Thursday, July 21, 2005
Ben Bernie’s Sponsor, Pabst, Obtains Order Blocking ‘Olde Maestro’ Beer
By ROGER M. GRACE
The 20th most popular show in the history of the NBC “Red” Radio Network was “Ben Bernie’s Orchestra” during the “Old Maestro’s” 1932-1933 season. Sponsored by Blue Ribbon Malt, it pulled a 33.7 audience share.
Bernie—known for his long-running, playful feud with columnist Walter Winchell—broadcast his show live from New York each Tuesday at 9 p.m., and then repeated the performance for a live feed to the West Coast two-and-a-half hours later. (The show was heard in Los Angeles at 8:30 p.m. on KFI.)
The orchestra leader began each show
with the words: “How do you do Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Ben Bernie, the
Old Maestro, yow-sah.”
Blue Ribbon Malt Extract became his sponsor on June 2, 1931 (when the show was on CBS). Blue Ribbon was the nation’s most popular brand of malt extract, a substance which, as discussed in my last two columns, was widely used during Prohibition (1920-33) as an ingredient in home brews of beer. A Decatur, Ill. company produced the malt extract, having snatched the words “blue ribbon” from a Milwaukee brewery, Pabst, erstwhile maker of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. Malt extract obviously was associated in the public’s mind with beer because of the prevalent use to which the product was being put—so that confusion was bound to have occurred as to the source of Blue Ribbon Malt Extract, despite a federal appeals court pronouncement to the contrary.
But any confusion ended in 1932 when Premier Malt Products, Inc., the Decatur maker of the malt extract, merged with the Pabst Brewing Company. While Pabst had been a $12 million company prior to Prohibition, it was struggling to survive (selling near beer, soft drinks, dairy products and malt extract), while Premier, offshoot of a regional brewery that had collapsed, was thriving.
Premier-Pabst touted its malt extract on Bernie’s shows in 1932-33, but the following season—Prohibition having ended—the “Ben Bernie Pabst Program” promoted Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and Pabst Blue Ribbon Ale.
Just as the Decatur Brewing Company, which became Premier Malt Products, had pilfered the words “blue ribbon” from Pabst in 1919, the Elm City Brewing Company of Connecticut in 1933 usurped words associated with Premier-Pabst. The words were “Old Maestro.” While that description belonged to Bernie, not the brewery, Bernie was under exclusive contract to the beer-maker—and in those days, performers were closely associated with their sponsors.
Elm City began marketing “Olde Maestro Beer” in New England in late 1933. Premier-Pabst sued. A federal trial judge, Carroll Clark Hincks, ruled on Jan. 28, 1935 that the Connecticut company was an infringer.
Hincks, later a judge of the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, reasoned:
“[T]he evidence relating to the nature, scope, and duration of the plaintiff’s radio advertising, coupled with the evidence of its popularity, convinces me that the radio public is numerically a substantial part of the beer-purchasing public, and that it necessarily, human nature being what it is, in substantial part has become impregnated with a conscious or subconscious association between ‘Old Maestro’ and the plaintiff’s products.
“That being so, the defendant’s use of ‘Olde Maestro’ as its trade-name necessarily tends to confuse the public and to destroy the effect of a means for identification which, at least in relation to the manufacture and distribution of malt products, belongs exclusively to the plaintiff.”
Pabst continued to sponsor Bernie until 1935. His subsequent sponsors included U. S. Rubber Co., Half and Half tobacco, and Bromo-Seltzer. The “old” maestro was relatively young when he died in 1943, at 52.
In 1938, Premier-Pabst readopted the name Pabst Brewing Company, no doubt because the company was again a brewery, marketing beer under the Pabst label, with the malt extract being a secondary product.
On March 18, 1983, Pabst merged with G. Heileman Brewing Company.
Pabst now owns a number of brands which were once competitors, including Schlitz—“The beer that made Milwaukee famous,” harking to 1849; Blatz, started in Milwaukee in 1851; and Olympia, a beer from Washington introduced in 1896.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company
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