My long distance friendship with Richard Trentlage goes back to the morning I read a Boston Globe story in January 2005 that reported the demise of the commercial jingle—the cheerful tunes used to sell products on radio and television.
Instead, the Globe noted, companies were using pop songs. Chevy trucks, for instance, utilized Bog Seger's "Like a Rock."
But if original jingles were fading away, the Globe reported there was one glorious exception: "The Oscar Mayer wiener theme has been in constant rotation since 1963, and good money says everyone reading this newspaper can sing it start to finish."
I read that and decided I needed to talk to the person who wrote the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle.
The company was still going strong in Madison in 2005—the plant is scheduled to close next March—and I remember reaching a public relations person who, after a fair amount of digging, came up with a name: Richard Trentlage. He was believed to still be alive, somewhere in the Chicago area. That's as much information as Oscar Mayer had.
I called directory assistance and the operator found a Richard Trentlage listed in Fox River Grove.
I called the number. While it rang, I heard the jingle—I couldn't help it—playing in my head:
"Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener That is what I'd truly like to be
'Cause if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener Everyone would be in love with me."
Trentlage answered the phone and said that, yes, he was the man responsible for the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle.
I mentioned the Globe article and the singular endurance of the Oscar Mayer theme. Was Trentlage aware of its ongoing popularity?
He laughed. Of course he was aware. He told me he had just received a royalty check for $2,728.65—43 years after writing the jingle. "My kids had college paid for while they were still in elementary school," Trentlage said, thanks to the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle.
I wound up writing numerous columns—half a dozen over the next decade—about Richard Trentlage, who died Sept. 21, at 87.
He called me on the 50th anniversary of his writing the jingle, and he called me on his 80th birthday, when, sorting through things, he came across the banjo-uke on which the jingle had first been recorded. Was there a place in Madison that might want it? The instrument wound up in the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
Trentlage was a marvelous storyteller, but nothing beat the story he told me during that first phone call in 2005—the story of how he came to write the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle.
In 1962, Trentlage was working at an advertising agency in Chicago. A rival agency, J. Walter Thompson—which had the Oscar Mayer account—sponsored a contest for a new wiener jingle.
Trentlage didn't hear about the contest until a day before the deadline for entries. That night at home, he sat down and wrote down 10 ideas, which he quickly discarded. "That gets rid of the crap," he said.
He knew he had to appeal to moms and kids. Trentlage's 10-year-old son had recently talked about a friend who was a "dirt bike hot dog."
"I wish I could be a dirt bike hot dog," his son said. "But I don't even have a dirt bike."
Trentlage typed, "I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener."
He told me, "Then I thought, ‘Why? Why do I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener?'" He typed, "Because everyone would be in love with me."
He played with it some more, and eventually taped his son and 9-year-old daughter—who had the sniffles—singing the jingle. Trentlage dropped the tape at J. Walter Thompson the next day.
He heard nothing for a year. Then one day he picked up his phone and someone was telling him that his jingle had been selected out of more than 200 entries. Oscar G. Mayer himself had given a thumbs-up in Madison.
"It's wonderful," Mayer said. "You made that little girl sound like she has a cold. Every mother has a daughter who has sounded like that."
Nobody was prepared for the enormity of the jingle's success. "It sold hot dogs so fast they couldn't believe it," Trentlage said. People called radio stations and requested it like a hit song. Symphonies performed it. And it just kept going.
Richard was never at all sheepish about the success of the wiener jingle. He was proud of his craft—he wrote more than 600 jingles in all—and the fact that media outlets around the world reported on his recent death confirm he succeeded at it.
"It's a lot more than rhyming June and moon," he told me. "You need a sales-oriented line that will move the goods."
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.