerly of 20th Century Fox, to be General Manager of Entertainment and Licensing and, in May 2008, reacquired the rights to its Sunbow-produced shows (which belonged to TV-Loonland). Global License reported in June 2008 that “Hasbro is working on a new entertainment component for 2009” for the My Little Pony franchise. This was likely Friendship is Magic.

15. FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC CREATOR LAUREN FAUST APPROACHED HASBRO ABOUT MAKING A LINE OF DOLLS.

In 2008, Lauren Faust—then known for The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends—approached Hasbro with an idea for a line of dolls called Galaxy Girls. “I met with Hasbro Studios’ Lisa Licht to pitch one of my original concepts to her as a potential animated series, a show based on my ‘Galaxy Girls’ characters,” Faust told Animation World Network in 2011. (“I actually never wanted it to be a show,” Faust later said in a 4chan Q&A, “but the folks who make toys want shows before the[y] invest.”) After Faust told Licht about her background and showed her some drawings, Licht did something Faust didn’t expect: She pulled out a My Little Pony: The Princess Promenade DVD. “[She] asked me if I liked My Little Pony, which happened to be my absolutely favorite toy of my childhood,” Faust said. “From what I understand it was completely on the fly—it had just occurred to her at that moment from seeing my Galaxy Girls material that I might be a good fit for My Little Pony. She asked me to look at some DVDs and see if I could come up with some ideas where to take a new version of the franchise.”

Faust had loved the toys, but not the shows, as a child. She agreed to conceptualize a My Little Pony show, even though she was skeptical. “Shows based on girls’ toys always left a bad taste in my mouth, even when I was a child,” she wrote on Ms. in 2010. “They did not reflect the way I played with my toys. I assigned my ponies and my Strawberry Shortcake dolls distinctive personalities and sent them on epic adventures to save the world. On TV, though, I couldn’t tell one girl character from another and they just had endless tea parties, giggled over nothing and defeated villains by either sharing with them or crying—which miraculously inspired the villain to turn nice. Even to my 7-year-old self, these shows made no sense and couldn’t keep my interest.”

Instead, Faust wanted her ponies to be three-dimensional characters that experienced more action and adventure than typically seen on shows for girls.

16. FAUST CREATED A “PITCH BIBLE” TO SHOW PROOF OF CONCEPT.

To bring her concept to life, Faust quickly got to work on what would become a more than 40-page-long pitch bible. She hired artists to create backgrounds and help to develop the look of the characters and world and did all of the writing herself. After she presented the initial version of the pitch bible—which included character designs and descriptions, as well as locations and world dynamics—Hasbro hired the production studio Studio B, which placed Jayson Thiessen as supervising director. They made a two-minute short, and Friendship of Magic was greenlit to series.

After that, Faust told Equestria Daily, “I was able to hand-pick my writing team (with Hasbro and Hub’s approval), most of whom I'd worked with on Powerpuff or Foster’s. The rest of the artistic team was put together by Studio B and Jayson Thiessen. ... Voice actors and composers were all auditioned, Jayson and I endorsed our picks and Hasbro and the Hub made the final calls. There were only a couple picks we disagreed on, but obviously, it all worked out great.”

17. HER PONIES WERE INSPIRED BY GENERATION 1 TOYS—AND THE CHARACTERS SHE CREATED AS A CHILD.

When it came time to create her ponies, Faust looked to the past: Specifically, to the G1 ponies she’d loved playing with as a child. Rainbow Dash was based on Firefly; Glory and Sparkler inspired Rarity; Posey inspired Fluttershy; a Pegasus pony inspired Pinkie Pie; Ember inspired Apple Bloom; Majesty inspired Celestia; and Twilight inspired Friendship Is Magic’s Twilight Sparkle. Faust imbued her ponies with the personalities she’d given them as a child, too: “I had played with the toys for most of my childhood, and I literally referenced the characterizations and stories I made up for myself when I was little,” she told Equestria Daily. “The characters you see in the show were based entirely on the personalities I gave certain toys ... I used to say that my own inner 8-year-old was my personal focus group.” Each of the Mane 6 ponies is imbued with a different characteristic: According to New York magazine, “Applejack represents honesty; Rarity, generosity; Fluttershy, kindness; Rainbow Dash, loyalty; and Pinkie Pie, laughter. Twilight herself possesses the magic that binds them together. In Equestria, this friendship is a superpower; it safeguards the world. And it is a superpower wielded entirely by females.”

