Mr. Food

It wasn't just the cast of comic geniuses including Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Pat Harrington and Bill Dana who, along with the host turned "The Steve Allen Show" of the 1960s into an unrivaled classic. There was also Leo Pearlstein. Don't recognize the name? Steve Allen does.

"Leo was always so good ' so right on the mark with what he does ' that if he said he had Miss Cranberry or Miss Apple or Miss Chicken for a spot with us, we just booked that spot, no further questions asked. We knew it would work and be both hilarious and informative," said Allen, interviewed from his Los Angeles home.

The biggest stars of the '50s and '60's ' Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Shirley MacLaine, Lloyd Bridges, Jayne Mansfield, Jack Webb, Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen and Ozzie and Harriet, among many others ' placed that same of confidence in Pearlstein.

He was the man hovering just outside the frame of hundreds of publicity stills the stars posed for while eating turkey, potatoes, eggs, grapefruits and scores of other foods Pearlstein represented as a public relations and marketing whiz.

This year, Pearlstein, 77, marks 50 years as the country's king of culinary public relations, a niche he pioneered and of which he is still on the cutting edge (See accompanying story regarding the "direct hit" his company just scored involving Chick Hearn's 3000th consecutive Lakers broadcast and Pearlstein's mustard company client.)

But don't think Pearlstein looks for publicity for himself. He's the consummate behind-the-scenes man. He didn't pitch this story. I found him through a web of other cover stories I wrote.

Minutes after meeting him, you know you're with a star.

Movie star Eddie Bracken had that same feeling about Pearlstein 50 years ago.

After starring in the two 1944 Preston Sturges classic comedies, "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" and "Hail the Conquering Hero," Bracken was one of the biggest stars of the '40s, a decade during which he eventually made 19 films. In between "Fun on a Weekend" (1947) and "The Girl from Jones Beach" (1949), the paths of Bracken and Pearlstein collided.

Bracken owned the Jenkins & Large Advertising Agency in Los Angeles. (His interest in business continues today. After selling his last advertising agency 15 years ago, he's currently a partner in a company that's poised to be a major player in the high-definition television industry.) One of his vice presidents had just hired 27-year-old Pearlstein.

"You could tell right away that there was something special about Leo," said Bracken, who now lives in a New Jersey suburb just outside of Manhattan and last appeared on film in 1992 in "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York."

Pearlstein, who had been an award-winning student in the first classes of marketing students to be graduated from the University of Southern California, had helped run his father's Los Angeles supermarket and worked briefly in sales at Hunt-Wesson Foods, immediately made a mark by bringing in Jenkins & Large's first food accounts.

One of Pearlstein's early milestones: He produced the country's first frozen food commercial (for a Chinese food company) for Television, which was still in its infant stages.

Of course, what was in anything but its infant stage was the thriving movie industry. Bracken was not just a major player in films, but worked regularly with other big stars who posed for his advertising campaigns. Although busy with his food accounts, the observations that Pearlstein made concerning that area of the business would later help launch the unique niche he's nested in for almost 50 years.

On his own

In 1950, Bracken decided to close Jenkins & Large.

"I said something to Leo like, 'Go forth, young man, and make a big mark with your own company. Take all the food accounts with my blessing,'" said Bracken.

Excited, but a little nervous, Pearlstein rented a tiny one-room office near Farmer's Market on Fairfax and opened Lee & Associates. (The 2,300-square- foot offices that currently house Pearlstein's commune and its Western Research Kitchens division are not far from that original location.)

His wife Helen and a USC intern were the only help he had ' except for the huge stars who started to promote his food products.

"People often ask me how I got someone like Groucho Marx to pose with long white potatoes or Jack Webb in his home holding up a packaged turkey or Bing Crosby with a musket wearing a Pilgrim's hat," Pearlstein said. 'But I could see from early on that this would give them a much wider area of publicity than they could otherwise.

'I'd tell them, 'Hey, your new film may be mentioned in the Hollywood Reporter or maybe in the entertainment pages of the newspaper, but I could get you right into everyone's home through the kitchen ' I can get you more exposure than you ever dreamed of by getting you front and center in newspaper food sections.' Remember, this was way before the days of "Entertainment Tonight' and all these shows. There weren't as many opportunities for celebrities to get publicity."

Scores of celebrities bit, and clients such as the California Turkey Advisory Board, and the National Potato Board and Mrs. Cubbison's Stuffing feasted on the resulting publicity.

Pearlstein scored ' and created classic, collector-quality photos ' by using some of the top movie studio celebrity photographers he'd met at Bracken's, rather than traditional food photographers.

Egg on their faces

Celebrities began to learn of the power of Pearlstein and this led to some interesting tie-ins.

For some reason, when Pearlstein thought of the story behind the movie "Jack and the Beanstalk," a 1952 film which was to star Abbott and Costello, he remembered a golden egg rather than dwelling on the magic beans that started the stalk.

Maybe that's because Pearlstein represented a board that was the forerunner to the California Egg Commission.

In a cross-promotion, Pearlstein got Abbott and Costello to pose for pictures while cracking eggs on each other's heads, dancing in the world's largest frying pan while surrounded by broken eggs and posing with a golden (painted) egg and a Lloyd's of London insurance policy of $1 million Pearlstein had taken out on it.

The campaign also included a farmer from the midwest who contacted Pearlstein claiming to have a chicken who laid a real golden egg and all the publicity that occurred when Pearlstein had the egg tested at a university (which showed the chicken was probably suffering from an infection that made the egg a golden color.)

Finally, Pearlstein's client stuffed 3 by 4-inch yellow cards in 11 million egg cartons. On them was a photo of Abbott and Costello showing off a frying pan with eight cooked eggs in it asking people to enjoy a giant breakfast of eggs and to go see "Jack and the Beanstalk." The link to the golden egg got lost along the way ' but Abbott and Costello still became the world's most famous pitchmen.

Soon, television became the leading weapon in any publicity man's arsenal. Almost all the food-related guests who appeared on "The Steve Allen Show" from Los Angeles in the early 60s were booked by Pearlstein.

"Our usual bits were funny man on the street, regular hilarious characters we created," said Allen, "But I'm glad that Leo brought the Miss Prunes of the world to our attention, because the spin I gave my interviews with them could be just as funny. Plus I got to taste every food known to man made from potatoes or prunes or cranberries."

Recipe guru

Having to create dishes and recipes from the foods he represented )before he created his Western Research Kitchens division which employs the home economists who currently do it), often presented another arena in which Pearlstein covered new ground.

"I was a chive pioneer," he recalled.

"The chive board was my client. We selected a Miss Chive and we were able to book her on Steve Allen's and other shows, but nobody ever used chives in their kitchens before. I sat around my conference table and thought of 25 ways you can use chives. Chives in omelets: that was me. I thought of that. Just about everything anybody does with chives today stems from my original list."

Such imaginative efforts also got Pearlstein more food-related guests than anyone booked on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" ' and such achievement as being responsible for the longest segment ever on "Dinah," Dinah Shore's long-running 1970's afternoon talk show.

"That segment ran 17 minutes. They went right through the commercial break," Pearlstein said proudly of one for which he booked the world's fastest omelet maker and Shore, Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gourme watched as he created a masterpiece ' including not only eggs, which Pearlstein represented, but chives, and many of Pearlstein's other clients' foods as well.

"Turkey tours" he still books also follow that philosophy: "It's always more effect to team products."

They were originally conceived as a way to publicize Mrs. Cubbison's Stuffing. However, now a chef is able to get booked on scores of television talk shows each Thanksgiving season because she shows off not only stuffing recipes, but turkey preparation and a number of side dishes featuring foods that Pearlstein also represents. Although food is still his specialty, Pearlstein also handles a wide variety of clients.

Making history

When you are such an out-and-out pioneer in an industry, though, the history books occasionally come calling. Pearlstein, for instance, was part of the five-man team who in 1960 created the pop-up timer most turkeys sport that has become a convenience to millions of home cooks. The group later sold the device (which was based on the principle behind springs in ceiling sprinklers that work when they reach a certain temperature) to 3M Company.

A sadder distinction for Pearlstein is being behind one of the last photos that was ever taken of President John F. Kennedy.

Pearlstein was able to get his client, the California Turkey Advisory Board, the opportunity to be the group to deliver the annual live Thanksgiving turkey to the president in 1963.

In the photograph with a smiling Kennedy, the head of the California Turkey Advisory Board and the Secretary of Agriculture was a white turkey, one of the first ever produced of that breed. The turkey wore a sign around it's neck hand-lettered by Pearlstein that read "Good Eating, Mr. President! "

The president was assassinated about a week later. The photo was one of the last in which he appeared.

"For years, I couldn't do anything with the stacks we'd made of those photos. It would have been in bad taste to have mailed them out for publicity purposes as we'd planned," Pearlstein said. "I just keep them in boxes in my garage, and every few years I'd go stare at one of the photos."

About 10 years ago, Pearlstein threw out most of the photos.

However, in 1994, when Time magazine featured eight photos ' including the one of Kennedy ' of Presidents accepting the yearly Thanksgiving turkey, Pearlstein's dead-on publicity skills quickly bubbled to the surface.

He sent a press release titled "Good PR always stands the test of Time" to his clients.

With the Time spread attached, Pearlstein wrote of his "Good Eating, Mr. President!" hand-lettered sign (the only such touch that had ever appeared in a presidential turkey photo): "Looking at all the photos, we're pleased to see ours was the only one with an actual 'sell' message on behalf of our client, the turkey industry."

Jumping on the "Chickism" Gravy Train

Former Lakers broadcaster, the late Chick Hearn, with
Morehouse Mustard CEO David Latter, Sr.

Chick Hearn was already a master at knowing how mustard gets off the hot dog. the question was: Would he put it back on?

A resounding "yes" was the answer, thereby becoming a publicist's dream. well, actually make that a publicist's well-executed plan that a dash of luck turned into a slam dunk.

Anyone who read the newspaper or watched television recently knows that it was legendary Lakers announcer Hearn's 3,000th consecutive broadcast on Jan. 19. Even infrequent viewers know that Hearn's all-time "Chickism" is "the mustard came off the hot dog," meaning that a show-off "hot dog" player had missed a fancy shot.

Other "Chickisms" talk of refrigerators, cookie jars and popcorn machines, but the principals at Lee & Associates, which specializes in food marketing, weren't chewing on those; it's mustard that's their bread and butter.

Morehouse Foods, a Los Angeles company that makes Morehouse Mustard, is a fairly new client of owner Leo Pearlstein.

"We sat around a table brainstorming how we could link Morehouse to Chick's often-quoted mustard remark," said Pearlstein.

Pearlstein and his sons Howard and Frank (both vice presidents in the firm) hit upon making a beautiful plaque from Morehouse to Hearn congratulating him on his feat.

The impressive black and gold plaque was soon created. In addition to congratulating Hearn, it also mentioned Morehouse (which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year) four times, including having the name printed in the company's bright red flag logo at the bottom of the plaque.

Howard called both Hearn's and the Lakers' public relations representatives. Both said the plaque sounded like a nice gesture but they could not guarantee a personal presentation to Hearn.

Nevertheless, on a day about a week before Hearn's momentous game ' when the PR reps said that media would be interviewing Hearn all day at the Forum for later broadcasts and that Howard was welcome to come over ' Howard packed up the plaque, three prop hot dogs, a few bottles of Morehouse Mustard and David Latter, Sr., Morehouse's CEO.

After Hearn finished a CNN interview, the mustard started flowing.

"I couldn't believe my ears," Howard said. "At the end of the long CNN interview they started talking about Chick's mustard one-liner."

Afterward, Howard rushed over to Hearn, introduced himself and mentioned that, coincidentally, they had a congratulatory plaque regarding the mustard manifesto that the CEO of Morehouse Mustard would like to present to him. Hearn said he'd be honored.

"I couldn't believe it, because Chick started squirting gobs of the Morehouse Mustard on the hot dog while David presented the plaque and I was taking pictures," Howard said. "Then, when they saw there was some sort of presentation going on, the CNN people came over, turned their camera back on and taped the whole thing."

The clip may very well make it on the air nationally when the Hearn interview is broadcast at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 on CNN.

Before he returned to the Fairfax area office that afternoon, in his head Howard had already written a brief press release about Morehouse and the plaque presentation. Soon, it was on paper and faxed to scores of radio stations. The photographs were quick developed and ready to be sent out to print outlets.

"By the end of the day, we heard a number of radio stations read the press release verbatim,' Howard said.

"What we dream about in public relations is a direct hit. And the whole thing was one big direct hit. Chick loved the plaque, and that's great, too, because we're always looking for win-win situations."

[ top of page ]      [ home ]      [ about us ]      [ services ]      [ clients ]      [ contact us ]      [ site map ]