18. HASBRO HAD PLENTY OF SAY IN ELEMENTS ON THE SHOW THAT COULD BECOME TOYS.

Though Faust had a lot of creative control, the team behind Friendship is Magic had to work closely with Hasbro on elements that had the potential to be toys. “Hasbro’s input came mostly when a location had potential to be a playset,” Faust told Equestria Daily. “Rarity’s Carousel Boutique was revised a few times. There were also times when they were working on a toy they wanted to have featured in the show. The hot air balloon was introduced this way. Often they’d ask for a location beforehand, like a schoolhouse, so we could design it first. They were pretty great about letting us decide how to use these locations in context of the story so it didn’t just seem to come out of nowhere.”

“It has been a challenge to balance my personal ideals with my bosses’ needs for toy sales and good ratings,” Faust wrote on Ms. “I do my best to incorporate their needs in an acceptable way, so when we are asked to portray a certain toy or playset, my team and I work to put it in a place that makes sense within the story. There is also a need to incorporate fashion play into the show, but only one character is interested in it and she is not a trend follower but a designer who sells her own creations from her own store. We portray her not as a shopaholic but as an artist.”

Faust served as the Executive Producer for the first season, but by the second season she had become a consulting producer and had left before the third season premiered. Though neither Faust nor Hasbro commented on her departure, Longreads noted that it may have had a little something to do with the spin-off show Equestria Girls, “which turned the adventurers of My Little Pony into ultra-skinny, status-obsessed high-school girls who are one thousand percent about combing hair and changing clothes. In order to effect this transformation, the ponies leap through a mirror into an alternate universe.” In 2014, Faust told New York magazine, “It's very painful for me. I poured my heart and soul into My Little Pony. I left the show, but I kind of feel like it was taken away from me.” After Faust became consulting producer, Thiessen took over as showrunner.

19. NO ONE EXPECTED THE BRONIES.

Friendship is Magic was a success from the moment it debuted, pulling in 325,000 viewers on average, according to Variety. But it wasn’t just popular with the 6- to 11-year-old girls it was intended for: It’s also attracted a significant following among adult men who call themselves “Bronies” who really, truly, earnestly love the show and its characters. (According to most sources, “brony” is a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony,” but some dispute that; some adult female fans of the show, meanwhile, call themselves “Pegasisters.”) And no one expected that. “It was weird,” Ashleigh Ball, who voices Applejack and Rainbow Dash, told The Daily Beast. “Because it wasn’t the intention of the series. It wasn’t for adult men. It was for little girls. But everyone involved in the series, from Hasbro to the studio, everyone, has really learned to embrace it.”

“This might be a little short-sighted on my part, but I just assumed that any adult man who didn’t have a little girl wouldn’t even give it a try,” Faust told WIRED. “The fact that they did and that they were open-minded and cool enough and secure in their masculinity enough to embrace it and love it and go online and talk about how much they love it—I’m kind of proud.”

Even celebs are fans of the ponies: Weird Al Yankovic made a cameo as a pony named Cheese Sandwich in a 2014 episode, and Andrew W.K. is a confessed Brony (he identifies with Pinkie Pie).

20. A NEW MY LITTLE PONY MOVIE IS COMING THIS YEAR.

Based on Friendship is Magic, the movie will feature the “Mane 6” characters and the people who voice them—Tara Strong, Andrea Libman, Tabitha St. Germain, and Ashleigh Ball—as well as a number of celebrities lending their voices to new characters. Emily Blunt, Kristin Chenoweth, Taye Diggs, Uzo Aduba, Sia, Liev Schreiber, Michael Peña, and Zoe Saldana have all signed on to voice characters. The movie will be released in October.

This article originally ran in 2016.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Lists
10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
Original image
iStock

Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
iStock

Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
iStock

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
iStock

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
iStock

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

Original image
Mill Creek Entertainment
arrow
#TBT
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
Original image
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.''

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios